Jewish Life in Twenty-First-Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance

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Turkey is famed for a history of tolerance toward minorities, and there is a growing nostalgia for the "Ottoman mosaic." In this richly detailed study, Marcy Brink-Danan examines what it means for Jews to live as a tolerated minority in contemporary Istanbul. Often portrayed as the "good minority," Jews in Turkey celebrate their long history in the region, yet they are subject to discrimination and their institutions are regularly threatened and periodically attacked. Brink-Danan explores the contradictions and gaps in the popular ideology of Turkey as a land of tolerance, describing how Turkish Jews manage the tensions between cosmopolitanism and patriotism, difference as Jews and sameness as Turkish citizens, tolerance and violence.

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Preface: The Ends and Beginnings of 1992

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“Jews?” Mete Tapan, Istanbul city planner, had to think for a minute. “One knows they are there but they don’t even comprise 1% of the population. No one knows how they vote or what their interests would be. They don’t count.”

—Fleminger 2003

Although there has not been an official census of Jews in Turkey since the 1960s, recent population estimates range from 18,000 to 25,000 (Tuval 2004:xxxiii; Toktaş 2006a:123), making Turkey today home to the highest number of Jews outside Israel in the lands that once comprised the Ottoman Empire. Jews in Turkey constitute a negligible fraction of Turkey’s overall population of approximately seventy million people and, as described by the city planner, Turkish Jews don’t “count” for much in the polling booth. Nonetheless, over the past few decades Jews in Turkey have taken on an increasingly public role, brokering Turkish diplomatic ties with Israel. As Turkey’s model minority, they also have advocated for the republic as it has vied for European Union accession.

 

Acknowledgments

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The following fellowships and institutions generously supported research for this book: Fulbright-Hays, National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Maurice Amado Foundation for Sephardic Studies, Eastern Consortium of Persian and Turkish, Mellon Foundation, Institute of Turkish Studies, Barnard College Alumnae Fellowship, and Brown and Stanford Universities. A fellowship at the Center for Jewish History allowed me regular access to the archives of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), which holds an invaluable collection of documents relating to the American Branch of the Quincentennial Foundation; special thanks is due to Randall Belinfante, ASF librarian/archivist. A Cahnman Publication Subvention Grant of the Association of Jewish Studies supported the completion of this book.

At Indiana University Press, Janet Rabinowitch and Rebecca Tolen helped bring this book to publication, with editorial assistance from Brian Herrmann and Maureen Epp. Matti Bunzl and Michael Herzfeld, editors for the New Anthropologies of Europe Series, as well as Matthias Lehmann and Harvey Goldberg, editors for the Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies helped locate this book in its appropriate milieus. Harvey Goldberg and Esra Özyürek offered useful feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript, for which I am most grateful.

 

Introduction

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This is a book about the tensions inherent in Turkish Jewish life at the turn of the twenty-first century. These tensions arise from a number of contradictions: Jews in Turkey publicly celebrate a long history of coexistence and tolerance in the region, yet live with ongoing security concerns bred by anti-Semitism and periodic attacks against members of the community and their institutions. Since the creation of the Turkish Republic nearly a century ago in 1923, Jews have enjoyed full citizenship in Turkey with all its rights and responsibilities, yet their patriotism and indigenousness are regularly questioned by Muslim Turks. Jews are privy to what I call “cosmopolitan knowledge” about different symbolic and cultural systems (Brink-Danan 2011). They have learned about difference by comparing their lives to the ways Jews outside of Turkey live and to the ways Jews have lived in the past, yet they perform and disavow this difference at different times and on different stages. In Turkey today, cosmopolitanism is both celebrated and reviled, and Jews regularly find themselves performing a patriotic role as citizens while also embodying cosmopolitan difference in order to represent themselves as the good minority. It is this final dynamic that commands the lion’s share of this study: How do Jews in Turkey manage the tensions between their cosmopolitanism and patriotism, between their difference as Jews and their sameness as Turkish citizens? What kind of cultural habits does this tension breed?

 

1 Tolerance, Difference, and Citizenship

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As Turkey continues its half-century march toward joining the European Union, its Jews have been singled out as living proof of Turkey’s fulfillment of the Union’s “recognition of diversity” criterion. Public efforts toward “recognition of diversity,” however imperfectly matched with celebrations of national and pan-European identity, have become a pillar of European self-definition (Soysal, Bertilotti, and Mannitz 2005:27). Jews, particularly, occupy a central role in European claims to cosmopolitanism, especially as a foil against cries of intolerance made by other differentiated citizens and their champions (Peck 2006:154–174). Playing their part in international arenas, Jews regularly proclaim Turkey’s eternal hospitality and tolerance for difference to a global audience as counterpoint to European politicians’ regular criticisms of Turkey’s treatment of Armenians, Kurds, and Islamists.1 This shift on the part of Turkish Jews—from a quiet, assimilating posture to a more public performance of difference—marks a change in the way they represent themselves and is but one reflection of the myriad ways in which Turkey’s European Union overtures, its rapprochement with Israel and the United States, and other global political shifts have set the stage for Jews to stand symbolically for the tolerated Other. Istanbul, home to the vast majority—over 90 percent (Tuval 2004:xxxiii)—of Turkey’s Jews, is the obvious theater for the Jewish community to perform this role.

 

2 Cosmopolitan Signs: Names as Foreign and Local

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Barely a generation ago, there were approximately one million Jews living in the Islamic countries from Morocco to Afghanistan. Some of these Jewish communities had their roots in antiquity, going back before the great Muslim conquests of the seventh century of the Common Era—before most of what today are called Arab countries had any Arabs, before Turkey had any Turks.

—Stillman 1995:59; emphasis added

How do people become aware that they
are strangers in their own lands?
Someone must make them so.
Sometimes they are forcibly removed.
Sometimes they are just reclassified.

—Tsing 1993:154

In Istanbul, one quickly observes a wide variety of political, religious, and class affiliations: “The Istanbul cityscape is like a raised Braille script that the traveler can read as a code for the different forces and interests, and the negotiations among them, that characterize the city” (White 2002:4). A space in which social distinctions are commonly encoded and decoded are those interactions—in the bank, in the classroom, at the market—in which people make introductions. Introductions are particularly salient because of the seemingly banal but politically fraught ontological process of marking a name as “Turkish” or “foreign.” As other Jews in what are now Muslim-majority lands experience, 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.1 Despite over half a millennium of living in the region, full Turkish citizenship, and fluency in Turkish, Turkish Jews are regularly reclassified as yabancι (Turkish; stranger or foreigner) in everyday interactions with Muslim Turks. If Jews lived in the region now called Turkey “before there were Turks,” why are they today considered foreign?

 

3 The Limits of Cosmopolitanism

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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 carefully maintained in the private domain, while public space is seen as a universal sphere in which difference must be erased. This chapter describes how the Turkish Jewish community deals with these tensions by maintaining its appearance of disappearance, particularly as this relates to expressions of difference from the Muslim majority. By focusing on cosmopolitanism’s limits, I argue—following Werbner (2006) and against many popular theories of the phenomenon—that expressions of difference are not always celebratory ethical choices made by individuals faced with multiple ways of being. Indeed, the erasure of difference reveals that cosmopolitan affects are often censored when and where difference is imagined to invite danger.

 

4 Performing Difference: Turkish Jews on the National Stage

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In the early 2000s, a small group of Turkish citizens performed their civic duty as members of a secular democratic regime by going to the polls, voting by secret ballot, and inaugurating their leader in a lavish ceremony: on October 24, 2002, Jews throughout Turkey participated in a community-wide election of the Turkish chief rabbi. I observed how Turkish Jews, a minority that historically eschewed overt political participation, held this community-wide election at the same time as Turkish national elections were going forward. This parallel exercise in democracy gave the Turkish Jewish community a unique space to debate the meaning of democratic citizenship, to discuss their role as a distinct religious community in the Turkish Republic, and to perform that identity in a public, highly orchestrated event: the ritual investiture of the chief rabbi.1

While the institution of the chief rabbi in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic has been described through the disciplinary framework of history (Benbassa 1995; Karmi 1996; Rodrigue 1992; Shaw 1991), there has been no ethnographic analysis of the local meanings attributed to the Turkish chief rabbi. As a corrective, this chapter chronicles the evolution of the democracy discourse surrounding the investiture of a new chief rabbi by means of ethnographic observations of organizers of the event, voters, and delegates; conversations with reporters at the Turkish Jewish press who covered the event; text analysis of news articles that reported on the event itself; and speeches delivered during the inauguration. I attended the inauguration, recording not only the structure and content of the ceremony but also participants’ reactions to it. I found that the democratic election of the chief rabbi served as a process whereby Turkish Jews campaigned for a politics of presence in the public sphere. I will thus argue that non-governmental rituals, such as the election of a chief rabbi, offer marginalized communities a stage upon which to perform larger discourses, such as democratization, and a political platform they might otherwise be denied (see Greenhouse and Roshanak 1998; Ignatowski 2004).

 

5 Intimate Negotiations: Turkish Jews Between Stages

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As discussed in the previous chapter in relation to the chief rabbi’s election, the Turkish verb temsil etmek means “to represent.” Self-representation, itself a kind of performance, is central to how Turkish Jews imagine their participation in public and also private spaces. Although it might come as a surprise, anthropology has been engaged with questions of Turkish Jewish performances for over a century. Employed by the Smithsonian Institution, Cyrus Adler, a Jewish American scholar of Semitic studies, organized living ethnographic dioramas—foreign villages—of world cultures in expositions held between 1888 and 1897, “in which Jews were present but not visible as such” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998:89). Expositions such as these, which enjoyed wide popular appeal in Europe and the United States, were part spectacle and part ethnography. In his organizational role as the exposition’s commissioner, Adler traveled to Turkey, Persia, Egypt, Tunis, and Morocco (99), visiting local Jewish communities in cities along the way and cultivating his Jewish ties. Adler arranged and organized the performance of hundreds of people as part of the Turkish Village in the World’s Columbian Exposition (known more colloquially as the “World’s Fair”); an estimated four-fifths of Adler’s performers were Jews, which drew concerns from some attendees about how authentically the villages represented Turkey. In the minds of some spectators, Jews (even “Oriental” ones) were not real Turks, but rather were engaging in the performance of Turkishness: “Some have said that all this does not represent Turkey, and that the Turkish village is purely a speculative enterprise of some Oriental Jews,” though this observer did concede that “the originators, whoever they may be, are seeking to represent Turkey . . . and have given the village a distinctive Turkish meaning” (100). Adler himself was unable to distinguish between Muslim and Turkish Jews during his trip to Constantinople. As such, “Jews could therefore live and work in the Turkish Village at the Chicago fair in their capacity as Turks” (emphasis in original). Indeed, performers acted as “Moorish, Tunisian, or Egyptian and assumed to be Muslim, but many were actually Jewish” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998:100; see also Cohen 2008).

 

6 The One Who Writes Difference: Inside Secrecy

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“In retrospect, it appears that the ability to encourage the voluntarily mute to speak, and the talent to open the innermost thoughts and interpret the secrets of hundreds of interviewees, was a basic condition in writing this study” (Tuval 2004:lxvii).1 So concludes the author of a study of modern Turkish Jewry who describes his work as a “picture of a community that had lain shrouded in thick fog for many years” (lxvii). This scholar was not the first—nor the last—to describe the difficulty in gaining access to Turkish Jewish life. Elazar and others, in a footnote to their demographic description of the Jews of Turkey, likewise assert that the community is “extremely reluctant to have its activities publicized in any way at all, on the grounds that if neither the Turkish government nor the Turkish people are antagonized, the Turkish [Jewish] community might be able to be permitted to continue functioning. The consensus is that the slightest publicity might endanger the status quo” (1984:128). Similarly, Mills writes, “In spite of the fact that, compared with Greeks, Jews were far more open to my research . . . I had a great deal of difficulty using a snowball effect to gain increasing numbers of interviews through primary contacts” (2010:173).

 

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