Snapshot of an uneasy community

The rise of the Islamists in Turkey has not encouraged the Jews to stay.

An anti-Israel demonstration in Istanbul, December 2012 521 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL / REUTERS)
An anti-Israel demonstration in Istanbul, December 2012 521
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL / REUTERS)
“I have lost hope,” Raisa Ers, a 25-yearold Jewish woman from Istanbul, tells The Jerusalem Report, explaining why she is leaving her native land and moving to Israel.
“I don’t feel free anymore – not just as a Jew, but as a Turkish citizen as well,” adds Ers.
In a random survey other Jews interviewed said they were staying, but took pains not to flaunt their Jewish identity in view of rising anti-Semitism in Turkey.
Turkey’s Jewish community was initially skeptical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which rose to power within a year of being founded in 2001, due to its Islamist affiliations. But the government’s success in stabilizing the economy and jump-starting the accession talks with the European Union in 2005 led many in the community to switch their preference to the AKP. Ultimately, AKP’s support among Jews neared 40 percent in the 2007 elections, mirroring the same trend among the overall Turkish population.
However, unlike in the overall population, this support seems to have dropped dramatically over the last five years, as many community members become increasingly concerned about curtailed civil liberties, including censorship of the media and the Internet. Furthermore, the rapid acceleration of confrontation with Israel by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its use as a populist tool in domestic politics has fanned anti-Semitic sentiments.
Erdogan recently appointed a journalist, Yigit Bulut, well known for his far-reaching conspiracy theories, as his chief economic adviser. Bulut recently said on TV that he believes foreign powers, including the “Israeli Foreign Ministry” and the “interest rate lobby” are trying to “assassinate Prime Minister Erdogan from far away,” using “telekinesis.” The announcement of the appointment came only days after Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay accused the “Jewish Diaspora” of inciting the anti-government protests, which began May 28 and saw over 2.5 million protesters take to the streets across the country.
Shortly afterward, Ergun Diler, the chief columnist for the pro-AKP Takvim newspaper, published an article headlined “Time for Payback,” in which he questioned the loyalty of Turkey’s minorities to their country, with a specific focus on the Jews.
“The struggle is between the Muslims and the Jews, who do not want peace in this region,” the columnist wrote, adding, “you were never Turkish in the first place.”
Continuous Jewish presence in the land that is Turkey today goes back 2,500 years, all the way to the Babylonian exile. Yet the bulk of Turkish Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Iberia in 1492.
For over five centuries, those Spanish Jews have preserved many of their customs, music, culinary and artistic traditions, as well as the community’s native language – Ladino.
According to Naim Guleryuz, president of the Quincentennial Foundation, which commemorates the arrival of Sephardi Jews to Turkey, Sephardim make up 96 percent of the Jewish community, with a few Ashkenazi and Karaite families accounting for the rest.
Estimates vary, but Turkey’s Jewish community numbers around 17,000. The figure was approximately 26,000 in 1992 and 23,000 in 2002, the year in which AKP was elected to power. There are sizeable Turkish- Jewish communities outside of Turkey, as well. Some 77,000 former Turkish Jews live in Israel. Today, almost all remaining members of the community live in Istanbul or Izmir. Many are self-employed in trade, medicine and law, or work in various privatesector professions.
Jewish identity somehow always attracts attention in Turkey, even when the person’s ethnicity has nothing to do with the subject matter. Last year, the stateowned broadcasting company, TRT, sent Can Bonomo, a young Jewish musician from Izmir, to represent his country at the Eurovision Song Contest. Some pundits, including reputable ones, brought up his Jewish identity as a possible cause for his selection to sing in an international song competition. An anchorwoman at a mainstream news channel asked Bonomo whether he was chosen “because Turkey wants to ingratiate itself with pro-Israeli lobby groups.”
In response, a surprised Bonomo had to reiterate that the media coverage focusing on his Jewishness was not relevant to the Eurovision contest. “Music doesn’t have language, religion, or race,” he said. “I am Turkish and I am representing Turkey. I will go out there with the Turkish flag and represent Turkey. I am an artist, a musician.
That’s all that anyone needs to know.”
Bonomo placed seventh out of 42 countries in the competition.
I interviewed five community members for The Report in order to get a snapshot profile of Turkish Jews. Together, they reflect the variety of views in the community regarding domestic politics and rising anti-Semitism.
‘I am leaving because I have lost hope’
“I am not scared, but I don’t feel free anymore – not just as a Jew, but as a Turkish citizen as well,” explains Raisa Ers, a 25- year old Jewish woman from Istanbul. Her blue eyes and light skin give away her half- Ashkenazi background.
Ers studied mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. Born and raised in Istanbul, she decided to return to her hometown in 2011 after completing her bachelor’s degree. Now she is packing to move to Israel.
“My reason for leaving is multifold,” Ers says. “The political environment is one of them.”
She relates she had not taken part in the street protests herself but followed the events friends. “Still, the response of the government to the protests demoralized me,” she explains.
“People were killed merely for expressing their views.
“I don’t think any good will come out of it. I have lost hope,” Ers asserts with a sad smile. What else caused you to decide to leave? “I can’t trust the educational system for raising my future kids,” she responds.
As a third reason, she explains that most of her close friends, the majority of whom are not Jewish, have already left the country. “Most live abroad now, mainly in the US. So, I don’t have much of a social life here anymore.”
While Ers is excited about making aliya, she also expresses concerns about feeling part of a minority in Israel, too. “I am not sure about what their attitude is going to be towards me, as a Turkish immigrant who studied in the US,” she says.‘I live in my safe bubble and I am here to stay’
Not everybody in the community feels it is time to leave. Joelle Dana, 29, is a public relations consultant. She was also born and raised in Istanbul, though she studied communications at the University of Milan and worked in Italy for some time before returning to her hometown in 2009. Now, engaged to marry her physician fiancé, also a Turkish Jew, she has no plans to leave again.
“I have never been personally affected by anti-Semitism,” Dana says. “I know people who have, but personally I have not suffered any discomfort due to my Jewish identity. Perhaps, I am naïve, yet I am happy living in my safe bubble.”
Dana acknowledges that the “bubble” might burst one day, but she believes this would not affect her any more than her non-Jewish friends, whom she describes as the relatively more secular and educated stratum of the Turkish society.
“So, if I leave, it will be only because somebody forces me to leave. Otherwise, I am here to stay!” she remarks.
Getting into a discussion on politics, Dana notes the accomplishments of the AKP government. “Social security, health care and public transportation” are the areas where they have done a good job, she believes. Still, she says she did not vote for them in any of the past elections because of her concerns about secularism and civil rights.
“It is probably true that more Jews are leaving the country now than a decade ago, but the remaining community members also work harder than before to preserve their culture and identity,” she explains.
However, she is wary about flaunting her Jewishness. “In recent years, I do all that I can not to reveal that I am Jewish when I speak with someone I don’t know well,” she says.‘They speak to me in Hebrew rather than Turkish’
Gürhan Hudson is less optimistic than Dana. The 29-year-old sales manager in wood products recently moved from Turkey to the US, after marrying an American woman (and taking her last name). Hudson is from the Aegean town of Izmir. Unlike others who were interviewed, he converted to Judaism.
Today, he is an observant Jew.
“My experience of anti-Semitism in Turkey is more far-reaching than the average Jew from Istanbul or Izmir,” Hudson says, “primarily because I was not born into a Jewish family and I have had far more experience with the people of this land.”
Hudson tells me that until recently, he owned a marble products company in Turkey.
To generate business, he traveled all over the country and dealt with customers from various ethnic backgrounds. “Based on my name and background, nobody thinks that I am Jewish. So they speak to me unfiltered,” Hudson comments.
For instance, one businessman from the town of Balikesir once noticed the Star of David on Hudson’s chest. He acted taken aback and finally asked if Hudson was Jewish.
When Hudson confirmed this, he exclaimed, “But how come you speak Turkish so well?!” “He was a well-educated man, too!” Hudson exclaims.
Then he cited a recent incident, which was reported in the community’s local newspaper, Salom. A group of AKP party officials put up a banner in the central square on the island of Büyükada (Prinkipo) off the coast of Istanbul. The island is known to be a hub for Istanbul’s Jews, especially in the summer.
The banner contained a warm message of unity and friendship. The only problem – it was in Hebrew! “The fact that the AKP community chose to speak to us in Hebrew rather than Turkish sums up their perception of us,” Hudson says.
The vast majority of Turkish Jews do not speak Hebrew. For centuries, most spoke Ladino, French or Turkish at home; and today, Turkish is the mother tongue of almost all of the younger generations.
Hudson sees a dangerous rise in anti- Semitism and believes that over the last decade, it has come to influence a wider population.
‘Erdogan is a visionary leader’
On the other end of the spectrum, there is Alper Yakuppur. Among all the interviewees, Yakuppur stands out as having the highest degree of enthusiasm for the current government.
A 37-year-old Turkish Jew with Georgian and Iranian origins, Yakuppur is a successful executive in a textile company. He has been a member of the AKP’s political organization for several years now, and also holds a leading position in the party’s Istanbul organization.
Yakuppur complains of prejudice against the AKP among the liberal segments of the society. He says that all minorities are represented in the AKP as well as many women. Hence, he does not understand why his party is accused of oppressing women or alienating people with different lifestyles.
“My wife can wear any skirt she wants. I can drink whatever I want. And everyone can live their religion freely,” Yakuppur exclaims.
He adds, however, that he does not actively identify himself as a Jew and does not feel part of the community beyond his religious affiliation. Yakuppur had a bar mitzva and was married in a synagogue.
Erdogan is the primary reason for his active support, Yakuppur says without hesitation, commenting, “He is the most visionary leader Turkey has had in my lifetime.”
He believes that Erdogan’s government has brought development, prestige and new business opportunities to the country. “I know that for a fact because I travel a lot and I can compare Turkey’s standing across the years,” he notes, conceding that there are some issues with democracy and freedom of speech in Turkey. Nevertheless, he believes these issues are not new and, in fact, “they have improved under the AKP.”
Yakuppur also relates that some in his social circles supported the ongoing anti-government protests but he himself could not identify with them. He agrees with the prime minister that several external sources might have manipulated the events for their own gain.
In response to accusations of anti- Semitism, he argues that the situation has actually improved. He admits, however, that his Turkish and Farsi first and last names might be the reason he does not face these problems in his daily affairs, especially since he never actively reveals his Jewishness.
‘I have seen it all before’
In an office filled with an impressive collection of old volumes, a man with a white mustache and an unassuming smile greets me. Rifat Bali, 65, is an eminent historian, writer and the owner of a company that publishes academic books.
Bali has been studying the history of minorities in Turkey for decades and has published several scholarly essays and books on the subject. His particular focus is the relationship between the state and the communities of religious minorities; he also writes about the social and political divisions within the minority groups themselves.
During our conversation, Bali says there was nothing new in the recent wave of anti-Semitism in Turkey that should be of particular cause for alarm. “We are model citizens,” he argues. “We always work to please the government regardless of whoever is in power. Thus, the state has no reason to disown us.”
According to Bali, anti-Semitism had always been a major element of Turkey’s socio-political history. Beginning with the 1934 pogroms in Thrace, and including the refusal of passage to the Struma refugee ship in 1942 that resulted in the death of 781 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, the so-called “wealth tax” on non-Muslim minorities in the 1940s, the Istanbul pogrom of 1955, and many libelous anti-Semitic publications published before and since the founding of the modern republic, anti-Semitism existed in one way or another, he says.
“What has changed now is the Internet,” Bali adds, arguing, “We used to live in isolated urban bubbles, away from the boiling points of anti-Semitism. We used to ignore the anti-Semitic literature and popular conspiracy theories. But now, we have the Internet and the social media. Anti-Semitic rhetoric spreads rapidly and we get to face it whether or not we want to.”
Bali notes that “in the past, which one of us would ever bother to buy an Akit or Milli Gazete,” referring to two staunchly Islamist newspapers, “but now, a friend posts them on Facebook and suddenly we are panicking.
“Nonetheless, there has been a slight increase in violent incidents against Jews in the last decade,” Bali adds, citing most notably the 2003 twin terrorist attacks on two synagogues that left 27 dead and over 300 injured, and the murder of a dentist in Istanbul in the same year. The murderer admitted to committing the crime because of his hatred of Jews.
However, Bali believes that government policies are opposed to the actions of militant Islamists. “Despite ideological similarities, the two groups are actually very different,” he says. “In contrast to the militant groups, our government actually provides a security umbrella each time the threats against us increase.”
Bali points out that “the minority groups in Turkey provide the government – since way before AKP – with an argument to prove that Turkey is a multicultural Western nation, even if most historical facts are to the contrary.
Hence, hurting the few remaining minority citizens does not help any government – not that any of the minority groups is a threat to anyone anyway.”
Bali notes that the Jewish community’s warm relationship with the Islamist government only began to cool after 2008, due to the AKP’s anti-Israel policies, which provoke anti-Semitism. Yet Bali sees no major threat to Jews in Turkey. “Frankly, I don’t think they [the AKP] are any more racist than other segments of the society,” he says. “In Turkey, anti-Semitism is not limited to Islamists. Your generation seems to not know this but after the 1967 and 1973 [Arab-Israel] wars, there were terrible campaigns against us. The media targeted Jewish businessmen by name and started smear campaigns, falsely accusing them of illegal activity, and calling for a boycott of their businesses. Many of those campaigners were not Islamists; they were left-leaning nationalists.
“It is hard to leave for those of us over 40,” Bali continues. “Many older Turkish Jews own small to medium-size businesses. If they go to the US, they won’t be as competitive.
If they go to Israel, it will be the same; plus, they will face a language barrier.”
Bali has lived through and has studied repeated bouts of anti-Semitism. “Every time anti-Semitism rises in Turkey, some Jews leave out of fear. It is probably happening again but it will pass. I have seen it all before, and I am still here.”