During a brief trip I recently took to Istanbul, I had the chance to interview two members of the local Jewish community, which is one of the largest and most cohesive Sephardic communities in the Jewish diaspora. My primary interest was in how Jewish life has changed in Turkey since Israel’s deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara, but we also discussed the social characteristics and history of Turkish Jews.
Numbering around 26,000, Turkey’s Jews are guided by a constant focus on self-preservation. The community generally eschew collective political engagement and, in sharp contrast to the country’s Kurdish and Armenian minority groups, avoid mounting any challenges to the Turkish state. “All we ask for is equal treatment and living well,” said one of my interviewees. Though they are generally secular and liberal, intermarriage is considered out of bounds — even marrying an Ashkenazi Jew is suspect. Like other Sephardic communities throughout time, Turkish Jews have survived and prospered by relying on a simple formula of cultural assimilation and ethno-religious exclusivity.
The factor that most complicates Jewish life in Turkey (at least judging from my interviews) is Zionism. By now, most of the Jews who planned to emigrate to Israel have done so, either for ideological or economic reasons. Turkish Jews may privately support Israel, but unlike Jews in the United States, they make absolutely no show of it. However, both of my interview subjects told me that Israel’s behavior has impacted their lives in an entirely negative fashion.
Turkish Jews experienced unprecedented levels of anxiety during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008 and ’09 and after Israel’s killing of 9 passengers on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. After the Mavi Marmara incident, the Turkish Chief Rabbi issued a statement mildly condemning the Israeli raid. My interviewees told me that despite Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s declaration that “looking upon hatred at the Jews is…unacceptable,” (which they considered helpful) extremists scapegoated local Jews. Though the reactionary mood has dissipated, the trauma of shrinking from public view for several days was an experience my interviewees have not forgotten.
Neither of my interview subjects objected to my opinion that Zionism imperils Jews around the world, and especially outside the West. Indeed, their testimonies were proof of the crisis Israel has created in Jewish diaspora life. At the same time they displayed a complete lack of interest in engaging with the situation, either by examining the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding the occupation, or developing a clear position on the issue. While Israel’s actions — and the reactionary tendencies of radical elements inside Turkey — undermine their sense of security, the Jewish state remains a distant abstraction that has only the most fleeting connection to their identity. And the Palestinians do not even merit a second thought.
My interview subjects both insisted I conceal their identities out of fear of upsetting their employers. Both are women in their late 20’s who studied at Western universities and speak nearly fluent English. Like many Turkish Jews, they are upper middle class, however, I can hardly present them as representatives of the entire community. On the other hand, neither of them knew one another, but they expressed a remarkably similar outlook. My friend Duygu, who arranged the interviews, occasionally chimed in. Here is the first in the two part series, an interview with “E,” a public relations consultant living in Istanbul:
MB: It seems like Jews in Turkey try to blend in or stay below the radar as much as they can, unlike American Jews who often advertise their Jewish identity.
E: I sort of disagree. On the one hand, we give our kids Jewish names but we also do our best to blend in. Our mentality is, yes, we are Turkish, but we have some differences.
MB: Is there any level of political engagement or lobbying on the part of Turkish Jews?
E: We are not political here. Not at all. We are scared to do it. In fact a lot of Jews voted for AKP [the Islamist party of Recep Erdogan] because they thought it was good for the economic situation. Ever since Ottoman times the Jewish community acted for the good of the community and never asked the government for anything. Which is completely different from other minority groups. All we ask for is equal treatment and living well.
MB: How much is the apolitical attitude driven by a survival instinct?
E: As a small community we try so hard to keep together. That’s the way we survived for so long. It’s our history. They teach it to us so much that the only way to survive is to stick together that we are almost programmed to believe it. We gather around marriages and holidays and slowly you start to develop a mindset where you want to preserve the culture. I’m really secular but I like the culture, the gatherings — it’s about getting together and celebrating. Also when we get together it’s an opportunity to gossip. Even in Turkish there’s an expression to describe people who gossip a lot: “Like a Jewish synagogue.”
MB: Do you see any discrimination against Jews by the state?
E: The discriminatory laws were all related to the Kurdish situation and the Muslim minorities. They never really applied to us. At the same time we are often seen as strangers, even in Istanbul. I sometimes will be asked, “Are you Turkish or not?” People would call my grandmother, “Madam,” which is how you refer to a foreigner in Turkey, instead of calling her by the Turkish way, which is “Lady.”
Another way discrimination plays out is through building laws. There was a rule — I’m not sure if it’s still in effect — against building non-Muslim places of worship. So all the synagogues we have come from the Ottoman times. And if we fill up a Jewish cemetery the state will seize it on the grounds that it is no longer usable. So the Jewish community here never lets its cemeteries fill up. To get buried in one you have to pay 25 thousand liras. But that law seems to have changed — I’m not really sure.
MB: What about the relationship of Turkish Jews to Israel? Are they pro-Israel?
E: They are basically pro-Israel and believe Israel’s side of the story, that Israel is defending itself and that the Palestinians use terror and provocations. But they don’t like the trouble Israel causes them. When there were protests at the Israeli consulate [after the Mavi Marmara incident], I felt really scared. I worked right next door and I was sitting at my desk all day thinking, “What if they found out I was Jewish and killed me? Maybe they are angry and ignorant. What will they do to me?” People from the office were joking with me that they would throw me to the protesters — they meant it in a friendly way of course.
MB: What do you think motivated the protesters? Did they have any legitimate grievance as far as you could tell?
E: They were really a bunch of extremists. And their protest was not normal for Turkish culture. They were out there for days, all day, and for the Palestinians! Palestinians are the best friends of nobody. They fought against us during the Ottoman Empire.
The government even made people in the state schools pause for one minute to show respect to the Palestinian people. I don’t understand why Turks care about Palestinians who used to be their enemies. Turkish people and Arab people are not usually friends. The relationship was always about profit. I don’t see the direct relationship. Palestinians don’t have money and Turkey doesn’t want their land.
MB: But you can’t understand why people feel angry about the way Israel treats Palestinians?
E: I understand they feel bad about the treatment of Palestinians. People in the world see us creating a Jewish nation that only benefits us at the expense of others. Sometimes I wonder why we can’t be accepted as normal in the world.
MB: How has life been for Turkish Jews since the Mavi Marmara?
E: After the flotilla things got a lot worse here. The average level of hatred [for the Jewish community] increased. Between 1 and 5 it the level of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling used to be 2. Now it’s 4. It was really getting scary for a lot of us here after the Marmara [incident]. People were scared to go out for a few days. Outside the consulate there were fires, the burning of Israeli flags, lots of screaming. But [Recep] Erdogan made an important statement that the Turkish people are not against Jews; their problem was with the Israeli government.
We had another scary time in 2004 when Al Qaida placed bombs outside synagogues around Istanbul. All my friends were inside all day. When we heard the bombs go we actually thought the explosions were the sounds of celebrations at Bar Mitzvah parties. Now people are still afraid, but that doesn’t stop them from going to these places. There are several levels of security in our synagogues today beginning with a security check at the beginning and then people come and ask you questions.
MB: What about you? Do you feel like Israel is part of your Jewish identity?
E: I don’t see Israel as a holiday place like other Jews do. It’s too much trouble and the food is horrible. I’m from here, I’m pretty much comfortable being Turkish, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to cry out, “I’m Jewish!”
DUYGU: Do you think you could ever marry a non-Jew?
E: I dated Christian and Muslim men but parents want me to marry a Jew. An Ashkenazi Jew would be better than a non-Jew but they’re not Sephardic and it really comes down to preserving our culture. The community is so small that a lot of people are having trouble finding someone to date. So a lot of them are going to the US or Israel to find someone.
D: So being half-Jewish is not acceptable then?
E: It’s really not convenient to wind up with a non-Jew. It would be terrible for a child to be only half Jewish. They would have no community.
MB: Why couldn’t they just belong to humanity?
E: Humanity? Humanity doesn’t exist when you’re a teenager!
D: But in our group of friends we just see you as people who pray in a different language. So it seems that you see yourselves as more foreign than we see you.
E: Well we are the ones who have to keep our community together, not you.