Turkish-Israeli relations have been recently brought up once again, after a long period of chill and even unfriendly statements by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan toward Israel. re may be a renewed hope of improving these strategic relations, which David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, saw as the pillars of a Middle East “alliance of the periphery.” In light of this potential development, it is important to review some aspects of past Turkish Jewish policy.
Even during tense periods between Turkey and Israel, relations continued, mainly in the economic and commercial spheres. The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries was $8.1 billion in 2018 and $5.7 billion in 2020. Turkey is a favorite destination for Israeli tourists, despite the COVID-19 threat, and Istanbul stands as a major destination for Israelis, both for holidaymakers who vie the “all-inclusive” deals in Turkish hotels or as a hub for connecting flights; indeed, Turkish Air is a popular carrier for many Israelis.
It is widely believed that recent Turkish hostility towards Israel emanates from Erdogan’s Islamist ideology, which has turned its back on the pro-Western secular legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Nevertheless, a review of Turkey’s attitude towards Jews in the 20th century presents an uneven picture of the situation of Jews in modern Turkey, even though Turkish Jews were considered as citizens with equal rights, after the abolition of ethnic affiliation from the Ottoman period (the millet system) by Ataturk.
A recent Turkish TV series on Netflix, “The Club”, offers a thoughtful glimpse into that condition. While it is not a documentary, it depicts life and events in the small Jewish community of Istanbul in the early 1950s and shows how frightened and humiliated the community was. The protagonist is the daughter of a formerly wealthy Jewish family, now impoverished by the Turkish government’s abusing policy; her father and brother had disappeared into labor camps of unknown nature in the east of modern Turkey.
Historian Reeva Spector Simon describes in a recent study (The Jews of the Middle East and Africa, The impact of World War II, Routledge 2020) this incomprehensible phenomenon of modern and secular Turkey, shortly after the 1939 death of its founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Turkish government took brutal and repressive measures against its non-Muslim citizens including the Jews, and even imposed on them a Draconian tax, which was reminiscent of the ancient poll tax and land tax from the times of the nascent Caliphate, which most Muslim rulers had rarely implemented after the 7th century.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Turkey proclaimed its neutrality, and in fact, worked at the same time with allies and axis countries alike. Its geostrategic location and control over the vital maritime pass between the Black and the Mediterranean seas, coupled with its unique role as a bridge between Europe and Asia, made Turkey an attractive playground for both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Situated in a buffer state, Istanbul became a center of espionage and covert activity for all parties and was awarded the nickname of “the espionage capital of the world”. It was intensively worked by agents, double-agents, and intelligence assets and agencies that were marketing information of all sorts to all parties. The Turks operated on a method of “active neutrality,” taking advantage of the combating powers’ interest in attaining Turkey’s support.
Thus, German Ambassador Franz von Papen headed a diplomatic delegation that was comprised of large segments of military intelligence and SS personnel. Turkish intelligence, Emniyet, maneuvered between the Germans, Russians, and the British at the same time, reflecting Turkey’s real concerns regarding the various components of the three powers
In June 1941, after the fall of Greece, the Axis forces came so close to Turkish territory, that the cities of Izmir and Istanbul were instructed to introduce blackout while a partial evacuation from the European part of Turkey, west of Istanbul.
The Turks feared that foreign subversive activity would take advantage of its demographic complexity and create a threat to Turkey’s political unity. As a result, and from the bleak historical memory of the First World War, the Turkish authorities retorted to suspicion and even oppression of ethnic minorities. Regarding the Jews, the authorities in Ankara and Istanbul allowed the Jewish Agency to operate in Turkey until 1942, but at the same time limited the number of refugees who managed to escape Europe. Severe measures were taken vis-à-vis Jewish refugees who managed to reach Turkey. Subsequently, these measures were used even against Turkey’s old Jewish community.
When the war broke out, there were about 75,000 Jewish citizens in Turkey. Of these, some twenty to thirty thousand were of European descent. These numbers were augmented by Jewish refugees who fled the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe. The “original” Jews of Turkey were Turkish-speaking (refraining from publicly using Ladino, the traditional jargon of Sephardic Jews). They were integrated within the general Turkish society and led a modern lifestyle in Turkey’s westernizing culture and economy, enjoying the vision of Ataturk. However, even in prewar years, there was a trend of Turkification and preference for Muslims over Jews and Christians, especially in professions that were previously held by Greeks, who had left or were transferred.
In 1941, as the Axis forces approached the Turkish realm, the Turkish government’s suspicion of non-Muslim minorities increased. While the Greeks and Armenians had historical conflicts with Turkey, the Jews did not. Rather, following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal by the Catholic kings of those countries, they were welcomed by the Ottoman Sultans and cherished that hospitality. It seems that their rejection by secular Turkey in the 1940s had to do with Ankara’s concern with Britain and especially with the Soviet Union, where Jews were allegedly influential; but it could also be for plain anti-Semitic reasons, as was the general European zeitgeist.
Turkish Jews were subject to the recruitment for forced labor of non-Muslims between the ages of twenty and forty-five. Those workers came primarily from the European regions of Turkey, mainly from Istanbul. The draft was not made public and most Muslims were unaware of it. The draftees were engaged in hard works such as quarrying, mining, and road construction. They lived in hardship conditions and consequently many were injured and even died. Some were mobilized into the Turkish army and were thus given a temporary respite from the overall brutal coercion.
The next wave of harassment began in 1942 due to the economic crisis and food shortages. It brought about a capital tax (VARLIK), an increased Draconian measure on the non-Muslim population. Retarders were punished heavily.
As a rule, non-Muslims (Greeks, Jews, and other Christians) paid much higher taxes as Muslims, with Armenians topping the payments at a hundred and seventy percent. The increased tax also applied to former non-Muslim soldiers who had completed their military service and returned to work.
The tax burden was so heavy that even the pro-Nazi Vichy government of France gave financial support to French citizens living in Turkey (as expats) to facilitate payments of the tax, although of course not to Jewish citizens of France, residing in Turkey at the time.
The impoverishment of the Jewish community, afflicted many leading members who used to be ardent supporters of the Turkish Republic throughout the 1920s. (To mention just a few of these leaders: Munis Tekinalp, Avram Simon Brod and David Russo).
This policy resulted in the sale of properties to survive. These properties included apartments, shops, and factories, and the previous owners became mere employees in places that they owned previously. In 1943, a newly enacted law stipulated the punishments for those who did not pay the tax in cash and in a timely manner, sending them to hard labor in the notorious ASKALE camp in eastern Turkey. To avoid attention They were arrested in the dead of night; they had to provide themselves with medicine, food, and blankets; they were crammed into train carriages without heating, and were even charged with the expense of their travel. The deportees were Greek merchants, Armenians, and Jews. They were forced to build roads in the sweltering heat, and clear snow in the bitter winter cold.
Their names were published in the press, to the gleeful praises of pro-Nazi elements in Turkey. This law was abolished only in March 1944 after reports of the conditions in the camps were published in the Western press.
On the other hand, as part of its “active neutrality” policy (until 1942), Turkey accepted the request of the Jewish Agency to allow Jewish refugees from Europe to pass through its territory. It was done for the Turkish image as a source of “humanitarian assistance”, and thus, with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish community in Istanbul, some 13,000 refugees from Europe were legally transferred via Turkey to Israel. This trickle was later stopped and only Jews who held Turkish citizenship were allowed to travel. However, in 1944, when the German defeat became nearer and clearer, Ankara resumed the passage of Jews from the Balkans to Israel.
In the last decade, Israel was able to create meaningful relationships with east-Mediterranean countries, such as Greece and Cyprus. With American support, this was done given the changing face of the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin. However, the above-mentioned aspect of Turkish-Jewish-Israeli relations should also be remembered, when Ankara and Jerusalem seem to be on the verge of warming their ties.