SULTANIC SAVIORS AND TOLERANT TURKS
by Marc David Baer
Writing Ottoman Jewish history, denying the Armenian genocide
338pp. Indiana University Press. $95 (paperback, $45).
Until quite recently, whenever Turkey was criticized for its approach to minorities – Greeks, Kurds and Armenians – they were known to deflect the argument by pointing to 500 years of tolerance towards the Jews. In this disturbing and thought-provoking book, Marc David Baer, a Jewish American and a long-time academic scholar of Turkish Studies, bursts the bubble that the Turks throughout history were “God’s rod” for the Jews, who smote the antisemitic Christians, welcomed Jews from the Spanish Inquisition and saved them from the Holocaust.
Much of this mythology arose in the 1970s, when leaders of the small and cowered Jewish community in Turkey were enlisted to defuse the growing international awareness about the mass murder of Armenians in 1915, following a spate of assassinations of Turkish diplomats by descendants of the victims. Turkish officials believed that Jews were all-powerful and could therefore persuade governments and in particular the White House that allegations of massacre were nonsense. Turkish Jews were asked to lobby US Jewish organizations to prevent any mention of the fate of the Armenians in the newly established Holocaust Museum on genocide in Washington. Baer quotes an aide to President Carter, Stuart Eizenstat, who reported that the Turkish ambassador to the US, Şükrü Elekdağ, warned that Turkey might not be able “to guarantee the safety of its Jews” if the genocide were included. In addition, the Israelis were reticent. Marooned in a hostile Arab world, Israel needed allies on the periphery such as the Shah’s Iran, Ethiopia – and Turkey.
As Baer reveals, this only began to change during the past two decades, when Turkish Jewish writers in Israel, such as the academic Avner Levi, described nationalist Turkish discrimination during the 1930s. In Turkey itself, the writer Rifat Bali presented evidence that “far more Jews suffered from Turkish policies in World War II than were saved by them”. In the early years of the current Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish academics could acknowledge the historical fact of the Armenian massacre – as did the writers Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk. With Erdoğan’s turn to authoritarianism, however, the Jews have provided an easy scapegoat for the ills of Turkish society. Even Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s former ally, has been labelled a Dönme – a Turkish group which follows the teachings of “the false messiah”, Shabtai Zevi, who converted from Judaism to Islam. As the Daily Sabah put it: “Gülen catches the whiff of money and power because he is a Jew”.
Last October, the US Congress for the first time proclaimed that the Armenians were the victims of a terrible genocide – and many Jewish organizations followed suit. This well-researched and absorbing book, which is often rightly bitter in its analysis, provides the context for that overdue decision.
Times Literary Supplement 21 August 2020