The Jews Under Turkey's “New Deal”:
The Struggle for Democracy is Still Not Won
Turkey, the easternmost recipient of Marshall Plan funds, is the cornerstone of American foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet, as compared with its neighbor Greece, very little information on Turkey’s qualifications to be included in the democratic camp has been published in the American press. As in so many countries, at so many critical junctures in their development, the situation and future well-being of the Jewish community may well prove the clearest test of the stability and genuineness of the turn to liberalism. Here Hal Lehrman reports the facts and charts the omens, some of which he apparently finds ambiguous—and he suggests that our government has an important, even crucial, role to play.
One Sunday morning last October, on a street in Istanbul, which ordinarily dozes through every seventh day, the flag of modern Zion broke out officially for the first time under the Turkish sky from the mast of the newly-recognized State of Israel’s Consulate. This modest event produced a succession of surprises from which only old Turkish hands, who know that two and two practically never add up to four along the Bosphorus, can make sense.
No less than fifteen thousand of Istanbul’s remaining thirty-five thousand Jews went to that street, eyes wet and throats aching with passionate pride, to see the colors of Israel unfurl. Their spontaneous congregation before the Consulate violated Turkish laws against unauthorized assembly and entirely flouted the ban on demonstrations in favor of a foreign power. The Jews came unbidden, unorganized, and unled. By coming they reversed, emphatically and challengingly, the habitual tendency of Jewry in Turkey to ward off the discriminating attentions of the authorities by keeping as inconspicuous as possible. They came, in fact, despite the nervous pleas of community leaders who feared the apparently inevitable displeasure of a Moslem public and a nationalist government.
But nothing happened. The Jews continued for days to wend their way on pilgrimage to the street of the Consulate, and still no stone was thrown, no angry word spoken even in certain coarsely anti-Semitic sections of the Turkish press, no countermeasure taken by a government which formally has always lumped Zionism with anti-Turkism, the darkest crime in its calendar. Instead of interfering, the authorities assigned extra police to shield the demonstrators from clashes with any over-zealous Turkish patriots. The only mildly restrictive action came when a garland was placed by the Israeli Vice-Consul before the monument to Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turkish Republic. Such floral tributes are usually allowed to lie reverently for a few days. This time the flowers were removed the same evening because, from the moment the wreath was set down, the Jews had commenced thronging in an unbroken procession to the Ataturk monument on Istanbul’s Taxim Square as if to a hallowed shrine.
These bizarre proceedings are rendered even more curious by the following facts: On the one hand, most of the Jews who risked a broken head, if not their liberty, by saluting the Star of David on soil dominated by the Crescent of Islam have no present intention of going to Israel at all. The bulk of the Turkish exodus to the Holy Land—some thirty-five per cent of the Jewish community—has already departed. On the other hand, the Turkish government, which has consistently regarded its Jewish minority as an alien element and would now probably like nothing better than a total emigration of the problem to Israel, is doing more today to make the Jews feel tolerably at home in Turkey than at any time since the Republic was founded over a quarter-century ago.
To understand these characteristically Oriental contradictions, it is necessary to examine seemingly irrelevant matters like the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and our own Department of State, as well as to glance backward at the history of Turkish Jewry and Turkey.
As long ago as the 16th century the Osmanli Sultans had already earned Mediterranean Jewry’s gratitude by sheltering exiled wanderers from Spain and challenging even the Papacy in defense of Jews against the Inquisition. By the time of Gladstone, the “Terrible Turk” had become a convenient monster to scare British babies with, but for Jews of the Ottoman Empire the era was one of high serenity. The nine hundred thousand Jews under the rule of the Sublime Porte—in Asia Minor, Palestine, the Arab Middle East, and a large slice of the Balkans—experienced a reasonably golden age. True, the Turks massacred Armenians. This was not out of religious zeal, however. The Armenian minority nursed nationalist, separatist, anti-Turkish sentiments and yearned for reunion with its kinsmen in Armenian Russia. The Jewish minority, having no such political ambitions and wanting simply to be let alone, remained unmolested and unpersecuted. In fact it enjoyed large religious and communal autonomy, and a remarkable degree of civil equality. Jews thrived in commerce and industry. Some of them even attained high places in Palace councils.
World War I lopped off Turkey’s imperial territories. Reduced to Anatolia and a few square miles of Europe, the newly carved republic made the best of it by deciding that the Turkey which remained would at least be for the Turks. A mood of “anti-foreignism” set in which has endured, with ebbs and flows, to the present moment. In part this was a reaction against the foreign economic interests that had exploited the Empire almost like a colony, using the minorities among their local administrators. At the same time, paradoxically, the young state underwent a “Western” revolution that banished the Caliph, the fez, the veil, and the Arabic alphabet. But these were upheavals of customs and institutions, not of the mind.
Though high-sounding pledges proclaimed the equality of all citizens before the law, in practice the non-Moslem minorities (and even the Moslem Arabs) were treated as unwelcome and dubious aliens in the bosom of the revitalized Turkish nation. Distrusted and disliked, the Jews descended into the category of second-class citizens, alongside the Greeks, Armenians, and other unfortunates. They were entirely shut out from politics and from government jobs, a disability that weighed more and more heavily as the so-called People’s Republican party—the only party in the new “democracy”—tightened its bureaucratic grip on an increasingly nationalized economy. In the limited areas of economic enterprise left to private initiative, the minorities, whose natural facility in trade put them far ahead of the lumbering Turks, had to pay extra tribute in bribes and baksheesh to officials. As yet there was no physical maltreatment, but in a multitude of ways the minorities were made to feel that they did not belong.
With the death of the truly great Kemal Ataturk on the eve of World War II and the advent of his lieutenant, Ismet Inönü, the going got much rougher. Previously, minority members had been barred from holding commissions in the Turkish armed forces. No law forbade it, but somehow they always happened to be failed in examinations for officers. With the rising fortunes of Nazi militarism, however, the Turks were encouraged to bear down. Early in the war they inaugurated a special system of “military” service whereby non-Moslems between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five—including doctors, lawyers, and men of affairs—were arbitrarily picked up on the streets and packed off as army privates to build roads, ditches, and latrines. These “conscription” periods lasted as long as eighteen months. Under no circumstances was a Jewish citizen of Turkey considered deserving of the honor or trust of bearing arms in his country’s defense. Strictly speaking, this was not anti-Semitic, since the native Christian minorities underwent precisely the same discrimination; it was anti-minorities, a fruit of the steadily blooming national ego.
As the Wehrmacht continued its sweep eastward and westward, the neutral Turks—courted and flattered by Allies and Axis—concluded that the war was an Allahsent opportunity to liquidate the minority question once and for all. The cloudy purpose of the military labor battalions had been to undercut the economic position of the minorities by removing their breadwinners from the centers of commerce and sending them with picks and shovels into the interior. In late 1942 the climax came with the infamous capital levy known as the Varlik Vergisi. This time the purpose was quite clear: to purge the minorities altogether from the economy and life of Turkey.
The Varlik was advertised as a tax on war profits, equally applicable to all Turkish citizens. Yet, though Moslems outnumbered non-Moslems by about seventy to one, non-Moslems paid fifty-seven per cent of the receipts. This was accomplished by taxing each Moslem Turk a fraction of one per cent of his assets and taxing his non-Moslem competitor half, all, or occasionally twice the value of his assets. Assessments were made by secret committees. These determined in camera, on basis of their private undocumented guesses, what each citizen was worth. Payment had to be completed within thirty days. There was no appeal. Armenian clerks who earned one thousand lira (about seven hundred dollars) a year were taxed two thousand lira; wealthier Armenians, Greeks, Jews who had a total capital of, say, fifty thousand lira were assessed anywhere from twenty-five to one hundred thousand lira. In a few instances the actual individual “tax” paid went as high as one million dollars.
I still remember those fantastic days and nights in Istanbul during the Winter of 1942-43 when my non-Moslem friends were selling everything they owned, down to their clothing, to accumulate cash. Gleeful Turkish buyers held out for desperately low bargain prices, which the victims, with the breath of the collector on their necks, had to accept. Non-Moslem stores, offices, and factories were being confiscated by the hundreds for failure to pay. Up and down the main shopping districts, crowds of Turks were bidding for goods auctioned cheaply right off the shelves. Valuable properties were acquired by “one-hundred-percent Turks” for little or nothing. Meanwhile, police were breaking into private homes, ousting the occupants, and carting every chair and kitchen pot away, sealing doors behind them.
In many cases, persons who paid off most but not all of their assessment by selling everything they had were arrested anyway. Around twenty-five hundred of them were deported like common criminals to a place called Ashkale, in barren Eastern Anatolia. There some of Turkey’s most distinguished non-Moslem intellectuals and businessmen were made to live in tents on a windswept, snow-covered plateau. They were set to work breaking rocks under conditions which would have evoked the Gestapo’s admiration for ingenuity. Although the diplomatic corps and foreign correspondents knew all this, practically nothing leaked into the world press and no substantial protest from any Foreign Office or State Department was ever delivered, as dictatorships and democracies alike were eager to avoid annoying their potential Turkish ally. In due course, thirty-two of the Ashkale deportees died. The rest were released for the sake of appearances just before Ismet Pasha, convinced that Hitler was finished—and that nothing more could be squeezed out of the deportees—journeyed down to Cairo at the end of 1944 to speak for “democratic” Turkey in conference with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The money extorted from the minorities—126 million dollars—was never restored.
The lingering memory of this Varlik should have been an eloquent prod to Jewish emigration, but no significant departures occurred until Israel was born. During Ataturk’s lifetime the Jews had not felt sufficiently menaced by the unfriendly climate to forsake known discriminations at home for unknown terrors abroad. There had been only one case of mass displacement, in 1933, when the Jews of Thrace, in European Turkey, were suddenly ordered out on a few days’ notice. It is still not clear whether the idea originated with the local authorities or with the central government, which Ismet then headed as President Ataturk’s Prime Minister. At any rate, the order was soon rescinded, but not before the Jewish community in the main Thracian city of Edirne had been reduced from over ten thousand to three thousand by headlong flight.
When the European war broke out, an undercover halutz movement began doing good work in proselytizing for Palestinian emigration and teaching some rudiments of Hebrew, Zionism, and manual labor to young aspirants for the pioneering life. Several hundreds of these managed to reach Palestine illegally or on mandate government certificates. Most of them were absorbed creditably into the kibbutzim. But the British gates of Palestine were only slightly ajar. Moreover, there was no mass enthusiasm. About a hundred middle-aged, middle-class Turkish Jews did take refuge in Palestine as a result of the Varlik or out of fear of Nazi invasion. But when the tax-collecting and the Hitlerite danger subsided, most of these came back to Turkey, having failed to find Eldorado or freedom in a land still ruled from London by the Colonial Office. It needed the electric emergence of a free and sovereign State of Israel to galvanize Turkish Jewry.
The emigration to Israel began in the Summer of 1948 as an experimental trickle organized by certain Turkish Jewish groups with Israeli connections. The purpose was gingerly to test the Ankara government’s attitude toward letting its Jewish citizens go and the Tel Aviv government’s attitude toward letting them enter. Both governments obliged, the Turkish by granting passports and exit visas with reasonable celerity, the Israeli by admitting the first boatloads into the reception camps with no questions asked. Thereupon the trickle swelled into a flood. By the time I reached Izmir this June, seven thousand of the fourteen thousand Jews in that Mediterranean Turkish city alone had already gone, and at the present writing the total exodus just from Izmir is over nine thousand. Countrywide, it is estimated that, of some eighty-five thousand Jews believed residing in Turkey on the day Israel was proclaimed, no less than thirty thousand have officially and legally emigrated to Israel in the twenty ensuing months—and to this should be added probably one thousand youths who, not having performed their compulsory Turkish military service, had to smuggle themselves out. These, and the much larger number of youths who had already done their Turkish Army stint and emigrated legally, were eager to fight—but for Israel.
There were three other major categories of emigrants: parents following their teenage or grown-up sons and daughters after the latter had established first contacts in Israel; needy, proletarian, small-shopkeeping Jews, who saw no economic future in alien Turkey and regarded Israel as a wondrous world of milk, honey, and job opportunities; the sick and the aged, who yearned to finish out their lives in the long promised and now miraculously achieved Jewish homeland.
The predominant characteristic of this emigration was its poverty. The proof is that today the Turkish Jewish community is almost entirely divested of its lower-class base. The pitiful belongings which the emigrants could not lug with them were dumped for whatever cash they might bring. In Istanbul, near the Galata Tower which overlooks the old Jewish quarter, I found that Karanfil Sokak [“the Street of the Carnation”] had been converted into an impromptu bazaar of second-hand furniture, kitchenware, and odds-and-ends. These were being hawked at prices which, though double what the dealers had paid the emigrants, were still huge bargains. Many emigrants lacked the money to pay their Turkish tax arrears. The taxes had been piling up, unnoticed as long as there was no record of the delinquent’s identity in the inefficient Turkish tax rolls, but they had to be settled now that he had emerged from obscurity to register for a passport. Some applicants were even unable to produce the few lira required for passport and visa stamps.
They eked out what they needed by making the rounds of their more prosperous brethren, collecting a bit here and a bit there with the plea that their mission to Israel was a holy one. A system of mass schnorrerei developed because organized fund-raising for secular purposes was prohibited by Turkish law.
Moreover, wealthier Jews lacked the habit and taste for large cash donations. Even so, funds of some dimension did get quietly amassed by Zionist groups for the purchase of boat tickets, the financing of the Youth Aliya, and occasionally for emergency relief. In one case, when the Turks temporarily suspended emigration, about four hundred Jews who were destitute after advance payment of their travel expenses were lodged pell-mell in an abandoned coffee house and supported for several months by special community funds.
Conditions of the voyage to Israel were frequently even worse than conditions of the departure. One or two ships chartered by outside Jewish or Israeli agencies made the run to Haifa in fairly sanitary circumstances, but the demand for passage was larger than the space available aboard such vessels. Consequently, all kinds of fly-by-night shipping “companies” arose. A Jewish community leader told me acidly: “With any old tub and enough money to pay for an ad in the papers, you are in the emigration business.” If the poorer Jews of Turkey had not been pathetically eager for the Israeli trek anyway, they would have been stampeded into exodus by the promotional zeal of the shipowners. Handbills were dispensed on street-corners and in synagogues, posters were splashed over the walls of Jewish districts, screamer notices were published in a mushrooming forest of Judeo-Spanish newspapers like Hatikva, Shalom, La Boz de Türkiye, and even the more sedate French-language journal L’Étoile du Levant.
In the beginning, Moslem Turkish ship companies were blocked from this trade by their government, which was reticent about offending the United Nations or the Arabs in actually transporting prospective soldiers to Israel. But the profits were too attractive, and Turkish operators soon received the nod to grab whatever the traffic would bear. By last March, the Turkish government itself was in the business, using the state-owned “Cumhuriyet” and “Etrusc” to carry one thousand passengers at a clip—and charging round-trip rates for the single passage to Haifa, with the excuse that the vessels returned home empty.
The government also gave private Turkish shipping interests a boost against foreign competition. Turkish ships could accept payment in lira, but non-Turkish ships had to be paid in foreign exchange, which the Turkish government made it hard for the emigrants to come by. The government also became zealous about safety at sea on foreign vessels, which it ordered to install extra lifesavers, rafts, boats, and other expensive paraphernalia before being certified as suitable carriers. The government’s own ships were seaworthy enough. So were some of the larger privately-owned Turkish cargo boats converted to passenger use. But none of this solicitude was applied to fishing-boats, trawlers, motor yachts, coaling-ships, and other nondescript craft, which slick Turkish operators recruited for the Israel trade.
As more and more of these vessels moved in, competition forced the rates of passage down from a level of three hundred lira in a few months to as low as thirty lira. Along with the sagging tariff, standards of safety, navigation, and common humanity also declined, from a norm which had been indecent even at the start. Ships were filthy, dangerously overcrowded, and manned by skippers and crews whose ethics were too often reminiscent of the Barbary corsairs. The owners’ alibi was that they were carrying “refugees” rather than “passengers”; hence the accommodations need not be of a quality usually required for the latter.
The price of the ticket usually did not cover food. It happened more than once that masters deliberately sailed around and around in mid-voyage until the provisions taken aboard by the travelers had been eaten up, after which it was easy to sell them food from the ship’s own stores at ransom prices. One boat (certified for one hundred passengers but carrying four hundred) was so expertly guided by a Turkish captain that he sailed it right into an Arab port and was just about to drop anchor when a Jewish passenger noticed that the place did not look at all like Haifa. Some captains practiced the artful dodge, if they encountered rough weather, of offering to toss overboard the luggage in order to lighten the load unless the seasick, terrorized passengers paid an extra fee as premium for “endangering” the vessel and crew.
On Land, meanwhile, the Turkish authorities were also not averse to deriving whatever advantages could be squeezed out of the situation. Emigration seemed to be an unkind act toward that section of Islam which was at war with the Jews, but the Turks’ conscience hurdled this affront to their Arab coreligionists by the device of marking the passports of all departing Jews: “Not valid for Palestine.” Under this fiction, the Jews were presumably bound for France or Timbuctoo, obviously no concern of the Arabs. At the same time the Jews received only tourist visas, not emigrant visas. This was not intended merely to comfort the Arabs. It also enabled the Turks to prohibit the Jews from taking away more than a minimal fraction of their property. If you are going as a “tourist,” the argument ran, you’ll only be gone a short time, so what do you need to take all your money and goods for? This logic precipitated some curious scenes at the embarkation docks. I heard one Turkish customs inspector forbid an emigrant to go aboard with a carpet and a blanket because “they are too fancy and you won’t need them in the hotels where you’ll be stopping.” The same reasoning put an embargo on factory equipment, on the tools of artisans and craftsmen, and even on ordinary household sewing machines. The ban even included religious objects. It being unlawful to export rolled parchment manuscripts, the rabbi of an Izmir synagogue bewailed to me the prospect of having to leave behind the community’s priceless collection of 16th-century rabbinical treatises. He was also selling the silver crowns and belled standards of two Sefer Torahs for the cash value of the metal and he was sewing the holy scroll together in book form, since books at least were permissible for export.
As for exportable money, the official limit was a sum which might keep a person barely alive in Israel for perhaps two weeks. By greasing a palm, of course, it was often possible to get aboard ship with much more. Besides, the current European arts of financial legerdemain have devised entirely invisible ways of sending money out of any country, and certainly more imaginative ways than stowing dollar bills in the hollow bottom of a trunk. Nevertheless the inspectors searched each piece of luggage as if the emigrant was suspected of having lined it with crown jewels. Once in a while someone did get caught—which meant confiscation and imprisonment. There is the cruelly comical story of the old Istanbul Jew who instructed his wife to hide away a pile of gold coins in the baggage and not tell him where, because he talked too much and might blab it The elderly couple got safely through the customs. Once aboard, the jubilant old man offered one of his wife’s freshly baked cookies to the inspector as a farewell gift. The Turk bit into the goody—and broke a tooth on a gold coin.
Ordinarily, however, few emigrants had gold or anything else to conceal. One of the chief troubles with the Turkish exodus, in fact, was that it poured into Israel, at a time of military and economic crisis a large number of persons who lacked the material resources or physical stamina to be a benefit instead of a burden to the imperil-led new state. The uncontrolled nature of the migration made statistics vague, but it is safe to say that less than half of the emigrants were able-bodied persons of a proper age or economic status for effective help to Israel’s manpower or capital wealth. The rest were either indigents, for whom work would have to be found by a harassed Israeli administration, or old men, old women, children, and the sick.
Boatload after boatload of such people kept sailing into Haifa harbor without Israeli visas and without previous warning. The new state did what it could to shelter them. But the reality of Israel fell short of the dream. Inevitably, word began to filter back from disgruntled emigrants about the barracks and tents of the transit camps, the shortage of work and housing, the confusion, the indifference and the misery. These reports shocked the community leaders in Turkey. From shock it was a short step to questioning the desirability of further emigration. Over this issue an argument flared which soon assumed all the venom and bitterness of an Oriental feud.
Essentially, the dispute was able to exist and grow because of the odd vacuum created by Turkish law. Neither the Jewish Agency, which supervised the movement to Israel from all parts of the world, nor the Joint Distribution Committee, which financed it, was permitted representation in Turkey. The law prohibited on Turkish soil any organization which had headquarters or received directives from abroad. This stopped the open operation of any Turkish Jewish agency for emigration. Now it is true that, although the Ankara government formally was opposed to Zionist propaganda or activity, it customarily shut an eye to the covert attempts in every Jewish community to organize and abet the emigration. But the impossibility of frank and unconcealed representation blocked effective liaison. There was no chain of command between Tel Aviv and Istanbul. The sending of official communications to Israel, even if veiled in private language, incurred risks of personal danger and reprisal. For practical purposes, the Turkish groups involved in emigration were incommunicado.
The result was uncertainty, corrosive rivalry between groups, and a futile search for a sound policy. What did Israel want? Did she want the emigration to be suspended, or didn’t she? Should money collected within the community be spent to embark people who would only dog the refugee centers of embattled Eretz? Or should all those who were physically able to go do so before it was too late to leave? Everybody agreed that eventually whoever wished to settle in Israel should be encouraged and aided. But should this be done now or later, when Israel was better equipped to receive and absorb the influx? On this the divergence was complete and passionate.
One group demanded medical examinations for all candidates and a rigorous selection of only the fittest. Another charged that money had been promised from the community fund, to pay for the chartering of ships, and had then been withheld. Each faction accused the other of treachery to Zion. The Jewish Étoile du Levant even suggested that a precipitate exodus was unjust and ungrateful to Turkey for “her tolerance and generosity.” Every group professed to have received endorsement of its position from some official source in Tel Aviv, but nobody’s evidence to that effect could convince anyone else.
Meanwhile the Jews were a prey to every unfounded report and wild rumor. Two hours after I set foot on Turkish ground at Izmir, the whole community was agog with news that an Israeli mission, headed by “an American who says he’s a journalist,” had arrived to encourage the exodus (or discourage it, depending on which faction was spreading the rumor). In Istanbul two weeks later, despite my constant denials, the story ran that this reporter was collecting testimony from all disputants in order to make a definitive policy recommendation to Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv indeed could have avoided this waste of emotion and energy if it could have made up its own mind and then dispatched a secret emissary with sound credentials and clear instructions. All parties would have gladly followed orders. Each was trying to do the right thing, according to its own lights, in total darkness. Fortunately, this situation no longer exists, Turkey having since then permitted an Israeli representative to come in and take direct command of the emigration. But a year earlier, this permission would have enabled the Israeli government to issue visas and control the size and quality of the emigration at will, and a great deal of confusion could have been avoided.
It must be conceded that through all this period Ankara displayed extraordinary benevolence short of openly promoting the exodus. Turkey is, after all, a Moslem country. For a time, in response to the Arabs’ protests that Turkey was sending Jews to make war on them, the Turks virtually halted emigration by insisting that the “tourists” actually obtain visas from the countries of their supposed destination. But this lasted only two months, after which emigration was not only tolerated again but even facilitated by the availability of Turkish state-owned ships. Last March, Turkey became the first Moslem government to recognize Israel de facto. In August, Turkey again took a bold step by allowing an Israeli immigration officer to enter the country. In October she permitted an Israeli Consulate to open—and in November she came full circle by naming a minister to Israel and accepting the Israeli nomination of a minister to Turkey.
Why this notable liberalism of the Turks, who traditionally play both ends of the diplomatic board against the middle and bet on nothing except a sure thing? Was it because Israel’s performance against the Arabs convinced the Turks that Israel really was “a sure thing”? This certainly was part of the reason, the present regime in Ankara having always hastened to get on the side of a winner. But there is more to Turkish policy than that.
There is, to begin with, the Turkish attitude toward the Arabs. “Is it true that Turks detest Arabs?” I once asked a Turkish diplomat “The Arabs,” he replied scornfully, “were colonial subjects of our Ottoman Empire, so they’re not worth detesting. We merely despise them.” Then he reflected for a moment, and added: “No, we really don’t do that either. I suppose we just ignore them.”
With such sentiments, Turkey is not disposed to reckon on the Arabs as pillars of strength in the Mediterranean, an area where she considers her interests vital. Privately, she has always deplored the Arab League as a blundering creation by her British ally of a weak reed to prop up a faltering imperial position in the Middle East. She shows a similar lack of enthusiasm for current exploratory effects to build a Pan-Islamic union extending as far eastward as Pakistan. Though she voted against Palestine’s partition in the UN, she did so to satisfy the British, not the Arabs. Very early in the Arab-Jewish war she recognized the potential importance of a strong Israel to Mediterranean stability. She insisted on membership in the Palestine Conciliation Commission where, with the United States and France, she hoped to mediate an Arab-Israeli settlement to her liking. She voted against the UN’s recent decision to internationalize Jerusalem. In addition she has been looking for economic advantages, and development of a market in which she already holds fourth place among world exporters to Israel.
But there is another reason for Turkey’s having outdistanced all other Moslem states in cordiality toward Israel. Though not immediately apparent, the reason is compelling and perhaps dominant. Turkey today, willy-nilly, is on the side of the democracies. She is entirely dependent on the Truman doctrine for her security against Soviet diplomatic pressure, on American war materiel and equipment for her security against Soviet military aggression, and on the Marshall Plan for her security against the Soviet economic cold war. From time to time she feels called upon to give some token of her own democratic virtue in exchange for all this. Turkish recognition of Israel, a gracious but inexpensive act, was one such token—calculated, rightly or wrongly, to please and impress the Americans.
This motive also explains the progress which Turkey has made in internal “democratization” ever since she decided, in the last months of World War 11, that fascism was not going to win. From a police state in which a single party ruled without possibility of dissent, she has transformed her self into a “liberal” regime where at least the exterior appurtenances of freedom are visible in an unmuzzled press, a vocal parliamentary opposition, and a partial limiting of police rule by due process of law. The police control and the capacity of the government party for the use of force are still there but, being no longer appropriate in a Turkey linked to the Western democracies, they are kept under discreet wraps.
Turkish Jewry has also benefited from the sudden fashionableness of democracy. It will be recalled that the Varlik deportees were liberated from their stony exile as a first evidence of Turkey’s anti-fascist earnestness even before the war’s end. Some of the levy’s victims never recovered economically, but others, beginning from scratch, made sensational comebacks. In this they were aided by their own superior competitive skills, by the easy money lying around for everybody in the early postwar years, and, it should be acknowledged, by a decline of the previous discriminations against them. Socially, too, the Jews improved their fortunes. Today an elected Jewish deputy sits in the Turkish Parliament and in the Executive Committee of the opposition Democratic party. A Turkish Jew is a professor at Istanbul University, and two Jews are assistants there. In 1946 Jews and members of the other minorities began getting into reserve-officer training schools—but were systematically kept out of radar, anti-aircraft, and other special army sections where their “foreignism” was still suspect. These lingering restrictions have now been removed. For the first time since the Ottomans, minority schools have been authorized to give religious instruction; in the case of the Jews, this will stimulate the teaching of Hebrew and general Judaic culture. Every minority school used to be saddled with a government-appointed “assistant principal,” invariably a Moslem Turk, whose sole function was to spy on and control the school’s affairs. This post has now been abolished. Finally, minority religious communities have for the first time received the right to administer in their own name the properties of their own institutions. Because the communities had not enjoyed any legal status, they had previously been unable to control their holdings fully or take corporate actions such as collecting funds, electing officers, or even keeping communal statistics. It is expected that the new situation will greatly facilitate and encourage communal activities of all kinds.
At First glance, these new-found partial freedoms seem ironically useless. Recalling the epidemic of departures provoked by the creation of Israel, one would be justified in concluding that Turkey’s tolerance is blossoming too late to compete with the attractions of a completely free Jewish homeland. Turkish Jewry, if surface evidence were all, seems destined to vanish into Israel. In consequence of the mass emigration, certain synagogues are on the verge of closing; Jewish residential districts have shrunk; Jewish firms have sustained crippling losses of skilled Jewish personnel; student registration has slumped so markedly that some Jewish schools may have to economize by merging. Even after the establishment of the Israeli emigration office’s controls, forty-five hundred more Jews left for Israel in the three subsequent months.
Parents will continue to follow after their children into the land of Israel. One by one the old Sephardic families, even the most venerable and the richest, will shut their doors and depart, leaving Turkey as void of Jews as antique Yemen. This is the prediction of some.
But I do not believe it. Isolated remnants of Jewish communities in the hinterland—Edirne, Urfa, Tekirdag, Gazi Aintap—may disappear. Izmir, Ankara, Bursa, Adana, and Mersine may dwindle to insignificance. But in Istanbul such a total decline is most unlikely. And it is Istanbul which counts—if Turkish Jewry is to have any future history.
That city has always contained the bulk of Jewish affluence and culture in Turkey. Despite the efforts of Kemal Ataturk and his successor to build up Ankara as a rival, Istanbul is still the commercial and cultural hub of the Turkish Republic, its window on the Western world. Even if the drain from Israel should reduce Istanbul Jewry to less than half its pre-Israel fifty thousand, the remainder would still suffice to constitute a thriving and important outpost on the highway between Europe and Asia.
As indicated earlier, the Turkish emigration to Israel involved the lower economic level of Jews almost exclusively. Why has the middle class not been affected? First, because Zionism has never been, and is not today, strongly rooted in the emotional and intellectual awareness of Turkish Jewry. Even the poorer elements of the population went to Israel less out of Zionist patriotism than in the hope of bettering their economic and social status. The culture of the middle class rests on French, not Hebrew; its outlook is European, not Middle Eastern. Unlike its brethren in the lands of sharper persecution, Turkish Jewry has not sought the usual sublimation through the intense political action offered by Zionism or liberal-radical movements. Instead it has avoided political agitations altogether, burying itself in inconspicuousness with a view to winning security from Moslem resentments. This may not be a particularly leonine attitude, but it is nevertheless a fact. At the same time, however, the Jews of Turkey have remained essentially and clannishly Jewish, except for the so-called Donmehs, a small group which embraced Islam three centuries ago. The demonstrations before the Israeli Consulate were not a testimony of allegiance to Zion, but they were a testimony of pride and exaltation in the achievements of fellow Jews.
Already lacking a sense of physical identification with Israel, Turkish Jews have not been encouraged to acquire it by the unfavorable reports which have come back. The middle class in particular has been unable to work up any enthusiasm, on the available evidence, for transplanting its talents in trade, commerce, and investment to an area which is untried and hazardous. Even those who might be willing to take the plunge are deterred by the mechanical difficulties and perils of liquidating their holdings at a fair price and safely transferring their assets out of the country without attracting official attentions. Finally, there is the strong and natural attachment which the Jews of Turkey feel for the land of their birth, whatever its previous injustices and present uncertainties. I drove with a friend late one June afternoon along the magic shore of the Bosphorus. Merry little sailing-boats bounced upon the waters; on the Asiatic side red and white villas nestled like precious stones in the warm green of fields and woods; the domed mosques and the minarets glanced back their golden rays toward the setting sun. My friend looked at the scene as any American Jew would look upon a familiar and beloved American landscape. We had been talking about Israel, and tears were in his eyes as he turned to me and said: “But this is my country, my home.”
There are many Jews in Turkey like my friend, thirty to forty thousand of them, and possibly more. Some, but not all, of their sons may yet go to Israel, Western Europe, or the United States; they themselves will remain in Turkey. Barring some great disaster, therefore, it seems that a Jewish community will endure in Turkey for an indefinite time to come.
It is not necessary to pass judgment here or attempt to prove that a stubborn survival of Jewry in Turkey is either wise or foolish. The point is that such a survival appears at this moment to be likely. If so, the Jewish community in Turkey is entitled to the best possible climate of tolerance. Despite the flurry of democracy in present-day Turkey, such a climate is far from solidly established. Its progress will be in exact ratio to the genuine liberalization of the Turkish state. This in turn will depend directly on the magnitude and effectiveness of westernizing influences in Turkey.
In particular, it will depend on the United States. An American effort to obtain a better brand of democracy in Turkey would help to safeguard the United States’ military, political, economic, and moral investment there. Such an effort would also automatically achieve, as a valuable by-product, the greater security and tranquillity of all Turkish minorities, including Jews, and a greater potential minority influence for good on Turkish democracy as well as on Turkey’s relations with Israel. That the United States is in a position to ask for more convincing tokens of democracy than Turkey has thus far displayed is clear to anyone who has visited that country since it began receiving American aid under the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
The new Turkish liberalism is as yet not a wholehearted reform of the single-party wartime dictatorship. It seems rather a political device to placate the Americans, whom the regime in Ankara needs for its continued existence. The improvements, though dazzling by contrast with previous conditions, have for the most part been in the direction of creating the impression of democratic conversion, and little more. It is an open secret that the government extensively revised the results of the 1946 general elections before announcing the final vote-count. As the 1950 elections approach, signs multiply that the People’s Republican party may again apply sleight-of-hand at the ballot box, especially since wide unrest in the past four years has immeasurably increased the Opposition’s chances of unsaddling the government in a fair test.
A long-promised electoral law to correct abuses at the polls is taking an unconscionable time to get written. Opposition warnings that another electoral fraud will not be tolerated have been officially denounced as a summons to rebellion, the government ominously declaring its readiness “to maintain order.” An attempt to use an Opposition “plot” on President Inönü’s life as an excuse to clamp down on key anti-régime politicians, has had to be abandoned because it was too flimsy even for the government to pretend to believe. A bill railroaded through Parliament gives enlarged powers to the valis (provincial governors), the same party henchmen whose intimidation of voters and whose arithmetical dexterity contributed so much to the government’s electoral success last time. Increased controls on press freedom and “extremist” opinions are other straws in the wind.
It should not be supposed that all the Opposition groups are automatically liberal. The Nation party, led by a disgruntled ex-army commander and packed with aged enemies of Kemal Ataturk’s early reforms, is a throwback to the days of the Caliphate. Already equipped with a blatantly anti-Semitic press, it would like to see Islam restored to its ancient sway, presumably along with the harem. If this group should ever come to power, it would rapidly outdistance the present regime in reaction.
But there is another group, the Democratic party, which is far more likely to do well in an honest election. It is the closest approach in Turkey to a moderate, progressive movement in the Western sense. It is the group in which Turkish Jewry largely places its hopes. It advocates a liberal economy, as against the present widespread system of “state” ownership which has benefited the government’s incumbents at the cost of the country. It wants to take Turkey’s excellent Constitution, still as good as the day Kemal Ataturk first wrote it, and put it at last into effect.
A free choice at the polls in a country as politically backward as Turkey always involves certain dangers, but the time to risk them would seem to be now. If the extreme right-wing should win at the expense of the government and the liberals, excesses of the new regime might still be curbed through fear of disapproval from Turkey’s Western friends. If, as is more probable, the Democrats should win a majority or at least a balance-of-power position, they may set their people squarely on the path toward becoming a democracy in fact as well as in name. Turkey would thereby be transformed into a more palatable and dependable ally of the West and a surer guarantor of the rights of man, including those of the minorities.
A second, and perhaps even broader, avenue along which Turkey can be guided toward reform is one which will bring her economy closer to Western models. Today her economic structure is ridden by a political oligarchy which shuts out not only foreign investment but also domestic private initiative, to say nothing of efficiency. Turkey needs to be opened to foreign know-how and native enterprise. This does not mean a reinstatement of the system of foreign “capitulations” which bled Ottoman Turkey to the bone, nor an unrestricted, dog-eat-dog capitalist anarchy. It does mean the adoption of Western production-management techniques, It means a relaxation of the single-party state “socialism” which makes a burlesque of socialism by loading it with all the vices of bureaucracy and the spoils system without producing any of the virtues of the “welfare state.”
Here again the real interests of the United States, the Turkish people, and the Turkish minorities converge. The Marshall Plan must fail in its drive to increase Turkey’s contribution to European economy unless the Turkish economy is first brought nearer the European level by adoption of Western methods and ideas. The Turkish masses cannot achieve better than their present dismal standard of living and primitive way of life unless their productivity is increased through Western machinery on farm and in factory. As for the minorities, the more Turkey grows cosmopolitan through the introduction of Western faces the less chauvinistic she will become and therefore the less prone to insist on discriminations between Moslem and Christian, Moslem and Jew.
In its Turkish policy the United States has followed a line so cautious and so inconsistent with its immense power and prestige that it lays itself open to the terrible charge of being unimaginative, and there are many critics who use harsher epithets. We have carefully avoided pressure on the regime for political reform. Our Marshall Plan representatives have sounded an occasional minor-key note in wistful praise of liberal economy, but have delicately refrained from insisting. Our pretext for modesty in both fields has been that it would be undemocratic to interfere with the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Our real purpose has been to avoid rocking the alleged stability of a government situated on a frontier of the Soviet Union. In other words, we have been playing it safe.
How safe it is to rely on a government which has not earned the freely-given loyalty of its own people is a matter open to large conjecture. At any rate, unofficial observers who have spent time in Turkey without wearing blinders imported from Washington, know that the rulers of Turkey were ready to go as far in democratic reform after the war as their new champions in the West would want them to go. The one thing the Turks felt they did not dare lose was the friendship of the United States. If the canny politicians of Ankara have begun backtracking since then, it is because they have perceived with happy relief that the Americans are either timid or insincere about the urgency of democracy everywhere on our side of a divided world. It would pay dividends in our security and in Turkey’s security if our government gave clear proof that we mean abroad what we say at home.