In Trouble, Turkey’s Leader Blames Israel—Raising Tension for His Country’s Jews
Many blame Recep Tayyip Erdogan for rising anti-Semitism, but the legacy of his conspiracy-mongering may outlast his rule
Alaton has no false nostalgia for a more tolerant and moderate past. He was 14 years old in 1942 when the MV Struma, a ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Romania bound for Palestine, broke down in the Bosporus. “Every evening I transported sacks of bread to the Jews on the ship,” he told me. “They would shout at us and cry and beg and nothing would happen because the police wouldn’t let them off the ship.” After spending over two months motionless in view of Istanbul’s waterfront, the boat was dragged from the Bosporus into the Black Sea where, hours later, it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. The incident shook Turkey’s Jewish population, and it still informs Alaton’s perception of his place in society. “A barge without sails and without an engine is a coffin,” Alaton told me.
Eleven years ago the sole survivor of the Struma, David Stoliar, traveled to Istanbul to make a 45-minute television documentary about the incident. The film was made, in spite of strong objections from the government, according to Alaton. “They were worried it would be another Midnight Express,” Alaton told me, referring to the 1978 movie about an American in a Turkish prison. “The government wanted to muzzle it all the way.”
More recently, Alaton was involved in an exhibition, currently touring Turkish cities, called Never Again!, which chronicles historical apologies, such as Bill Clinton’s for the American government’s inaction during the Rwandan genocide and Tony Blair’s decision to commission a new inquiry decades after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland. The cover photo on the accompanying book is of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Warsaw Ghetto monument.
“There has always been this policy of negation, of hiding, of putting it under the carpet,” Alaton told me. In Turkey, he went on, “this has been the policy for the past hundred years.” The exhibition, he said, is a statement about the revisionist history that has been the fuel of Turkish nationalism and anti-Semitism. “We are giving an indirect message to the Turkish people,” Alaton said. “People will see how the world is coming to terms for the sins of the past. Meaning, you have to do the same.”
I met the young Jewish woman in a café near the Galata Tower, a medieval landmark that dominates the neighborhood. Her father is prominent in the Jewish community, and I was counting on her to help me gain entry to one of the city’s synagogues. In 2003 two of the city’s synagogues were bombed, and since then security has been especially tight. After our coffee we walked by Neve Shalom, where one of the bombs went off. The synagogue, located on a narrow bustling street, is a subtle fortress of back entrances and security cameras. We couldn’t get in.
While of a different generation than Alaton, the young woman nevertheless shares both a common sense of insecurity and perseverance as Jews in Turkey. Where Alaton has gone to great lengths to promote public programming and cultivate relationships with influential figures like Gulen, the woman has created a less conspicuous but no less rooted life in Turkey. After attending university in the United States, she returned to Istanbul to live and base her career. But she, like Alaton, accepts that she may have to leave Turkey again one day. What little faith she had in Erdogan—built on some progressive policies—faded during the Gezi Park protests and has been further eroded by the corruption scandal. “Always have a back-up plan,” she told me.
But she was quick to point out that the atmosphere in Turkey—the tension reverberating from Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and now anxiety over the political instability—affects the whole country, not only the Jewish minority. The targeting of opposition, particularly over the last seven years, has made criticizing those in power a risky proposition for the whole of the Turkish population, regardless of their religion. “Things are crazy here for everybody,” she told me. “We never know who’s going to use what, when, how. And that scares people.”
She attended the summer’s antigovernment demonstrations in Gezi Park, and there she saw hope that Turkey could move beyond “identity politics,” in which otherness can be a threat. “The people in Gezi were anti-racist,” she told me. She said she hopes that means they recognize the hypocrisy in Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric. “He says we are siding with the people in Gaza,” she said. “He says that to make himself look moral and in the meantime he’s taking people’s homes away.”
The next day, after breakfast, I followed the woman’s father into the office at their synagogue, where he and a visiting academic pored over some record books. He piled heavy, dogeared volumes with split spines in front of the scholar and ordered some tea. The books were artifacts, their heft a reminder of how expansive the Jewish population here once was, when the hilly streets of Galata were known for their diversity and the synagogue entrances weren’t capped with guarded doors. They read the names of the dead in one book that diagrammed the layout of an Istanbul cemetery. Another thick volume was a log of foreign visitors to the synagogue, all written in meticulous blue cursive.
“All Jews have a suitcase under their bed,” the woman’s father told me, when I asked whether he had thought of leaving Turkey. Then he laughed, thinking of a joke. “Do you know why Jews play the violin?” he asked me. “Because it’s easy to carry.” For him, rueful humor was the only way to answer the question; Istanbul, for better or worse, is his home, where he has a job, a family, and a community. How to stay concerns him more than when to leave. Before I left, he gave me another line, for good measure: “Do you know why Jewish men always wear a hat? Because they don’t know whether they’ll be coming or going.”
In late December, after more than a week of a thickening scandal during which Erdogan held fast to the idea of conspirators out to dismantle his government—an idea he continues to repeat, including in his New Year’s message to the nation—protesters took to Istanbul’s streets. “They are hoping to resurrect the spirit of Gezi,” an activist friend told me. The protests were not as big, but their message was strong: If the walls around Erdogan were crumbling, perhaps the protesters could help push them down. This time, rather than helping him, Erdogan’s talk of “international conspiracies” seemed to be hurting his cause, making him appear defensive, irrational, and, perhaps, guilty. If Turks have grown weary of this particular line of defense, some felt, it could mark a turning point for Turkey’s Jews.
This point was not lost on the congregants at the synagogue I visited. The day I was there, the young woman’s father delivered a talk on the topic of retribution. Those who discriminated against Jews would eventually be punished and not simply by divine forces, but social, political, and economic failures as well. At the breakfast table, the speech seemed to go over well. A few days into what would prove to be a long and, for Erdogan, agonizing investigation into the conduct of his inner circle the sermon’s underlying message—that bullies get it in the end—hit close to home.
This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
An earlier version of this article named people who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issues discussed.
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