Tag Archives: jewish

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.


Omar Barghouti: J Street’s Ben Ami has Jews-only policy on BDS debates

Last night I went to Columbia University to see Omar Barghouti discuss his new book, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” For those who don’t know, Barghouti is one of the BDS movement’s most effective strategists and promoters, basing his advocacy on a platform of human rights and international law while explicitly rejecting arcane ideology. His book offers the most in-depth and accessible analysis to date of the movement, its history, and why it is gaining so much momentum. Read an excerpt here.

During his talk, Barghouti mentioned that he had approached J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami about arranging a debate on BDS. The response from Ben-Ami was as follows, according to Barghouti: “We want to keep this debate inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.”

Barghouti joked, “Why would BDS have anything to do with Palestinians?” He went on to describe Ben-Ami’s policy as racist.

Last December, I debated the issue of BDS against the director of J Street U, Daniel May. My debate partner was Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel May’s partner was a Jewish student from Princeton also named Daniel May. Everyone involved in the debate was an Ashkenazi Jew, yet we were debating a movement founded and controlled by Palestinian civil society. If I had known at the time that J Street had an alleged policy of refusing to debate with non-Jews, especially Palestinians, I would not have participated at all.

Another person told me about J Street’s “don’t debate Palestinians” policy, but did not authorize me to report it at the time. The source explained that the policy resulted in the Jews-only debate at J Street’s annual policy conference in February, where Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS against opponents Bernard Avishai and Ken Bob of Ameinu.

It is worth noting that after the debate, Bernard Avishai took to his blog to tell a certain member of JVP (he left the person unnamed) that “you remind me, forgive me, of the Tea Party.” Avishai was apparently upset that the JVP member had asked him how he could argue against divesting from multinational companies and Israeli institutions that profit from the occupation while supporting a boycott of the settlements. It is unusual for someone of Avishai’s intellectual caliber to stoop so low to rebut a simple question about tactics. His response makes me wonder if the opponents of BDS, especially those who define themselves as politically liberal, are simply overwhelmed by events in Israel and Palestine.

To J Street’s credit, it is the only major pro-Israel group I know of that will debate BDS at all. None of the other established pro-Israel groups have participated in debates and none seem likely to do so in the near future. Last week, the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) responded to a demand by the campus Hillel house for a “dialogue session” by requesting a debate instead. SJP’s leadership told Hillel’s director that he could choose the topic, time and place of the debate. Hillel refused the proposal. Besides international law and human rights, what do they have to be afraid of?

The Great Islamophobic Crusade

Crossposted with TomDispatch.com.

Nine years after 9/11, hysteria about Muslims in American life has gripped the country. With it has gone an outburst of arson attacks on mosques, campaigns to stop their construction, and the branding of the Muslim-American community, overwhelmingly moderate, as a hotbed of potential terrorist recruits. The frenzy has raged from rural Tennessee to New York City, while in Oklahoma, voters even overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure banning the implementation of Sharia law in American courts (not that such a prospect existed). This campaign of Islamophobia wounded President Obama politically, as one out of five Americans have bought into a sustained chorus of false rumors about his secret Muslim faith. And it may have tainted views of Muslims in general; an August 2010 Pew Research Center poll revealed that, among Americans, the favorability rating of Muslims had dropped by 11 points since 2005.

Erupting so many years after the September 11th trauma, this spasm of anti-Muslim bigotry might seem oddly timed and unexpectedly spontaneous. But think again: it’s the fruit of an organized, long-term campaign by a tight confederation of right-wing activists and operatives who first focused on Islamophobia soon after the September 11th attacks, but only attained critical mass during the Obama era. It was then that embittered conservative forces, voted out of power in 2008, sought with remarkable success to leverage cultural resentment into political and partisan gain.

This network is obsessively fixated on the supposed spread of Muslim influence in America. Its apparatus spans continents, extending from Tea Party activists here to the European far right. It brings together in common cause right-wing ultra-Zionists, Christian evangelicals, and racist British soccer hooligans. It reflects an aggressively pro-Israel sensibility, with its key figures venerating the Jewish state as a Middle Eastern Fort Apache on the front lines of the Global War on Terror and urging the U.S. and various European powers to emulate its heavy-handed methods.

Little of recent American Islamophobia (with a strong emphasis on the “phobia”) is sheer happenstance. Years before Tea Party shock troops massed for angry protests outside the proposed site of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, representatives of the Israel lobby and the Jewish-American establishment launched a campaign against pro-Palestinian campus activism that would prove a seedbed for everything to come. That campaign quickly — and perhaps predictably — morphed into a series of crusades against mosques and Islamic schools which, in turn, attracted an assortment of shady but exceptionally energetic militants into the network’s ranks.

Besides providing the initial energy for the Islamophobic crusade, conservative elements from within the pro-Israel lobby bankrolled the network’s apparatus, enabling it to influence the national debate. One philanthropist in particular has provided the beneficence to propel the campaign ahead. He is a little-known Los Angeles-area software security entrepreneur named Aubrey Chernick, who operates out of a security consulting firm blandly named the National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination. A former trustee of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has served as a think tank for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a frontline lobbying group for Israel, Chernick is said to be worth $750 million.

Chernick’s fortune is puny compared to that of the billionaire Koch Brothers, extraction industry titans who fund Tea Party-related groups like Americans for Prosperity, and it is dwarfed by the financial empire of Haim Saban, the Israeli-American media baron who is one of the largest private donors to the Democratic party and recently matched $9 million raised for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces in a single night. However, by injecting his money into a small but influential constellation of groups and individuals with a narrow agenda, Chernick has had a considerable impact.

Through the Fairbrook Foundation, a private entity he and his wife Joyce control, Chernick has provided funding to groups ranging from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAMERA, a right-wing, pro-Israel, media-watchdog outfit, to violent Israeli settlers living on Palestinian lands and figures like the pseudo-academic author Robert Spencer, who is largely responsible for popularizing conspiracy theories about the coming conquest of the West by Muslim fanatics seeking to establish a worldwide caliphate. Together, these groups spread hysteria about Muslims into Middle American communities where immigrants from the Middle East have recently settled, and they watched with glee as likely Republican presidential frontrunners from Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin promoted their cause and parroted their tropes. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the increasingly widespread appeal of Islamophobia is that, just a few years ago, the phenomenon was confined to a few college campuses and an inner city neighborhood, and that it seemed like a fleeting fad that would soon pass from the American political landscape.

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