Jewish Life in 21st-Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance

Jewish Life in 21st-Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance

Jewish Life in 21st-Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance

Jewish Life in 21st-Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance


Turkey is famed for a history of tolerance toward minorities, and there is a growing nostalgia for the "Ottoman mosaic." In this richly detailed study, Marcy Brink-Danan examines what it means for Jews to live as a tolerated minority in contemporary Istanbul. Often portrayed as the "good minority," Jews in Turkey celebrate their long history in the region, yet they are subject to discrimination and their institutions are regularly threatened and periodically attacked. Brink-Danan explores the contradictions and gaps in the popular ideology of Turkey as a land of tolerance, describing how Turkish Jews manage the tensions between cosmopolitanism and patriotism, difference as Jews and sameness as Turkish citizens, tolerance and violence.


The Ends and Beginnings of 1992

“Jews?” Mete Tapan, Istanbul city planner, had to think for a minute.
“One knows they are there but they don’t even comprise 1% of the
population. No one knows how they vote or what their interests
would be. They don’t count.”

—Fleminger 2003

Although there has not been an official census of Jews in Turkey since the 1960s, recent population estimates range from 18,000 to 25,000 (Tuval 2004:xxxiii; Toktaş 2006a:123), making Turkey today home to the highest number of Jews outside Israel in the lands that once comprised the Ottoman Empire. Jews in Turkey constitute a negligible fraction of Turkey’s overall population of approximately seventy million people and, as described by the city planner, Turkish Jews don’t “count” for much in the polling booth. Nonetheless, over the past few decades Jews in Turkey have taken on an increasingly public role, brokering Turkish diplomatic ties with Israel. As Turkey’s model minority, they also have advocated for the republic as it has vied for European Union accession. During the early years of the Turkish Republic, the process of becoming Turkish and the fear of not being perceived as Turkish enough engendered a profusion of effacing social practices among Jews and other minorities in Istanbul (Bali 2001). Just over half a century later, European Union overtures set the stage for Jews to stand symbolically (and publicly) for the tolerated “Other” in Turkish society. This role was consolidated in 1992 with a Turkish-led international celebration of the five-hundred-year anniversary of Jews finding refuge from the Spanish Inquisition in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. According to the statement of purpose of the Quincentennial Foundation, an organization led by Jewish and Muslim Turkish elites, the commemoration . . .

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