Perhaps it was a coincidence, but as the Turkish presidency was sending out signals to Israel in November proposing to turn over a new leaf, the Netflix streaming platform surprised Turkish viewers with a new drama series that exposed the old wounds of Turkey’s Jewish community.
Kulüp, or The Club, stars Gökçe Bahadır as Matilda Aseo from a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family serving life for murder against the backdrop of the Turkish wealth tax of the 1940s and subsequently released from prison in the mid-1950s as part of a general amnesty.
In the series, she tries to reunite with her daughter Rachel while subsisting on a poorly paying job at a nightclub. The series is directed by Zeynep Günay, praised by Karel Valansi of the Turkish newspaper T24 for avoiding the usual stereotypes and keeping her characters wholly human with a full range of strengths and weaknesses and virtues and flaws.
According to Turkish journalist Nazlan Ertan writing on the website Al-Monitor, the six-episode series “wakened the ghosts of the country’s turbulent past with its non-Muslim minorities ... and the past injustices that deprived them of their wealth, language and in some cases, life.”
She observed how the “tiny space for the minority characters is snatched away as nationalism and anti-Jewish and anti-Greek sentiments are fuelled by the rise of the Turco-Greek conflict in Cyprus.” Because of that very trend, “the owner of the casino, a Greek man who has changed his name from Nikos to Orhan and taken on a Muslim existence, is forced to replace his non-Muslim employees with Turks.”
Perhaps this is another reason why, as Ertan put it, “Turkey’s ever-shrinking Jewish minority... has been praised for breaking the code of silence among the Jews and is often called Turkey’s ‘model minority.’”
To understand this better, it is necessary to go back over a century ago to a time well before the young Mustafa Kemal, the first president of the Turkish Republic and not yet dubbed “Ataturk” was already standing for everything that is anathema to present President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When Mustafa Kemal returned from France in the first decade of the 20th century, he was enamoured with all things Parisian, so much so that his mother, Zeynep Hanim, had to tell him not to forget his Turkish traditions and language.
As it turned out, he did not need the reminder. He had returned not just to please his mother but in response to a deep patriotic calling. Soon after World War I, he led the struggle to found a new republic on the ruins of the former Ottoman Empire.
In that reborn nation, Turkish would not only be the official language, but also the only language permitted in public places. Violators could be subject to questioning and arrest. This also applied to Ladino, the language spoken by Sephardic Jews in many parts of the Ottoman Empire and which was derived from Spanish but with quite a bit of Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish thrown in.
After Ataturk died on 10 November 1938, his successor carried out his policy of promoting Turkish and ridding it of all foreign words. Signs appeared in the streets, theatres, restaurants and other public places exhorting citizens, “if you call yourself Turkish, speak Turkish.”
Some municipalities exacted fines for speaking other languages in public, and minorities who did so were frequently harassed and insulted. Such incidents often ended tragically, especially in the 1950s under the leadership of the Islamist-oriented Adnan Menderes and Celal Bayar, the former assassinated in Turkey’s first modern military coup in 1960.
All that would gradually change as Ankara applied for EU accession, shifted from a state capitalist to a free-market economy, and developed political and military ties with Israel, signing the strategic partnership with Israel under former president Suleyman Demirel.
This relates to the widespread praise The Club has received from prominent liberal academics and journalists in Turkey and whether the situation has changed under Turkey’s currently ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Quite a few who would rank themselves among the opposition believe that Turkish Jews are as vulnerable as ever to discrimination, explaining why the number of Jews leaving Turkey has nearly doubled in the two decades since the AKP came to power.
At the outset of the century, there were more than 33,000 Jews in Turkey. Now they are only 17,000.
If secularist Kemalism inspired waves of xenophobia in the past, today’s Erdogan regime feeds on a hybrid ultranationalist Islamist ideology that is doubly exclusivist. If the fervour has recently been tamped down, it is for purely pragmatic reasons.
Turkey is headed for general elections in just over a year and, with the deteriorating economy and mounting grumbling, Ankara needs to put on a more moderate face if it is to attract foreign investment. This means back-peddling on policies and mending fences with regional powers that only yesterday were on Erdogan’s blacklist.
It may have just been a coincidence, but soon after the second episode of The Club aired in Turkey, Erdogan seemed to be struck by its nostalgic spirit. The Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States was meeting in Istanbul on 23 December, and Erdogan received the members of the Alliance and representatives of the Turkish Jewish community at the presidential palace in Ankara.
In his speech at the event, Erdogan did not bring up the injustices mentioned in The Club. Instead, he painted a rosy picture of “Turkey’s rich culture, ancient history, and the climate of peace and tolerance” that he said his guests would witness during their time there. “Turkey has been a peaceful haven for Jews persecuted in various countries of the world throughout history,” he said.
“We are a nation that embraced the Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492,” Erdogan said. Before that, “after conquering Istanbul [in 1453], Mehmet the Conqueror invited the Jewish communities residing on both sides of the Golden Horn to Istanbul to improve the city’s cultural richness. The Jews who came to Istanbul after acknowledging his invitation made a great contribution to this unique city.”
“The spirit that enabled the Ottoman Empire to welcome the Jews is still strongly alive today,” Erdogan continued. “Thanks to the Turkish government’s determination and the ceaseless efforts of Turkish diplomats, many Jews who fled the Nazi persecution during World War II were saved from being sent to concentration camps.”
Fast-forwarding 50 years, Erdogan said that “we see antisemitism as a crime against humanity, just like we consider Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.” He listed Turkey’s achievements as co-host of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, and co-host of the 2007 Decision on the Undeniability of the Holocaust.
In 2009 Turkey became an observer of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
However, much in Turkey today speaks of another reality, one that is still not open to minorities, immigrants, or members of other faiths. The wealth tax targeting non-Muslims in the 1940s, and the 1955 pogroms against Jews, Greeks, and other minorities were truly traumatic. But The Club shows a more cosmopolitan version of Istanbul full of nostalgia.
As Ertan writes, “it portrays the lost beauty of Istanbul in the mid-20th century, when Turks and foreigners in chic clothes and jauntily angled hats walked proudly on the cobblestones of Pera. Rakish cab drivers with Clark Gable moustaches made eyes at beautiful women, and the hills overlooking the Bosphorus were filled with trees, not cubical condos all lumped together,” as is often the case today.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.