ECMI Minorities Blog. New Jewish Approaches to Public Life in Turkey: The Case of Avlaremoz
*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***
Author: Nesi Altaras | https://doi.org/10.53779/FLXZ2559
* Nesi Altaras is as a writer, journalist, and translator whose work has been published in English, Turkish, and Ladino. He is an editor of Avlaremoz, the author of two academic articles, an academic book, and a Ladino picture book. He will be starting a PhD in history at Stanford University this fall.
Founded in 2016, Avlaremoz began its life as an online publication created by a group of Jews and non-Jews from Turkey to educate the Turkish public about antisemitism and the Holocaust. This independent media platform appeared during one of the most repressive periods in Turkey’s press history. During its seven-year history, Avlaremoz has evolved in new directions and its aims have expanded significantly. Avlaremoz’s approach to public Jewishness contrasts markedly with Şalom, a weekly newspaper that is the semi-official bulletin of the Jewish community of Turkey. Through its own story and the comparison with Şalom, it is clear that Avlaremoz presents a new approach for Jewish participation in public life in Turkey. This approach resembles the leftist and Armenian outlooks that inspired it. It has also inspired others like the platform Nehna, which was formed in 2021 by Arab Christians from Antioch to tell the story of their community.
Avlaremoz represents a break from the modes of Jewish public existence that scholars like Baer and Brink-Danan identify at the elite and popular levels. In fact, Baer concludes his book by mentioning Avlaremoz, referring to the online platform as his sole example of “the only hope” for the predicament of Jewish quietism and state collaboration (explained in more detail below). Similarly, the “criticism by a few younger members of the community” is clearly an oblique reference by Rodrigue to Avlaremoz. Thus, it is fair to say that the academic literature has already begun to take notice of the platform.
Jews in Turkey have aspired to be the “model minority,” both at the elite level and arguably in public writ large. While Brink-Danan discusses the contemporary iteration of this (the purposeful display of some difference to demonstrate the boundless tolerance of Turks, literally making the Jewish self an object), Phillips Cohen dates this approach to public life back to the late 19th century, when Jewish elites began to position themselves as the “model millet” the most loyal of the non-Muslim subjects. While there have been changes and countercurrents over the roughly 150 years in question, many of the myths and memorialised frames have persisted throughout this period.
The roots of Avlaremoz
Avlaremoz did not begin with such lofty aims as ‘creating a new public Jewishness’ or ‘renouncing model minority status’. Yet its work has amounted to that and continues to be so. Let us begin with the prehistory of this publication, informed by conversations with its founders. The flames of the project were lit at an unlikely place: a meeting of the Şişli branch of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (DSİP), a district of Istanbul with a historically large population of Jews, Armenians, and Greeks. While in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq or Iran, or in European contexts like Germany or France, Jews have been prominent in revolutionary and leftist organizations, this has not historically been so in Turkey. Jews who were involved in leftist politics (like Davit Nae, a member of the Turkish Communist Party in the 1930s; Moris Gabbay in the 1950s and 1960s; and the poet Roni Margulies since the 1990s), are presented as exceptions that prove the rule (though with more research these exceptions may come to overturn the rule). The Şişli branch of the Trotskyist DSİP decided to host a panel on antisemitism in December 2014. This event drew a collection of Jews and non-Jews, many of whom did not previously know each other. They mainly ranged in age from their early twenties to late thirties. This antisemitism-focused event led to various participants coming together to discuss ways to counter the social problem of antisemitism in Turkey. It was evident that official community institutions and the autocratic government were not inclined to act. What could concerned citizens – Jews and non-Jews – do? It is important to note that these discussions took place following the 2013 Gezi protests, when mass citizen action in Turkey had reached fever pitch. Many of those who showed up to the DSİP Şişli event had participated in the protests and had been changed by that experience. It was there that, for the first time in the experience of many participants, grassroots action had proven to be powerful.
As the discussions of the antisemitism panel participants continued into the spring and summer of 2015, two crucial experiences affected the emerging collective: (1) the successful occupation of Kamp Armen; and (2) the formation and electoral success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In spring 2015, there was an attempt to demolish Kamp Armen, a summer camp for Armenian orphans in Istanbul’s Tuzla district. It had been confiscated from the Gedikpasa Armenian Protestant Church and the Turkish owner wanted to tear it down. The Armenian activist collective Nor Zartonk (an initiative that began after the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007) and other groups occupied the site and demanded its return to the community. Some Jews, including those that were part of the emerging collective, went to occupied Kamp Armen on the outskirts of the city to support the demands. The property was recovered after 175 days.
The second crucial experience was the creation and ground-breaking success of the HDP, a political party that brought together Kurdish, leftist, environmentalist, queer, and feminist groupings. Beyond any doubt, it was above all a new centre for the Kurdish movement, yet at the same time the HDP was a rainbow coalition of ‘others’, forged under the influence of the 2013 Gezi protests. The HDP – especially its Tuzla branch – were also important collaborators in the Kamp Armen occupation and the ultimate retaking of the summer camp. In June 2015, the HDP achieved something that had never been done by Kurdish parties before: it passed the 10% threshold and officially entered Parliament as thethird-largest party. By doing so, the HDP also caused the ruling AKP to lose its parliamentary majority. This ushered a newfound – though ultimately short-lived - sense of hope in progressive forces around the country.
The launch of Avlaremoz and its intellectual credo
While the summer and autumn of 2015 were marked by violence and the re-run of an election that returned parliamentary control to the ruling AKP, the afterglow of hope from the influences explained above continued for the antisemitism discussion group. It was in February 2016 that the group finally launched its publication and Avlaremoz went online. The name Avlaremoz, Ladino for ‘let’s talk,’ was chosen as a response to kayades, Ladino for ‘quiet’. Kayades has been used as a refrain by Jews to silence other Jews; i.e., to keep quiet about their identity and their problems. Essentially, Kayades was the dominant Jewish approach to public life throughout the history of the Republic of Turkey. It was amended to allow for vocal praise of Turkey starting in the 1980s, a promotional approach that is epitomised by community leaders like Jak Kamhi and Bensiyon Pinto. Avlaremoz went radically in the other direction: by being honest. Above all, this included writing about and publicising every aspect and instance of antisemitism and the Jewish experience in Turkey. This goal of antisemitism education explicitly includes Holocaust education, which is not included in school curricula in Turkey. Avlaremoz volunteers translated many seminal texts from the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum website and other sources into Turkish, and wrote original pieces on critical points and people from the Holocaust. One of the most important myths, solidified by the public relations blitz of the 1992 quincentennial celebrations marking the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain and their arrival in the Ottoman Empire, was that Jews in Turkey were and always have been safe and happy. Connected to this, the Turkish public continued to believe the fiction that antisemitism was foreign to Turkey and that nothing bad had ever happened to Jews there. Those professing this view, like the communal leaders mentioned above, knew it was not true. They had experienced antisemitism first-hand. Jews engaging in public life under the kayades approach (and its amended promotional version) had one public mode and one hidden script; one private version of events and set of opinions, and another for public consumption. The latter was never critical, only expressing praise for anything Turkish. On the other hand, Avlaremoz, with its initial laser focus on antisemitism, made this hidden script public, bringing the private lives and opinions of Jews to a public forum. In earlier years, many of the Jewish writers on the website used pseudonyms, though this has slowly changed over time, with real names now becoming the norm.
Expressions of solidarity and tackling of taboos
One important case of publicising hidden memory is the discriminatory Wealth Tax (Varlik Vergisi, or simply Varlik) that was applied between 1942 and 1944. This discriminatory tax dispossessed non-Muslims and sent hundreds to work camps in eastern Turkey. Most deportees to forced labour were Jews, yet the Jewish community largely did not speak about the matter until recently, when the government began to open up space for criticism of the one-party period (1923-1950). Even under these conditions, when official community representatives or writers in the semi-official bulletin Şalom write about the Wealth Tax, it is as a one-off, a regrettable incident. It is not conceptualised as part of a series of Turkification policies that ultimately led to the dispossession and displacement of the majority of the Jewish population in Turkey, along with Armenians and Greeks. It is this obvious comparison and shared fate with Christian minorities that Jewish officials seek to avoid. On historical instances of antisemitism, especially those arising from the state, Avlaremoz brought novelty to public conversations by proclaiming that Jews in Turkey had been targeted by discriminatory policies in a systematic fashion throughout the country’s history, often alongside Armenians and Greeks. And crucially, Avlaremoz’s approach made clear that these occurrences shape our present; the multi-part series by Avlaremoz on the Wealth Tax is a testament to this.
Such an approach automatically led to a solidaristic idea of Jewishness. Once events like the Thrace Pogrom of 1934, the Wealth Tax of 1942-44, and the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955 have been conceptualised as part of a broader project of Turkification, there are obvious and undeniable connections to other groups that have been afflicted by it like Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds. Recognising these connections can be a road to empathy and political solidarity. Such an outlook does not only arise from episodes of historical violence and extends to various subjects, such as language, for instance. While few Avlaremoz writers could speak Ladino, from the very beginning they were generally interested in increasing the visibility of this declining Sephardic Jewish language. This is evident in the choice of the publication’s name. Minority language rights have been a major area of unity between Armenians and Kurds, and the same issue has affected Jews, though the proportion of Ladino speakers is much lower among Jews compared to these other groups and their languages. In Avlaremoz’s archive, there is a veritable trove of content regarding the government campaign known as Citizen Speak Turkish! The language visibility content goes beyond Ladino alone to include discussions of Yiddish (especially in Turkey), Judeo-Greek, and Lishan Didan (the northern dialect of Jewish Neo-Aramaic, spoken in the eastern reaches of Turkey). Articles on the decline of Ladino and these other Jewish languages could not but mention the decline of other minority languages and the policies that threatened them collectively. (Importantly, so far Avlaremoz has published a lot about Ladino but not in the language directly, aside from a few phrases or a text with an accompanying Turkish translation.)
A similar pattern of solidaristic engagement is visible in content about sexuality, a topic wholly avoided in Şalom. In Avlaremoz’s archive of Holocaust education material, including from the first few weeks of the publication’s life, there are various articles on the Homocaust or the mass killing of queer people by Nazis. The topic of queerness has been a recurring theme beyond the Holocaust as well. The best example of this is the series of anonymous interviews with queer Jews from Turkey. Conducted by multiple interviewers, the series was titled “LGBTI+ in Turkey’s Jewish Community: A Belated Dialogue”. The interviews find queer Jews distancing themselves from community life. The express aim was to publicise the reality that queer people exist in this community and that despising or ignoring queer people does harm to Jews because some Jews have these identities. This intersectional understanding of Jewishness is a novelty in Turkish public discourse. The method of giving voice to a silenced/unheard group through anonymous interviews is one that Avlaremoz has practiced repeatedly, publishing two similar series. The first interviewed young people and subsequently published an analysis of Jewish youth, and the second interviewed Jewish women and presented analyses regarding their gendered experience of life in Turkey as Jews. The anti-homophobia stance of Avlaremoz extends beyond Jewish queer people; the solidarity apparent in its coverage includes queer people of all identities. That is the essence of the solidaristic approach: establishing unity through otherness and not exclusively through Jewish identity. This mindset was on display at the joint Holocaust commemoration held by Kaos GL (Turkey’s premier queer publication) and Avlaremoz in 2022. The panel included two speeches about Jewish experiences, one about Romani experiences, one about queer people, and was moderated by an Armenian.
The solidaristic approach has perhaps been most taboo-breaking when it comes to Armenian issues. In Turkish national narratives, Armenians appear as troublesome and defiant, the opposite of the acquiescent and grateful Jews. The promotional approach, the one melding kayades with praises of Turkey, casts Jews as the good minority, sticking by their state, and contrasts them with the supposed bad minority: Christians in general, and Armenians in particular. This framing sat at the heart of the Jewish community leadership’s quincentennial approach from the late 1980s onwards, when on behalf of Turkey, Jews took on the role of lobbying foreign governments to prevent the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. This dualistic and factually incorrect framing is absent from Avlaremoz’s output, which is a major departure from Jewish self-representation in Turkey over the last 150 years. In Avlaremoz, Armenians do not appear as negative mirror images but as fellow ‘others’ facing discrimination. Articles in Avlaremoz recount the saga of Missak Manouchian, an Ottoman Armenian genocide survivor who became a leading resistance fighter in France against the Nazis, for which he was executed. They tell the story of Charles Aznavour, the famous French-Armenian singer, whose family helped Jews during the Holocaust. Some of these articles in Avlaremoz were written or translated by Armenians who wish to contribute to the effort against antisemitism. There is also coverage of Jewish actions during the Armenian Genocide in cities ranging from Salonika to Mosul. Jewish writers explicitly acknowledging the Armenian Genocide and deconstructing the Jewish position of denial in Avlaremoz has been nothing short of pathbreaking (I am one of these writers). A direct clash with Şalom arose on this topic when a 2018 article (that I wrote) criticised that paper and community leaders for engaging in genocide denial.
As these examples demonstrate, the bounds of fighting antisemitism and educating the public about Jews has grown rapidly. This is due to the fact that the approach to Jewishness espoused by the writers and editors of Avlaremoz, both Jews and non-Jews, has been solidaristic. This new politicisation of Jewish identity has put demands for equal citizenship for Jews and for other minorities at its centre. In addition to educating the Turkish public about antisemitism, by engaging in solidaristic coverage of other groups and their intersections, Avlaremoz has become a digital space for intra-group debate and the ruffling of community feathers.