A Radical Jew in Istanbul

Three months ago, I packed up my bags at my home above a Turkish kebab shop in Stoke Newington, London. I went in search of the real deal: a home above a Turkish kebab shop in Sirinevler, Istanbul. A few days before leaving, I was approached by the editor of this esteemed magazine, Geoffrey Cohen. “Write about it for us,” he said. “Write about being a radical Jew in Istanbul.”

I have to be honest: I’m not that radical, I’m not that Jewish, and I don’t know that much about Istanbul. Still, I imagine if somebody were to introduce me, they’d say: “You should meet my friend Levi. He’s a radical Jew. He lives in Istanbul.” So I’m going to give it a shot. Please forgive me.

Istanbul really is an interesting place. If you walk down the main streets, you’ll see ancient buildings, beautiful mosques and a city rich with centuries of histories. But if you happen to turn down side-streets, you might find yourself at a cafe in Ortakoy, surrounded by chickens picking at grain. Or you might wind up in Kadikoy’s markets, haggling for live fish to the tune of live music. Or you might just find yourself on a gorgeous pier in Bakirkoy, drinking chai. It’s the kind of city that’s worth getting lost in.

Of course, if you go to Taksim at certain times, you might also see rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas. That’s the part of Istanbul that people back home have asked about most. If you want to know exactly what’s happening, I can’t tell you. When last month’s protests against internet censorship kicked off, I only found out after people in England had got in touch to ask if I was OK.

What interests me most is who the people are here, and what they believe. Right now, Istanbul is torn between two movements: a conservative religious one, and a secularist-nationalist one. The conservative religious group is Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party. Over the last few years, they’ve tried to ban alcohol, limit civil liberties, censor the press and foster piety in children. One of my students told me that the overall message from this was: “if you’re not our kind of Muslim, you’re not welcome.” It should be clear to anyone who’s been observing Turkey’s events that this government cannot last in its current form. Every day yields new corruption scandals. Protests are growing, if not in intensity, then certainly in frequency.

But don’t for a moment imagine that because the secularist-nationalists are the opposition, they should be the friends of radicals or Jews. CHP, the main opposition party and the linchpin of the secularist movement, are the heirs to Turkey’s first ever government. The country was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, the Turks fought off almost every imperial power to establish their own democratic republic.

The founders of Turkey adopted a style of secularism similar to the French one, trying to get rid of traditional dress, translating the Muslim call to prayer into Turkish, and encouraging integrated education. They changed the language from one heavily inflected with Farsi and Arabic words to one more closely resembling Old Turkic, and changed the script from Arabic to Latin. In this way, the citizens of the old Ottoman Empire in the area from Greece to Iran became Turks – and a new nation state was born.

Once they had established an identity, they needed to solidify it against any minority groups. Only a few decades earlier, the Ottomans had almost completely ethnically cleansed the Armenians. This tradition carried into the new Turkish republic. Although the Armenian community was diminished, Armenian community leaders and journalists were imprisoned. Hrant Dink, a newspaper editor, was assassinated in 2007 by nationalists.

The secularist nation-builders also came for the Kurds. They felt that if they could divide them, they might be able to assimilate them. So they adopted a policy of forced resettlement, massacring anyone who resisted. They banned the Kurdish language, confiscated Kurdish farms and did all they could to assimilate them. It didn’t work, and from the 1970s onwards, Turkey went to war with the PKK – a Kurdish military resistance group, who espoused socialist ideas. Only in the last ten years has the current conservative government permitted the Kurdish language and signed a ceasefire with the PKK.

And what about the Jews? Well, it’s quite remarkable really. I asked a Turkish friend whether it was safe to be Jewish here. She said “Oh yes, of course. The Jews own all the banks and all the biggest businesses in Turkey; they’re very prosperous here.” At first, I marvelled at how our tiny and invisible community could be so industrious as to control such wealth in a country where the main competing ideas were Islamic conservativism and Turkish nationalism. Aren’t we a clever group?

Later, I found out that many Jews had been pushed out of the country by taxes that were imposed on non-Muslims with the stated intention of stopping Jews or Christians from having economic influence. I found out that most synagogues were unmarked and hidden down side-streets because the most visible one has been routinely firebombed. Ynet News reports that since October last year one family a week has been leaving the country for Israel, America or the UK (but it’s Ynet News so let’s take that with a pinch of salt). The point stands that, like many countries throughout Europe, Turkey doesn’t like difference, and Jews are pretty different. Well, this just makes the Jewish community’s success at controlling the country’s wealth even more impressive.

In reality, Jews do not seem to suffer that much compared to other groups. Jews are really just a minor blip on your average Turkish racist’s radar. Once they’ve made their way through Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Iranians, Syrians and Azerbaijanians, they still save a little bit of hate for Jews, if they have enough breath left.

But don’t be disheartened. In my experience, these problems of discrimination belong to Turkey’s political class. Turkish people, when you meet them, are remarkably hospitable, friendly and genuinely interested in people. They’ll lead you when you’re lost and help you when you struggle to string words together. And they’ll ask strangers questions like “how old are you?” and “are you married?” not because they want to judge you, but because they’re genuinely interested in people.

I fully recommend everyone to come here. See the bazaars, visit the museums and art galleries, smoke shisha in the cafes. Come and make up your own mind. I do love this country. I love it not just in the way an Orientalist tourist does, passively consuming its culture, but in a way that I really want to get involved in its cultural life.

It’s a fascinating time. We have local elections in March and presidential elections in August. Of course, no serious Jew could support the Conservative government, and no serious leftist could support the opposition.

I’ve spent the last three months trying to work out where I stand in this complicated, beautiful and fascinating country. Soon enough, I’ll be drawn into old habits of activism and campaigning for radical social change. I’m sure I’ll see you on the barricades. I just don’t know which ones yet.

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  1. richard armbach

    Well fuck I have just tweeted about you being much loved, late, departed, and lamented. I don’t want to come over as an ant-Semitic conspiracy theorist but….

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