Who threatens Turkey's Jews?
Thursday, May 8, 2008Mustafa AKYOL
Ishak Alaton is one of the most prominent names in Turkey’s tiny Jewish community. He, as the boss of the well-established Alarko Holding, is not just a very successful businessman, but also a man of intellect who comments on social and political problems.
As a self-defined social democrat, Mr. Alaton believes in social responsibility – not as a public relations strategy, but as a value in itself.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Alaton sent a letter to Eyüp Can, the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s up-and-coming business daily, Referans. On April 22, Mr. Can published the letter in his column. In it, the 81-year-old business guru was rightfully complaining about “this paranoia, this xenophobia, this enmity toward non-Muslims, this anti-Semitism” which pervades Turkey.
’Patriots’ in Ankara:
Mr. Alaton was specifically referring to two examples: Israeli businessman Sammy Ofer, a zillionaire, wanted to invest in Turkey, but he was repelled by “the bureaucracy and the media which worked hand in hand against him… for simply that he was Jewish.” And, decades ago, an oil-rich Armenian businessman, Mr. Gülbenkyan, had tried to set up a museum in Istanbul, but was “forced back with sticks in hand by the ‘patriots’ in Ankara.”
Thirdly Mr. Alaton was pointing to the recent decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which made it illegal for foreigners to buy real estate in Turkey. (Our lovely Constitutional Court, when it is not busy with cracking down political parties, takes decisions that will keep Turkey isolated from the global economy.)
After his letter in Referans, Mr. Alaton soon gave an interview to journalist Nagehan Alçı from daily Akşam. When asked about the origins of anti-Semitism in Turkey, Mr. Alaton went right back to the days of Atatürk and said this:
“I met Atatürk. We saw him when we were kids. There was no such discrimination at his time. At, least there was no such thing in his mind. But some of the people around Atatürk had a fierce reaction against us, i.e., the ‘others.’ That’s why special instructions were sent to governors in order to make our lives difficult. This, over time, turned in to a state policy.”
Mr. Alaton did not go into details about what “the people around Atatürk” did to Turkey’s Jews, but one of their deeds, the Wealth Tax of 1942, is worth mentioning. The government of Şükrü Saracoğlu, a Kemalist, a Nazi sympathizer and a proud “Turkist,” issued this notorious law, which was an arbitrary levy imposed on wealthy non-Muslim minorities, and especially the Jews and Jewish converts. Those who were unable to pay were sent to a labor camp in Aşkale, a district of the Eastern city of Erzurum. The first and only Jewish labor camp in these lands, in other words, was established in the heydays of Kemalism, our untouchable state ideology.
Let’s go back to Mr. Alaton’s interview. When asked about the current government, formed by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), he spoke positively and he said he trusts the “sincerity of Prime Minister Erdoğan” in his efforts to democratize Turkey. The problem is elsewhere, he noted. “Anti-Semitism is not in the neighborhood,” he emphasized. “It is in the system.”
The term “neighborhood” might need explanation here. In the recent years, the word has become a token for conservative districts in which most women wear the headscarf and very few, if any, consume alcohol. In the secularist jargon, “the neighborhood” is the symbol of obscurantism, backwardness, and a pleasure-free life. There might be some truth in this perception, but it is also true that the rising fascism and xenophobia in Turkey is a product of not the conservative “neighborhood,” but the secular citadels.
There have been numerous examples of this phenomenon. When the Israeli tycoon that Mr. Alaton mentioned, Sammy Ofer, wanted to invest in Turkey in 2005, it was mainly the secular nationalists who rallied against him, while Prime Minister Erdoğan supported Ofer and criticized the former for “racism of capital.” (Similarly, Mr. Erdoğan welcomes Arab capital, too, and he champions the golden rule of capitalism: “Money is free from creed or race.”) For this reason, and for his pro-EU policies, Erdoğan and his colleagues at the AKP have been depicted by a series of Kemalist bestsellers as crypto-Jews who serve “the Elders of Zion.”
The Islamist side:
But are these secularist nuts the only anti-Semites in Turkey? No, not at all. There are, of course, also the Islamists, who echo the nasty anti-Semitic rhetoric and literature that have pervaded the Middle East since early 20th century and especially the founding of Israel in 1948.
Yet you have to be careful about who these Islamists are. Secularist media will label all Muslims who are serious about their faith as “Islamists,” while it might be much more appropriate to call some of them “Muslim democrats.” The AKP represents this latter point of view, although the vestiges of its former Islamist line surface once in a while among some of its less open-minded members. On the other hand, democratic-minded Muslim movements in society, such as the three to five million strong (according to the New York Times) Fethullah Gülen community, are not only free from anti-Semitism, but they also stand against it via efforts of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation.
In short, those who threaten Turkey’s Jews with their anti-Semitic stances are secular fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, the ultra-nationalists who somehow combine these somewhat contradictory trends, and, in the words of Mr. Alaton, the “system.” And it is no accident that all these forces have formed a peculiar alliance in the recent years. They, all together, are standing against the EU accession process.
No big surprise. A Turkey which has become a member of the EU and thus has turned fully democratic is the nightmare of all these fear mongering xenophobes. But it is, to be sure, the bright future for the rest of us.