Being Jewish in Turkey, before and after the Mavi Marmara (part 2 of 2)

Yesterday I published the first of two interviews I conducted with Turkish Jews during a brief trip to Istanbul. The first interview is here. In the second, I spoke with “B,” a media professional in her late 20’s who studied at a liberal arts college in the United States. As with “E,” B was adamant that I not reveal her identity, telling me that she was “really scared” of complicating her situation at work. In our interview, B expressed the same cultural outlook as E and a similar attitude to Israel: while she complained that its actions towards the Palestinians affect her negatively as a Jew in a Muslim majority nation, the situation remains abstract and disconnected from her identity. In both cases, I found my interview subjects to be wise beyond their years. “I never took security for granted,” B told me. “I’m more ready for battle than [Americans]. So it’s completely logical that I would survive more easily in a challenging situation.”

Our interview follows:

MB: On a basic level what is it like being Jewish in Turkey and do you feel like you stand apart from the majority of Turks?

B: Being Jewish in Turkey has its ups and downs. Jews have an accent and when we speak in Turkish we stand out. I don’t know where it comes from but probably from Ladino. In the last 70 years Jews were pushed to speak Turkish and were constantly told the slogan, “Citizens speak Turkish.” At home the accent comes from your parents. It’s like a whisper. In the US for Jews the accent comes out when you are upset. Imagine if it came out without being angry!

MB: So how does that affect you in your daily life?

B: In the social world you are aware that you are an other. You can’t be sure what anyone’s idea of the situation is. But in the social arena you’re often surrounded by others like you. In the business world being Jewish is sometimes positive because we are seen as good at commerce and Jews almost always repay their debts here.

But to be honest I would say I’m putting in more effort than ever at work because the moment I slip up, I become the foreigner. At work there are always a few people I have to win over. I have to prove my Turkishness to them somehow. And then these people see me as “the good Jew.” But they don’t represent the general consensus. And I wouldn’t say there is any anti-Jewish movement in the country even though we are an easy target when people look for someone to blame.

MB: Why don’t you simply confront those people at work instead of trying to live up to their standards?

B: If someone came out and said, “the Jews are horrible,” I would confront them for sure. But sometimes it’s better to lead by example. Consistency will prove that I’m a good person.

MB: Yesterday “E” told me that Israel’s actions sometimes cause problems for the Jewish community here. Do you agree?

B: Definitely. The big problem is that whenever something happens with Israel we automatically become “Israelites,” not Jews. I don’t see myself as an Israeli Jew — I’m Turkish. But whatever happens in Israel affects us here and safety becomes an issue. Some people here have fish minds and can’t distinguish between Jews and Israelis.

MB: So how has the phenomenon played out in your personal life?

B: I can give you an example. I was importing lingerie for five years. When Israel began bombing Gaza, I was importing all these brands from the states. And a trade magazine for the lingerie retailers [in Turkey] put out a boycott list that focused on Jewish owned brands. My brands were on the list. I’m not a public person so it’s hard to know that I’m Jewish at all. But my brands were listed because I’m Jewish. Who am I? How do you know who I am? The magazine was a small publication in some rural city. I only knew about the boycott list because some salesman found it and showed it to me.

The boycott also spread on Facebook. Who knows if it distinguished between Jewish and Israeli? The page said, “The owners of these brands help Israel in its efforts against Gaza.” What the hell do I have to do with Israel? These people don’t know the difference between Jews and Israelis. And the extremists take advantage of this [lack of distinction].

MB: What about after the Mavi Marmara incident? What was it like for you and other Turkish Jews?

B: Everyone was scared to go to malls or synagogue. Not that I ever go to synagogue but in times of trouble I limit my risks. During the crisis some protesters blocked the entrance outside the Israeli consulate and were waving flags and shouting. Even if I wasn’t Jewish I would have been scared to go there. This wasn’t a peace march. The crowd wanted blood. If it came out that I was a Jew, what they have done to me?

MB: Do you think the government played a productive role at all?

B: The Prime Minister [Recep Erdogan] took a stand saying Jews are not Israelis, they are Turkish. He made the differentiation clearly. That was a very positive thing for us.

MB: Are you a Zionist? It seems like Israel does not factor into your identity very much.

B: I’m not a Zionist. Israel is an abstract place for me just like France. But there is a connection as a Jew and it is a safe haven in a sense. They are welcoming you with open arms and there is a sense of community. At least it’s better to be attacked as a community than on your own. Of course I’d rather go to London but if another Holocaust happens where will I go?

MB: Do you seriously think the Holocaust could happen again? It seems a little far-fetched to me.

B: Maybe? Who knows? It happened before and no one expected it.

MB: Do you have any interest in learning more about the history of the conflict in Israel-Palestine? Or what about taking a tour of the West Bank and seeing the occupation up close for yourself?

B: No, I don’t think I’d be interested in something like that. Right now Israel’s just an abstract place. I have been three times. Basically I go to the beach in Tel Aviv and come back.

MB: What do you think about anti-Zionist Jews and do you have any here in Turkey?

B: Whether a Jew is Zionist or not has nothing to do with their faith in Judaism. That’s not the issue for me. The issue is non-Jews failing to distinguish between Jews and Israelis. And of course [in the Turkish Jewish community] anti-Zionists would be accused of being self-hating. But who would even take such a stand? We’re not political here. Our only concern is self-preservation.

MB: When you studied in the US what were the principal differences you noticed between yourself and American Jews, and between you and Americans in general.

B: I went to a Bar Mitzvah in the US and it was like a Broadway show. It was for entertainment purposes and educational. For us in Turkey, Judaism is about religion. We get together for our ceremonies and in the synagogue, where many of our melodies come from traditional Ottoman songs, and I find solace in that.

On the more general question, the way I grew up is different from the way Americans grew up. I never took security for granted. I’m more ready for battle than they are. So it’s completely logical that I would survive more easily in a challenging situation than an American. That’s why America reacted the way it did to 9-11. Their whole naivete bubble popped in a day.

MB: What was is it like for you personally being in America right after 9-11?

B: For a long time I had worn a Chai necklace. But I eventually took it off, like I just didn’t feel like wearing it anymore. But after 9-11, suddenly I wasn’t Jewish enough because I wasn’t Ashkenazi, I was Eastern, and I have an Arab sounding last name. At my college I had to advertise that I was Jewish so I wouldn’t be seen as a Muslim. So I suddenly put my necklace back on and everything was okay. When I’m over there I feel a level of safety as a Jew.

MB: Your experiences remind me of a term that was used to describe Jews in the US but isn’t really used much anymore: “insider-outsider.”

B: Exactly. We are living with a foot in both worlds. But it’s hard to get through the door when you can’t use both feet.

5 thoughts on “Being Jewish in Turkey, before and after the Mavi Marmara (part 2 of 2)

  1. chayma100

    Some people here have fish minds and can’t distinguish between Jews and Israelis.

    I wonder what “B” means by “fish minds” lol 🙂

    By the way, since the Mavi Marmara incident, the hostilities between Turkey and Israel has led to a steady exodus of Turkish Jews, some to Israel.

    Amongst them, were descendents of the Shabtei Tzvi, the false Jewish Messiah who converted to Islam to escape the death sentence his religous leaders sentenced him to, after he got ready to lead his flock to Israel.

    It would be interesting to see if any of these descendents take up his mantle, and how it plays out 🙂

  2. Hashka


    I am a Muslim, converted to Islaam from Judaism. I was just in Istanbul this past April and asked my Muslim Turkish friend to take me to Galata, considered the ancient Jewish area, because as a photographer, I wanted to take pictures. Being an American, I guess I expected a thriving Jewish community, much like we see in America in places like New York City. Once we got over there, I saw NO JEWS, meaning no one who “looked” Jewish by way of clothing, etc., like we see here in America in the Orthodox community. Likewise, I didn’t see any Jewish businesses. I did take some photos of the outside of the synagogue there (the one that was bombed a few times) but nothing spectacular like I expected. My Turkish friend told me that the Jews in Istanbul, for the most part, don’t “show themselves” like they do in America. She claimed not to know why. I have always heard the Turks state with pride how the Ottomans provided shelter to the Jews and how the Turks are tolerant of the Jews. So, I guess I expected more. From your interviews, I now see why, and feel sad about it. A visitor to Istanbul can take a synagogue tour coordinated by the Jewish community, but it is expensive and they check you out REALLY WELL prior to taking you on the tour. I think next time I visit Turkey, Insha Allaah, I will try to go on the tour.

  3. chayma100


    My Turkish friend told me that the Jews in Istanbul, for the most part, don’t “show themselves” like they do in America. She claimed not to know why. I have always heard the Turks state with pride how the Ottomans provided shelter to the Jews and how the Turks are tolerant of the Jews.

    Did she mean since the Mavi Mamara incident? If not, since when, I wonder if you can find out..

  4. Rachel

    I am not surprised by the views of these 2 women. They are typical of Sephardic Jews living in Muslim countries particularly in North Africa. Although, these 2 women seem more integrated into the Turkish society and Turkey itself is more advanced than many Arab countries, the situation is the same. Fear, insecurity, apartness, and inwardness abound.
    One thing that struck me was Max’s manipulation to have them blame Zionism for their situation. It shows how little he knows about non American, non Ashkenazi communities. Israel has nothing to do with it. It was worse before Israel was founded. I grew up in these communities. Besides ordinary people don’t think in ideological terms. Israel is where the relatives live, so in that sense they are all supportive of Israel as an embodiment of their extended family. Sephardic are very traditional in their religious practice, so “Next Year in Jerusalem” is what Zionism means to them. To go from messianic judaism to political zionism is an easy step. Sure we were pissed off at the way Ashkenazim treated us in Israel but we felt that they did not own the place, it was ours too.

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