Not chickening out in Turkey

Batya Keinan,Israel’s attache in Istanbul, finds that when culture becomes political, it’s no Turkish delight.

The Turkish Passport 521 (photo credit: Batya Keinan)
The Turkish Passport 521
(photo credit: Batya Keinan)
In embassies around the world, ambassadors and consuls tend to be jealous of one person in their office: the cultural attaché.
While they sweat through often strained political and logistical relations between countries, the cultural attaché gets to go to the theater, mingle with celebrities and focus on pleasant, non-controversial issues that go beyond politics and on which everyone can more or less agree.
Except if you happen to be Israel’s cultural attaché in Turkey at a time of deteriorating relations between the two countries.
That job was held until three months ago by Batya Keinan, a veteran public relations adviser who served as spokeswoman for former president Ezer Weizman and former ministers Ya’acov Tsur and Victor Shem-Tov. Because she was so good at her job and ambassadors kept asking her to stay on, Keinan held the post for a rare seven-year term.
Don’t blame her, but when Keinan arrived, relations between the two countries were stellar and when she left they were at a nadir. Despite the deterioration in ties between the governments, Keinan made significant inroads in reaching out to the Turkish people.
“When I got there, I was welcomed so warmly,” Keinan recalled in an interview at a popular Jerusalem café. “For seven years I tried to bridge the gap via culture. The people of Turkey are very nice and they really love us. It’s just politics that divide us.”
When there was a more positive atmosphere about Israel in Turkey, Keinan brought to Istanbul Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, a Chagall exhibit from Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and Israeli authors Amos Oz and Etgar Keret. To emphasize that Muslims and Jews coexist peacefully in Israel, she brought an Arab-Jewish dance troupe from Acre and Jewish and Arab teens who learn how to save lives in a special first aid class.
“I wanted to promote Israeli creativity,” she said. “I wanted to show the beautiful Israel that you don’t see in the news, the fabric of Israeli society and our freedom of expression.”
Keinan’s signature project was preserving a house where David Ben-Gurion lived for two years from 1911 to 1913 when he studied law at Istanbul University. She discovered his residence when she found his student card at the university. A festive ceremony held there on what would have been Ben-Gurion’s 120th birthday was attended by local politicians and Jewish community leaders.
BUT OVER the past two years, worsening political relations between Israel and Turkey made it harder to initiate cultural programs and ceremonies. An interfaith concert of cantors and imams that Keinan worked on for more than a year had to be canceled at the last minute.
The concert was to be held six months ago at an open-air amphitheater that holds 5,000 people, but the Turkish terrorist group IHH that attacked Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara ship during the May 2010 Gaza flotilla sent 200 activists to the front rows of the amphitheater three hours ahead of the concert and prevented it from taking place.
Unlike other Israeli diplomats who were forced to leave Turkey prematurely, Keinan ended her tenure at its set time. But near the end of her term she dealt with a controversial issue that she hasn’t been able to let go of since her return home to Israel.
The issue revolves around the documentary film The Turkish Passport, which premiered in Istanbul on October 21 and is still playing in theaters nationwide. The movie tells the story of diplomats posted to Turkish embassies and consulates in France and other European countries who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
Based on the testimonies of witnesses who left Nazi Europe for Turkey, the movie uses written historical documents and archive footage to tell the story of the rescue. Billed as “the only Holocaust story with a happy ending,” the movie tells the story about the courage of the diplomats, including the ambassador to Vichy France in Paris, Behic Erkin.
None of that would be controversial from Israel’s standpoint, except that one of the movie’s central messages – that the Turkish government was actively involved in saving Jewish lives in Europe – does not appear to be the case. Historical records indicate that the diplomats acted on their own, despite orders to the contrary from Ankara.
Keinan believes the movie is being used to send a political message to defend Turkey from charges that it perpetrated an Armenian genocide and was guilty in the Mavi Marmara affair.
“The Turkish government press office is using the movie for propaganda,” she charges. “They send the movie to festivals that deal with human rights, cynically using the diplomats’ heroism and our Holocaust 70 years ago to promote their current political needs like the Marmara issue. They are trying to say ‘we are good people who protected Jews in the Holocaust and Palestinians now, and yet you shoot at us. Shame on you.’” The trailer of the movie includes interviews with French-speaking Turkish Jews who were arrested by the Nazis and set free thanks to the diplomats. For instance, Albert Barbouth says “Turkey, the Turkish government wanted to protect and rescue the Turkish Jews.”
This apparent rewriting of history angers Emir Kivircik, who is Behic Erkin’s grand-nephew and became friends with Keinan through her efforts to persuade Yad Vashem to recognize Erkin as a Righteous Gentile who saved lives in the Holocaust. The movie was initiated by Kivircik, based on his book, The Turkish Ambassador.
Kivircik says he found the witnesses to speak on camera and the technical people to make the film, hoping to use the documentary as a stepping stone to a Hollywood movie. But the Turkish government took over the project and banished him and other experts who made the case that the diplomats acted according to their own conscience despite the orders of their superiors in the Turkish capital.
There is no dispute that Erkin, Marseilles deputy consul Ismail Necdet Kent, Paris deputy consul Namik Kemal Yolga and other diplomats helped save the lives of 10,000 Turkish Jews living in Vichy France and who had renounced their Turkish citizenship but were given Turkish passports, as well as close to another 10,000 who had kept their passports and thanks to the diplomats were allowed to use them to flee to safety.
There was a lot of French influence in Turkey ahead of World War II. Educated Turkish Jews at the time spoke French, sent their children to schools in France and often followed them there.
According to figures provided by French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, of some 20,300 Turkish Jews in France, 1,659 were killed at Auschwitz – a much smaller percentage than that of Turkish Jews in other European countries.For instance, nearly 98 percent of the total Jewish population of Thessaloniki, Greece, was murdered during the war, even though they lived just two hours away from Turkey.
THE MOVIE tells the story of Turks who were about to be deported to Auschwitz from a camp in France until the diplomats saved them. Convoys of Jews were instead sent to safety in Turkey.
“Ankara told my grandfather not to send Jews to Turkey, but he answered back that any citizens whose documents are in order cannot be turned back by their own government,” Kivircik said in a phone interview. “An ambassador represents his country, so of course Turkey will take the credit. But they don’t tell the real story that Ankara was saying not to send people back to Turkey.”
As evidence, Kivircik provides a June 17, 1942, Washington Post article about Erkin’s having been fired due to his disputes with the Nazis. He also cites Erkin’s memoir in which he wrote that he was instructed not to send Jews to Turkey.
In a letter he sent to Keinan, Kivircik complained that when his book was published, a Turkish diplomat told him that “because of the Armenian issue it would be better for our country if you change your book and write that the ambassador received the instructions from Ankara [to save the Jews] and most probably it was like that.” But Kivircik refused to change the book.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post for a response to Kivircik’s claims, Dogan Isik, the second secretary and interim chargé d’affaires at the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv, sent a review of a book about the Turkish diplomats in Vichy France. The reviewer, Turkish diplomat Yucel Guclu, questions the credibility of the book, An Ambassador and a Mensch: The Story of a Turkish Diplomat in Vichy France, because it relies on “biased” Kivircik as a primary source.
“The author’s bold assertion that it had never been the policy of the government of Turkey to intervene on behalf of French Jews of Turkish heritage is untenable,” Guclu wrote.
The author of the 2010 book, the late Cleveland professor Arnold Reisman, paid his way to Turkey to be interviewed for the movie, but his contribution was cut because he refused to say that the Turkish government saved Jewish lives in the war.
The official Turkish policy of neutrality during the war has complicated Keinan’s efforts to get Erkin and the other diplomats recognized by Yad Vashem, which told her that people from neutral countries who saved lives cannot be recognized as Righteous Gentiles. But she intends to continue her efforts now that she is back in Israel.
She feels she owes it to the good people she met during her seven years in Turkey, who continued to be friendly even as relations between the countries hit rock bottom.
“During the problems over Gaza, when [Israeli representatives in Turkey] were instructed not to leave our homes for our own safety, Turkish people brought me food, invited me over and told me ‘your enemies are our enemies,’” she said. “I never could have predicted [relations] could fall the way they did. I have no doubt that things can get better. And even though there are problems with The Turkish Passport, the aggressive promotion of the movie could end up helping the current efforts to improve ties between Israel and Turkey.” ■