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Beyond ‘The Club’: New directions in the study of Turkish Jewish lives

Session III-01, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
The study of Turkish Jews, their Ottoman pasts, and their life-worlds in the Republic and contemporary Turkey is proliferating at the same time as the major communities in Istanbul and Izmir are fast shrinking due to rising anti-Semitism, economic and political crises and emigration. This roundtable seeks to take stock of this current trend in Turkish Studies, engaging with a series of intersecting phenomena. Some of them are specific to the Ottoman and Turkish context, such as the discourses of the uniqueness of Turkish-Jewish relations and of 500 years of Muslim hospitality, or the instrumentalization by the Turkish state of Jewish institutions in the denial of the Armenian genocide. The increasingly audible voices of young Jews on the website ‘Avlaremoz’ that reach beyond the confines of community life in search of equal citizenship and the impact of the celebrated Netflix series ‘Kulüp’ on public debates and knowledge production on Jews and minorities in Turkey is also noteworthy. A second set of phenomena pertains to experiences shared by Jewish communities in the Middle East and elsewhere and discusses places and practices of memory, the pressures of assimilation into the majority community and relations with Israel and Zionism. Others deal with the themes of migration, diaspora-building and transnationalism. With these processes in mind, we wish to explore two interrelated questions: What does the unprecedented interest in Turkish Jews tell us about social, cultural and political transformations in AKP-dominated Turkey? And, secondly, can we ascertain the emergence of a field of Turkish-Jewish studies that builds on the existing scholarship on Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire and early Republic but that reaches into the domain of the contemporary politics, society and culture of Turkey today?
  • The largest community of people identifying as Turkish Jews today lives in Israel. Connected to Turkey in variegated ways and on several levels, Turkish Jews in Israel navigate the ideological and political contexts prevalent in Turkey and Israel, while they engage in transnational as well as localized practices of community making. This contribution will discuss how major geopolitical and domestic political transformations in both countries structure Turkish – Jewish lives in Israel and their interactions with Turkey. Turkey’s emergence as a regional power in partial opposition to the ‘West’ -despite continued membership in Western institutions - and its turn to Islamist authoritarianism on the one side and Israel’s unchallenged US-orientation, coupled with new alliances with Arab states and rising religious Zionism on the other create contested spaces where Turkish and Israeli sovereignties intersect and diminish the possibilities of being a Turkish Jew in Israel with close ties to Turkey. Can we speak of a shift of the centre of Turkish-Jewish experience from Istanbul to Tel Aviv, and if so, what could this shift mean for the future of Turkish – Jewish communities in Turkey, Israel and beyond? What does it mean to be ‘Turkish’ under the assimilatory pressures of Zionist nation-building and how can one be Jewish under the conditions of Islamist neoliberal authoritarianism?
  • This contribution takes its cue from the way much of the earlier responses to “the Club” highlighted the involvement of the Turkish Jewish community in the production of the series, and the novelty of hearing Ladino in conversation and song on Turkish TV. I will argue that even before the devolvement of the series in its second season into a string of clichés about the “special connection and loyalty” of Turkish Jews to their homeland, “the Club” was problematic in a way that also describes much of the mainstream scholarship on Ottoman and Turkish Jews, that is, the excision of the non-Sephardim, who were the indigenous Jews of the country long before the arrival of the Sephardim—or Turks for that matter—from the Turkish-Jewish story. While such perceptions reflect the dominance of the of a Sephardi kulturbereich in the Ottoman Levant, which eventually assimilated the indigenous into their numbers, the deliberate choice of 1492 as the starting point of Ottoman Jewish history is deeply entangled with a historiographic tradition celebrating an invented past of “tolerance and mutual understanding” among Turkish Muslims and Jews. This tradition that goes as far back as the fifteenth century was perpetuated by Jewish scholars and espoused by Turkish nationalists in the modern era to the present day. I question the resilience of this myth despite mounting evidence to the contrary and propose new openings for the study of Turkish Jews not as a minority with a monolithic collective consciousness, but with historically different and evolving sensitivities for identity and belonging.
  • This contribution engages with how current trends of Jewish emigration from Turkey build upon, mirror, and differ from patterns of Sephardi Jews migrating from the late Ottoman Empire and the first decades of the Turkish state. Existing scholarship on Sephardi migration, transnationalism, and diaspora-building has explored strategies of acquiring multiple citizenships as a means of mitigating against political, economic, and social uncertainties in the late Ottoman and early Republican periods even as many migrants maintained active interest and involvement in the politics of their places of origins and extensive contacts with coreligionists who remained. How do Turkish Jews today draw on strategies of acquiring multiple citizenships, whether through recent Spanish and Portuguese offers of citizenship to those who meet stringent criteria, or through jus soli citizenship policies, whether or not emigration from Turkey is planned? What, if anything, does this suggest about Turkish Jews' conceptions of the possibility of equal citizenship within Turkey, and how do emigres relate to the Turkish state?
  • The Netflix series, “Kulüp” set off an outpouring of voices within Turkey, which focused on the injustices the Jewish (and other non-Muslim) communities endured during the first few decades of the Turkish Republic. Within the public debate, members of the Jewish community also voiced their personal sufferings, bringing their stories to the fore, which allowed an important space for discussion, while at the same time lacking an important outlet for reconciliation. In this roundtable, I will etch out a narrative connecting the debates surrounding the Jewish community in the late Ottoman era to the Turkish Republic, placing the Jewish community within the context of the other non-Muslim communities, in which I will draw conclusions on how the debates around “Kulüp” also set limitations on understanding the legacy of antisemitism within the Turkish public sphere, or why so many Jews chose to leave Turkey already from the early 1920s. In fact, it can be argued that the series’ ahistorical nature also confined its viewers to a selective view of suffering. From this point, I will expand on how the fall of the Ottoman era, led Jews to be “otherized,” with new borders emerging throughout the Middle East, and their immigration to Israel often brushed aside, or silenced, within public debates. Lastly, I will offer an outlet for how the forgotten and erased memories of Jews in Turkey, should be placed within the overall context of similar trends of (forced and voluntary) migrations in the Middle East at large, and Israel as well, where many of these Jews eventually made their home.