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.
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:
On March 16, 2003, on the eve of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, Pastor John Hagee took to the pulpit to warn of the coming Antichrist. In his sermon, “The Final Dictator,” Hagee described the Antichrist as a seductive figure with “fierce features.” He will be “a blasphemer and a homosexual,” the pastor announced. Then, Hagee boomed, “There’s a phrase in Scripture used solely to identify the Jewish people. It suggests that this man [the Antichrist] is at least going to be partially Jewish, as was Adolph Hitler, as was Karl Marx.”
This “fierce” gay Jew, according to Hagee, would “slaughter one-third of the Earth’s population” and “make Adolph Hitler look like a choirboy.”