It’s time for Turkish Jews to stand up and be counted

The word ‘azınlık’ in Turkish, meaning ‘minority’, comes with a lot of baggage. Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities are seen as an anachronism of the Ottoman Empire, the lucky few who got to stay in the upheaval which has led to a population of rather less variety than in today’s Republic.

While Turkish Jews have had a largely successful history in Turkey, holding prominent positions in commerce, trade, diplomacy and other high offices during the Ottoman era, the Republic’s need to create a national narrative led to a number of traumatic experiences which resulted in the death of Ladino as the predominant tongue (following the ‘Citizen Speak Turkish’ campaign) and poverty following a special tax imposed on the country’s minorities in 1942. A pogrom over 6-7th September in 1956 mostly targeted the Greek and Armenian communities but also left the Jewish community feeling shaken, with emigration to Israel peaking. Bombings of Jewish targets in 1986 and 2003 served to further drive the Turkish community towards an inward looking, security conscious state.

When I met my friend Jak Icoz for lunch in London at a Turkish restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, I was keen to go beyond the alarmist headlines of various Israeli and Jewish newspapers talking about an ‘exodus’ of Turkish Jews over the past few years thanks to the spike in anti-Israel and at times anti-Semitic rhetoric in the country. I wanted to ask how Jak feels as a young, professional Turkish Jew working in academia and living in the heart of Istanbul, the locomotive (if not the capital) of the Turkish economy and national culture.

“There is no exodus to Israel, at least not a more intense one than we’ve seen in the past 30, 40 years” claims Jak. “Sure there are people who try their luck in Israel but 9 out of 10 people I know who have made Aliyah ended up back in Turkey after a few years.”

“Turkey has never been an easy country. Everyone, irrespective of religion or ethnicity, thinks they’re part of a downtrodden minority. The religious [Muslims] still feel like their basic rights aren’t respected, the secular population feel their lifestyles are being infringed upon, and the various minorities are afraid to have frank discussions about both their role in wider Turkish society and the future of their communities for fear of touching on too many sore points.”

Indeed the Turkish Jewish community, while producing many prominent figures in Turkish society, is insular and complacent. “They [the establishment] feel it’s better for us to keep our heads down and not make too much of a fuss when it comes to politics or the place of Jews in Turkey. I think this actually breeds more distrust of Jews and leads to more anti-Semitism.” Adds Jak.

The official population of the community (just under 20,000) has remained officially static for years. Intermarriage is an issue. Turkish Jews largely (but by no means exclusively) lead secular, middle class lifestyles and sit very much within the mainstream, Republican class in Istanbul. “We live in a bubble, alongside other secular Turks, the so-called ‘white Turks’ who go to the same places, listen to the same music, read the same newspapers and generally vote for the Republican People’s Party (CHP).” Says Jak.

The picture is not black and white. The city’s Jewish school in Ulus still has a healthy intake and many young Jews go on to study at top universities in the US and Europe. Istanbul’s community has also embraced the Limmud conference, the last of which attracted 1,200 participants.

However for the community to ensure its future health many, including Jak, believe that the community needs to have a frank discussion about what needs to be done. An unofficial ban on conversion (said to date back to the admission of the Jews to Turkey during the Ottoman period) and a very traditional establishment mean less room for more liberal expressions of Jewish identity. The failure of the Jewish community to respond to a torrent of antisemitic rhetoric in an open manner is worsening the situation.

Perhaps the time has come for the Jewish establishment in Turkey to ask whether its policy of keeping quiet and ignoring internal issues is nothing but counter-productive?

About the Author
International Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Fluent Turkish speaker and LGBT rights advocate.