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Jews of Turkey were squeezed by politics and culture

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A poster promoting the edict commanding “Citizen Talk Turkish!” – Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş!   (Photo: t24.com.tr)

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The Turkification of minorities during the first decades of the Turkish Republic led to an inevitable change in Jewish life, affecting the daily routine and the culture and the expectations people had.

Under the ummah system of the Ottoman Empire where religion was the primary determinant. Non-Muslims were allowed to have their own communal life, were relatively free vis-a-vis their coreligionists in European lands, and provided they paid the jizya, a tax that minorities were supposed to pay to the Empire in return for a calm and secure life.

Indeed, during the glorious centuries of the Ottomans, Jews held essential posts near the Sultans and had good relations in the Christian world. They became advisors, and emissaries kept good business, established the first press, and later in the 18th century, the banking system that would finance the many wars the Sublime Porte had to lead…

However, they were not spared bad days. Frictions with the Christian population, blood libel accusations, increasing anti-Jewish acts by Arab Muslims originating from Spain, Sabbetai Sevi – the False Messiah that brought complications with the Palace, the Janisaries attacking Jewish neighbourhoods, bans on travel between cities and even the same city, cannot be missed, were part of life.

With the imperial edict of Gülhane put in force in 1839, the first Parliament and the constitutional monarchy in effect from 1876, the minorities, Jews included, received a better social and political standing. 

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It’s not a secret that the “Committee of Union and Progress” and the Young Turk movement that overthrew Sultan AbdulHamit II had Jews among its members. Admittedly, their numbers were not too high. However, after centuries of silence, Jews were more apparent in the political and social scene, still holding their language, the Judeo Spanish, their communal structure, their Beth Dins… their own culture!

However, things changed dramatically from 1923 on, with the Turkish Republic being established. The Turkification policies applied to the non-Muslim population have given rise to a forced modification of the conditions of these communities. Some aspects that characterize the sole party period (1923 – 1946) during which the Republican People Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ruled the country are essential to be studied. 

The Jewish community was sensitive to being too optimistic about the relations with the Party and the State apparatus. Remaining silent against the many accusations and obligations that the newborn Republic’s mechanism launched onto minorities was the main characteristic of the Jewish community. More than the Armenians and Anatolian Greeks, despite the atrocities they had to endure, namely the Genocide they claim happened in 1915 and 1921, respectively.

Authorities of the newly born Republic accused the minorities of not being faithful to the cause of creating a new country out of the remnant of the Ottoman state. This has been a significant idea still dominating the nationalists’ rhetoric when they need to attack all who are not Turkish enough for them!

Thus, history was taken as a tool by the Jews of Turkey, and it served them as a machinable means to protect themselves. “Denial of difficult times with the state mechanism” and “gratitude for the warm welcome they enjoyed starting from Ottoman times” had been behind what the community hid for decades.

The outer circle welcomed this approach the Jews adopted and happily accepted, without further study and interrogation. The willing distortion of facts by the Jews was not seen among other minorities. This was the main difference between them. Has this optimistic approach spared the Jews from animosity? I wished the answer was yes, but it turned out to be no!

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“Citizen talk Turkish!” was not a demand but an order to Jews – among other minorities – who were not Turkish speakers at the end of the Ottoman era (in Turkish : Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş!). The tonality of the order in 1928 had been so harsh that a whole generation was severely traumatized. 

The concern to create a nation out of the ummah of the Ottoman times is understandable. Language is a significant flag proving the independence of a nation. However, it would not be easy for these people to be forced to talk Turkish on such short notice. It was a language unpopular in the late Ottoman era, particularly in Istanbul, where half of the population was non-Muslim. No schools and no methodology were available. A total commitment was asked, and severe criticism was present when things were going slowly, particularly for Jews who were mainly urban and thus didn’t have enough contacts with Turkish people to cultivate the language. 

I remember my grandmother and her friends, born at the beginning of the last century, talking a rich Ladino and French. Still, their young Turkish interlocutors mocked their very broken Turkish, as it was difficult for them to speak the language without an accent. These were well-educated people with good social standing. However, they were part of a generation that would go through challenging experiences.

They would be squeezed between a Republic asking them to act in a Turkish way, a Germany forcing the borders, the idea being handed over to Nazis that would be delighted to exterminate them, and so…

“Citizen talk Turkish” was seen as the price of being accepted as a Turkish citizen without fighting for it. The fact that non-Muslims were not allowed into the army, or were allowed without arms, made them obliged in the eyes of their host, who would ask for compensation, harassing them in every possible means in decades to come. 

The demand for compensation has not stopped there. Many other events marked the collective memory of Jews of Turkey. “Kayadez” was the best solution the community could find. Derived from Judeo Spanish, it has been the best word showing the mood under which people had to live for a long time: silence, submission, appeasement!

Marsel Russo was born in Istanbul and was raised in a secular Jewish family. He holds a Chemistry degree and an MBA. His deep interest in the Jewish history of the 20th century, as well as other topics, has appeared since 2005 in Shalom, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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