American anthropologist portrays Jews in Turkey

Turkey’s venerable Jewish community, one of the few still left in the Muslim world today, comes under rigorous scrutiny in Marcy Brink-Danan’s Jewish Life in 21st-Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance, published by Indiana University Press.

The author, a Brown University anthropologist, provides readers with a clear, comprehensive survey of a model minority.

Jews have lived in Turkey for more than 2,000 years, but the vast majority of its Jewish citizens are the descendants of 15th-century persecuted Spanish Jews who were offered asylum in the Ottoman Empire by a visionary sultan.

Jews in Turkey have enjoyed full citizenship since the formation of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923, “yet their patriotism and indigenousness are regularly questioned by Muslim Turks,” she observes.

She adds, “Jews in their everyday interactions with Muslim Turks are regularly assumed to be foreigners who are either recently arrived or on their way to somewhere else.”

Despite their Turkish citizenship and their full integration into Turkish society, they are regarded as yabanci (strangers or foreigners), she claims.

However viewed by Muslims, Turkish Jews were never forced to live in ghettos and were never persecuted in a wholesale manner, she points out.

During the Ottoman era, they were a tolerated minority, like Christians, and since the advent of the republic, they have been full citizens.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s generally revered founder, had a high regard for Jews, praising them for their loyalty and assuring them that they would live in “comfort and happiness” in Turkey.

According to Brink-Danan, Turkish Jews have served the state in at least one important respect: “The Jews, in the role of the ‘good minority,’ serve as a powerful foil to the Armenian genocide discourse, enabling Turkey to display a history of cosmopolitanism and refute the bad press it so often garners over the genocide question.”

Judging by a survey she cites, most Turkish Jews consider themselves quite religious. Yet many of the Jews she encountered regard themselves as devoutly secular, in line with the tenets of the republic.

Given their Spanish ancestry, Turkish Jews are predominantly Sephardi, with surnames such as Amado and Ventura. And, of course, many elderly Turkish Jews speak Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, a dying language that incorporates elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, French, Italian and Greek.

Nonetheless, she notes, some Jews have Turkified their names, while others have replaced old names with purely Turkish names.

More than 90 per cent of Turkey’s 18,000 Jews live in urban areas, primarily in Istanbul, but also in Ankara, Bursa and Adana.

Before the emergence of Israel, Turkey was home to a much larger Jewish community. In her estimation, one-third of its members have emigrated since the advent of Israeli statehood.

In references to the “strong infrastructure” that underpins the community in Istanbul, she mentions its network of synagogues, schools and so on. But in almost the same breath, she suggests that this is a community in decline, given its low birthrate, aging population and mixed marriages.

“If prior to the 1960s intermarriage was quite rare, by 1992 marriages between Jews and non-Jews in Turkey was recorded at 42 per cent, with the rate of intermarriage nearly doubling between 1990 and 2001,” she writes.

In her view, the Jewish community lives with contradictions. As she puts it, “Jews in Turkey publicly celebrate a long history of coexistence and tolerance, yet live with ongoing security concerns bred by antisemitism and periodic attacks against… their institutions.” This, of course, is a reference to the three assaults that have been mounted against Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul by Islamic fanatics since 1986.

Brink-Danan suggests that Jews in Turkey keep a low profile, with the community being extremely reluctant to publicize its activities. “The consensus is that the slightest publicity might endanger the status quo.”

She goes on to say: “Throughout my fieldwork research, my Turkish Jewish friends advised me to follow their example and erase my own Jewishness from the public sphere, citing a list of ‘don’ts’ that sometimes seemed endless: don’t nail your mezuzah to the outside of the doorframe; don’t wear a Jewish star necklace, and, just in case, don’t tell your landlord you are Jewish.

“I constantly confronted the seemingly ironic claim Turkish Jews make of feeling at home in a country where Jewish difference is maintained in the private domain, while public space is seen as a universal sphere in which difference must be erased.

“Becoming Turkish, along with the fear of not being perceived as Turkish enough, has engendered a profusion of effacing social practices among Jews in Istanbul. Layered upon these assimilationist conditions, local antisemitism and the complicated relationship Turkish Jews have with Israel… generate an additional set of incentives to disappear.”

The lack of signage at all major Jewish community buildings in Istanbul is also a function of this mindset, she says.

Public support for Israel among Turkish Jews falls into the category of “the forbidden.” As she writes, “While opinions and emotions about Israel run deep among Jews in Turkey, I rarely observed a Turkish Jew advocating for Israel, or for that matter heavily criticizing Israel.”

Brink-Danan, in Jewish Life in 21st-Century Turkey, ventures beyond the bland and the predictable and produces a thought-provoking book about an intriguing Jewish community in a fascinating Muslim country.