Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

The Club-On Turkey, Jews and Israel

Teaching the History of the Middle East means almost automatically being a fan of Turkey. There is no way to understand the modern Middle East without understanding the Ottoman Empire background. Then also the legacy which it left on the entire region, not only on the Republic of Turkey, but also on the history of Israel. In recent years also on the conflict with the Palestinians. Turkey underwent many changes in the last century. Most notable the gradual move from the Ataturk Secularist Republic to the current Semi-Islamist Erdoghan regime. It is a political change of profound significance, which has cultural and sociological implications. Turkey has never been a model of democracy, but it is much less democratic these days.

One of the ways in which we can still observe public opinion trends there is watching the burgeoning TV industry and the way the Turkey of today but also of older days is portrayed. It is a fascinating world of telenovela, drama and suspense, one which shows one Turkey as opposed to the other. I personally became so more tuned to this aspect of Turkish life is when one of my Turkish students showed a class a video of Ataturk, and then started crying in public. ”You do not understand”, she told the class.” I am going back to Turkey, but it is not my Turkey anymore”. With that in mind, I watched the latest Turkish soap-drama, the CLUB, a story which includes all the elements cited above, but with a Jewish flavor. When Jews are involved, I am there, and I was tuned to the six episodes almost as intently as I am tuned to a great soccer game, and those who know me, know what THAT means.

The story is NOT the full epic story of Turkey and the Jews, far from it, and I doubt whether it was intended to be such, but it does give enough on Turkey and the Jews AND Israel to enable us to have a sense of what such an epic could be. It is about Matilda Aseo, a Jewish woman from a prominent rich family who spent 17 years in jail for killing a man she was involved in a problematic relations with. She was released as part of a general pardon in the 1950’s. The family lost its fortune because of the Turkish policy of taxing non-Muslims, the notorious VARLIK VERGISI[”Wealth Tax] which was enacted in 1942 and can be considered the beginning of the downfall of the Jewish community, though it was cancelled after few years.

The entire history of Turkey and the Jews in WW2 is a subject of controversy, as pro Turkish historians like Stanford Shaw claimed, that Turkey actively saved and supported Jews whereas the factual record shows otherwise. In the 1950’s when our story takes place, the Turkish Jewish community was decimated due to Aliyya to Israel. In fact, the community nearly emptied, but Jews remained, and the story rightly emphasized the legacy of the Spanish deportation. Most Turkish Jews were, in fact, descendants of the deportees who were warmly accepted then by the Ottomans. That said, the fact is, that while Jews were not specifically targeted as a non-Muslim minority by the Ottomans, the fate of some of the deportees communities was affected by local conditions and the overall gradual decline of the Ottomans. A community which provides an example of that process is that of Mostar [Monastir] in Bosnia, but there were others. Matida Aseo however wished to move to Israel after her release, was strictly maintaining her Jewish religious beliefs, but she had a problem, a big one-the daughter she left behind, Rasl[Rachel], who was admitted to a Jewish orphanage after Matlida was jailed.

The story then becomes one of the relationships between the mother and the daughter, but it is more than that. It shows life in Istanbul in the 1950’s, as the mother was employed in a famous night club, the happenings of which were connected with the politics and culture of Turkey in these days, and not least the goings of the Jewish community. Here is a point to be made-The series did make it abundantly clear, that the heritage of the community was leading to Spain but the future was in Israel. The word Zionism was not mentioned, there was no ideology, no politics involving Israel, but Israel was in the air all the time. Matilde continues to search for the option of moving to Israel, the simchas of the community were the Hora dancing with Hava Nagila, and Rasl was constantly aware of the Israel option. It was not without reservations from David, a prominent Jewish leader, a friend of the family who reminded Matilde about the 4 centuries of living in Turkey after the Spain deportation. The overall atmosphere in Turkey changed in the 1950’s due to the Turkification policy of the then Democratic Party of Adnan Menderes which injected an element of Xenophobic feelings towards minorities, mostly Greeks, but not only. On 6-7 September 1955 there was the Istanbul massacre against non-Muslims, mostly Greeks. Some Jews and their properties were attacked, including a synagogue. THIS event is NOT mentioned in the series, but as the series IS so reflective of life in Turkey, it is the easiest thing for those who are interested to Google and find out. When THIS event was not mentioned, I could not but think, that even a secular director in Turkey under Erdoghan had his limits and self-imposed censorship.

The director did NOT have it about ISRAEL though. Rasl was in love with the Muslim Ismet, a charming womanizer taxi driver, a relationship which led to pregnancy, but also to Matilde fighting her daughter over dating a Muslim. Rasl decided to date and get engaged with a childhood Jewish friend, Mordo, and the two end up moving to Israel. Matilde stayed behind. Still, the last picture, the one which leaves the watcher with a lasting impression is that of the ship going to Haifa. In other words, the picture giving the future direction of young Turkish Jews. Zionism?….in the eye of the beholder, I did not ask the writer, but it is simply a logical conclusion.

So here are classic questions about a TV series and how to understand it-do I read too much into it?. Do I not turn a potential real-life drama into a panoramic picture of a community? Maybe I really succumb to my obvious ideological convictions and turn the story into one of a Zionist success, though not by name, rather by act. I leave all these questions to my readers with a strong recommendation-watch it, draw your conclusions but remember-Good Tv it is when we are left with questions, and not necessarily know all the answers.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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