« The Jews of Turkey: a captive memory » Nora Şeni

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Nora Şeni, Ahval, April 25, 2021, Published first in French in « Actualité Juive » April 15, 2021.

Certainly, one would hardly expect Turkey’s Jewish community to flourish and prosper under a regime that continu the destruction of the rule of law and limit freedoms. However, its demographic importance began to melt like snow in the sun long before the « Islamo-conservatives, » as they like to call themselves, came to power in 2002.

Turkey’s Jewish population had already fallen to 17,000 in the 2000s, down from 80,000 in 1923. The largest emigration occurred at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel and continued into the 1960s. The year 2003 was a sad one, marked in August by the assassination of a dentist – « because he was Jewish » – and in November by the double attack on two synagogues. Several dozen people were killed. The perpetrators of these attacks were Turks, which was not the case with the previous attacks on synagogues in the country.

If the demographic decline continues at a steady pace (a decrease of about 100 people per year), it nevertheless contrasts with the rather prosperous situation of this population, whose institutions have undergone a certain renewal since the 1990s. This paradox reflects the complex, ambivalent relationship between the Turkish nation, the state and the Jewish community. Although the disappearance of this community is constantly being announced, it is still the most important in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus.

From a historiographical perspective, one can see that since the mid-1990s, concern for historical truth has made itself heard and challenged the official narrative. Historians without academic affiliations have been able to influence somewhat the  narrative transmitted by school textbooks and by censorship due to nationalism.

The new narrative gives an account of the « Thracian events, » pogroms secretly incited by the state, which in 1934 led to the flight of Jewish families from Edirne and its surroundings to Istanbul, as well as of the wealth tax of 1942, which affected Jews in particular. They shed light on the responsibility of the Turkish state for the violence of September 1955, which targeted Greek, Jewish and Armenian stores and offices.

The truth about the Nazi sympathies of the Kemalist press magnates and those close to the government, such as the owners of the social-democratic daily Cumhuriyet, is more difficult to hear. Equally difficult is the project of challenging the image of « Turkey as the saviour of European Jewry » during the Second World War. German historian Corry Guttstadt’s book, Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust translated and published in Turkish in 2012, came at the right time: The evidence dissolving this myth is brought to everyone’s attention, but has long continued to be ignored.

Twice the memory of the Jews of Turkey has been instrumentalized by the Turkish state’s policy of denying the Armenian genocide. The first time was towards the end of the 1980s, when various international institutions indirectly or directly recognised the Armenian genocide – as did the European Parliament in 1987. As a response to the pressure exerted on Ankara and in the run-up to 1992, the anniversary of the exodus of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, the Five Hundredth Anniversary Foundation(of the exodus of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula) was created by a hundred or so Turkish, Muslim and Jewish personalities (retired diplomats, businessmen) to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardim in the Ottoman lands.

In 1992, the foundation organised conferences and events to support the perception of the Ottoman lands as a « safe haven » for Jews. One of the reasons for the community’s acceptance of this mission was the strong anti-Israeli reaction of Turkey’s right-wing Islamists during the first Intifada and their anti-Jewish slogans calling for Islamic rule. Guaranteeing the government’s protection was certainly the fundamental reason for the Jewish community’s tacit agreement. Members of the community probably felt some pride in contributing to Turkey’s rapprochement with the Western world.

This was achieved by broadcasting a narrative based on three key moments: The refuge offered by Sultan Beyazıt II to Jews expelled from Spain, the invitation extended to German Jewish professors in 1933 to come to Turkey to lead the founding of the contemporary Turkish university, and the rescue from the Holocaust of Turkish Jews in Europe by Turkish consuls. No doubt the elaboration of such an account was possible only because there were few other historical studies on the subject.

Since then, historians have shown that the hundred or so German Jewish professors expelled from their university by the Nazis were invited to work on the construction of higher education institutions and their curricula, not to protect them from Nazi persecution.

Historians have also shown that while there was a diplomat, the Rhodes consul, who saved Jewish lives at great risk and was recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Turkey closed its borders to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe as early as 1938. Two ships, the Salvador (1941) and the Strouma (1942), were wrecked off the coast of Istanbul because they did not have permission to dock or disembark their passengers. A thousand people drowned in these circumstances. If we add to this picture that the Turkish-Greek border remained closed throughout the war, condemning the 40,000 Greek Jews of Salonika and Didymothicon to deportation to Auschwitz and Treblinka, we will have dispelled the fantasy of Turkey as a country of refuge for European Jewry.

A second opportunity to use Jewish memory to deny the Armenian genocide arose when Turkey applied for membership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2008. More than thirty European countries, the United States, Canada, Israel and Argentina are members of this organization. The Stockholm Declaration (2000) is the founding act and commits the signatory states to encourage research on the Shoah and anti-Semitism and to teach about it. The terms of reference imply that countries must recognise the violence and massacres that tarnish their history, make room for them in the national education curriculum, promote memorial sites and dates, and establish a day of commemoration of the Shoah.

Encouraged by the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs, the Jewish community has been publicly commemorating the Day of the Shoah on Jan. 27 since 2010, in the presence of officials from the government, the prefecture, and the universities. This did not prevent the representative of the State from « scolding » the community when the microphones were closed to translation (for foreign journalists) and « reproaching » the policy of Israel!

Inspired by his candidacy for the IHRA, Erdoğan’s government has restored the Edirne synagogue, where there are no Jews left, at great expense. It was the largest synagogue in the Balkans. Rising from its ruins, it was inaugurated in 2020 in the presence of the deputy prime minister and a crowd of worshippers from Istanbul. But how many times a year will they make the 237 km journey to bring this synagogue back to life?

Turkey, an « observer » country, has been waiting since 2008 to be recognised as a full member of the IHRA, which it hopes will constitute a shield against the accusation of genocide. It is multiplying gestures whose symbolic significance is contradicted by the language of the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and by the very nature of the regime.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is rooted in the Islamic, nationalist National View (Millî Görüş) movement, which has made anti-Semitism one of its emblems.

Turkey’s Jewish community is immersed today in a society where the public space is saturated with governmental propaganda media with an unabashed anti-Western culture and strategy. It is easy to imagine that the Jewish community, like a good part of the Turkish population, does not feel very safe there.

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