March 6, 2009

Briefing from Steve Schwager, Executive Vice President and CEO, JDC

I wrote this column in Istanbul, Turkey—a city of 14 million people where JDC began nearly 95 years ago. I traveled at the request of our Country Director, Ami Bergman, and the local Jewish community leadership. Much has changed in the world and in Istanbul since our founding. The Ottoman Empire no longer exists. The building that housed the American Embassy where Henry Morgenthau, Sr. sent the famous 1914 cable has been closed and replaced with a bombproof, fortress-like American consulate.

Large numbers of Jews have lived in Turkey for over 500 years, ever since we were expelled from Spain in 1492. The community numbered over 100,000 people at its peak; now about 25,000 Jews share the country with 70 million Muslims.

I was amazed to find that some things have not changed since my last visit 10 years ago: The Jewish community continues to be well-organized and operates the full range of Jewish institutions and services from preschool activities to old age homes, with the extremely active involvement of its lay leadership.

The political trends in this country are of great concern to the Jews. The recent war in Gaza has caused a rapid rise of anti-Semitism that is supported by the national government. The following piece was published by a local leader named Leyla Navaro; her words capture the concerns of the Jews of Turkey far better than any column I could write:

Looking back at my life as a Turkish citizen, I recall only two disturbing events reflecting racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism in Turkey. The first one is the Wealth Tax, a tax imposed only on non-Muslim Turkish citizens during World War II. I was six years old and my grandfather’s textile shop in Yesildirek was seized because he could not pay the sum imposed on him. I remember the tax officials in our house, searching for anything they could seize. There was a deep sense of worry among family members and my grandfather fell ill and took to his bed.

The second event was the 6-7 September disaster (Riots in 1955 which left mostly Greek businesses, as well as many establishments owned by minorities, pillaged). My family did not suffer physically since we did not own a shop, but I remember being very sad and frightened.

During the 1950s, when the “Citizen! Speak Turkish” slogans became widespread, I remember that my elder sister and I quoted this slogan and scolded people who spoke Ladino and minority languages. We must have been 11 or 12 years old. Today I recall this with shame, although I know that this is “identifying with the aggressor” behavior in psychology. A person who is threatened begins to identify with his/her aggressor and turns into an aggressor as well. Perhaps such behavior can be forgiven coming from an 11-year-old, but absolutely not from an adult, let alone from a country….

I was born in Turkey more than half a century ago and I live in this country. My mother, father, and my ancestors are natives of Turkey. I studied in Turkey. I married a Turkish Jew. My children attended Turkish schools. We speak Turkish at home. I have written books in Turkish and likewise conducted lectures and seminars in Turkish. I have proudly represented Turkey in international workshops and board meetings abroad. In fact I go by the pseudonym of “the Turkish woman.”

I have been a self-appointed ambassador while teaching Europeans, Americans and Asians, who know little about Turkey, and therefore are biased. In my thirty years of professional life, 90 percent of my patients have been Muslims; among them were numerous women who traditionally cover their heads, including those donning the Islamic turban. I teach at a state university and actively contribute to projects undertaken by public and private institutions, civil society establishments, and similar bodies. Following the earthquake of 1999, I volunteered for months doing post-traumatic work. I am a regular taxpayer, and I am concerned and actively involved in the financial and ethical interests of Turkey.

This being said, could you tell me why, in what seems like just one day, I have been transformed into an enemy of the state simply because I am Jewish? How did I become a potential target, an implicitly appointed party in the current Middle East war? Friends and family know my feelings, as well as my stand on this war; they are aware of my sensitivities for those who are killed in times of war.

I am shocked that I am being held responsible for the war in the Middle East just because I am a Jew. It is difficult to understand the point underlying the statement: “We are the grandchildren of the Ottomans who saved you from Spain.” Am I to be forever indebted just because the Ottoman Empire accepted my ancestors 500 years ago? Am I still a guest in this country where I was born and raised, where I fulfill my citizenship duties, and to whose development I actively contribute? Am I expected to walk with my head down? Have I become a target to existential threats and should I endure it?

Loyalty ranks as one of the prime characteristics of Turkish Jews. Turkish Jews living in other countries continue to speak Turkish, get together to watch Turkish movies, and savor Turkish cuisine. They enjoy singing Turkish songs. Although they no longer live in Turkey, they are still loyal to their roots and attached to the culture of their origin. Jews within Turkey also share this strong sentiment; they love their country and defend it steadfastly against the prejudices encountered abroad. I am no exception; I will never allow people to undermine the image of Turkey and strongly believe in the recognition of local values.

Today, however, my faith is shattered.… My country of birth, to which I pledge allegiance, no longer considers me an equal citizen, but views me as a member of the enemy camp just because of my religion. Boosted by a popular but seemingly non-mainstream media, governmental authorities who should protect their citizens do not refrain from using offensive and threatening rhetoric, thus inciting hostility in the masses. They cannot or do not want to say “no” to the racist tidal wave which is about to invade the country.

Does that mean that we were wrong to believe that we shared a common destiny and a sense of belonging, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and faith, with the rest of the Turkish citizens? Have we been living 500 years in dark ignorance?

It seems that the very popular expression of “mosaic of cultures” is nothing but a slogan for tourists—an illusion and a delusion. Perhaps the real goal is to reduce the “mosaic” into a single hue. And if that is true, then there are citizens who see me today as a potential enemy—and will seek to hurt or eliminate me…. Today, I am sad, worried, and somewhat frightened for myself; but I am equally saddened, worried, and frightened for Turkey’s future, which appears to be sliding towards an abyss of racism. I am frightened for a Turkey which will commit itself to a great solitude, unless a conscious effort is exerted to put a stop to this situation. A dark solitude…

On behalf of JDC, Irv and I have expressed our support to the Turkish Jewish community and have assured them that we will stand by their side whatever the future brings. Our responsibility is to continue to serve as the community’s bridge to the American Jewish community and the greater Jewish world. There is a Hebrew song that talks about the whole world being a narrow bridge and that the most important thing is to never be afraid. I have tried to assure the Jewish community in Turkey that JDC is the 911 bridge of the Jewish world—and that they should not fear; we will be here for them.

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