In post-coup Turkey, Jews plan their future abroad

Turkish Jewish businesswoman Betty, left, and her friend Suzette at a cafe in Istanbul, Nov. 4, 2016. They asked that their last names not be used for security reasons. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

ISTANBUL (JTA) — At a chic café overlooking the Bosphorus, two Turkish Jewish women are discussing their plans to emigrate when the call to Friday prayers blasts from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque.

Unable to talk over the deafening singing that fills the café in the Bebek neighborhood of western Istanbul, the women turn to their smartphones to read the news. At least they try to.

Turkey’s government has jammed access to the internet on this November day, reportedly to prevent terrorists from communicating with each other. It spurs major traffic disruptions and overloads several cellular towers.

“This is Turkey,” said one of the women, a 42-year-old businesswoman and mother named Betty, who asks that her last name not be used for security reasons.

“If they don’t want you to communicate, you won’t,” adds her friend Suzette, who makes the same request about her surname.

Betty and Suzette are among the thousands of Turkish Jews seeking foreign passports this year amid growing religiosity in a society where civil rights activists and some ethnic minorities are feeling the weight of the increasingly authoritarian policies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president who has used anti-Israel rhetoric.

“Of course we’re thinking about emigrating,” said Betty while scanning the top floor of the café — a quiet place that she proposes for an interview because she does not want to be overheard speaking about Jews to a journalist. “Everyone in the Jewish community is because it is hard to imagine a future for ourselves here. Many Muslims are, too.”

Of the 4,500 Sephardic Jews who have applied recently for Spanish citizenship, at least 2,600 are Turks, according to Pablo Benavides, the consul general of Spain in Turkey. Last year, a law of return went into effect for Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were chased out of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago.

Hundreds more have applied for naturalization in Portugal, where a similar law also went into effect last year. Indeed, Turkish Jews are the largest single group of applicants for a Portuguese passport.

And approximately 250 Jews from Turkey have immigrated to Israel in the past year — a figure that is more than double the 2015 tally and constitutes more 1 percent of Turkey’s Jewish community of approximately 17,000 people.

The rush to obtain Spanish and Portuguese passports may not reflect any imminent desire to emigrate. Several applicants, including 38-year-old Nedim Bali, describe the move merely as a contingency plan. But the figures nonetheless seem to reflect a growing insecurity among Turkish Jews, many of whom blame Erdogan of using anti-Israel rhetoric with anti-Semitic overtones.

In 2014, he accused protesters angered by his handling of a mining tragedy of being “spawn of Israel” — a country that Erdogan had previously accused of murdering Palestinian babies.

And in 2010, Erdogan suspended diplomatic relations with Israel over the slaying by commandos of nine passengers aboard a Gaza-bound ship that had sailed from Turkey in defiance of Israel’s blockade on the coastal strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Relations were restored officially only earlier this year and remain cold, though earlier this week Israel appointed an ambassador to Turkey as part of the countries’ reconciliation.

Still, discomfort over Erdogan’s rhetoric is being compounded by his crackdown on the opposition, media and civil liberties amid an increase in terrorist attacks and following the failed coup attempt in July to topple the Erdogan government.

Arbitrary internet blackouts like the one that occurred on Nov. 4 are common in Turkey, where the government since July has assumed vast executive powers under emergency laws. Even before these measures, Turkey was criticized routinely for its human rights abuses and undemocratic practices — the criticism has escalated with the abuses.

Earlier this month — amid a wave of arrests, newspaper closures and a purge of thousands of people suspected of complicity in the coup try — the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned by what appears to be an increase in official pressure on opposition media outlets in Turkey.”

To countless Turkish Jews and non-Jews, the failed overthrow was significant, not only because it ushered in more repressive policies, but because it demonstrated a potential for instability, according to Rifat Bali, a Jewish writer, publisher and historian from Istanbul.

“We turned on the TV and it was unbelievable. We thought Turkey was past the stage of coups, but we were wrong,” he said, recalling the July 15 attempt, which ended after countless civilians, called to act by a besieged Erdogan, confronted and effectively paralyzed rebellious army units.

The episode led to an explosion of nationalist sentiment in Turkey — never a particularly cosmopolitan country  — where countless Turkish flags, including some the size of buildings, now dominate public urban spaces.

Regime stability is of paramount importance to Turkish Jews, whose synagogues are under heavy army guard following terrorist attacks and threats. A 2015 survey by the Anti-Defamation League suggested that 71 percent of the population holds anti-Semitic views — by contrast, in Iran the figure was 60 percent.

Before Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003 — the year he was elected to lead the ruling Islamist AKP party — the army was an important political player, poised to neutralize forces perceived as detrimental to a ruling class that was committed, on paper at least, to Turkey’s Western allies and to some principles, including a separation between religion and state.

Under Erdogan, however, the army gradually was subjected to a succession of five AKP-led governments whose policies, many Turkish Jews say, are promoting greater religiosity than ever before in modern Turkey.

“You never used to see women in veils here,” Betty said of Bebek, a Westernized seaside neighborhood. “Now they are everywhere. And that’s bad news not only for religious minorities but also for working, independent women like us.”

Suzette says she believes that Turkey’s normalization of ties with Israel “was a show.” But Mario Levi, a well-known Turkish Jewish novelist and columnist, says it was an important development toward reassuring Turkish Jews of their future in their country of birth.

“I disagree with the policies of the Israeli government, but I am deeply attached to the Jewish state,” he said. “The fact that my country is in friendly relations with Israel, therefore, means a lot.”

In 2014, Erdogan said anti-Semitism was a “sin” — perhaps in an effort to deflect criticism over vitriolic statements made by him and his associates.

Additionally, in recent years, the Turkish government has poured millions of dollars into renovating Jewish heritage sites, including toward the reopening last year of the Edirne Great Synagogue.

Ultimately, the rise of the role of religion in society, along with the crackdown on civil liberties, is making Turkish Jews uncomfortable “not as Jews, primarily, but simply as members of a liberal class,” Levi said.

“I have many friends who have been arrested for writing critically about the government,” he said, adding that he exercises “caution” in what he writes on social media about Turkey. “You don’t need to be Jewish to not feel comfortable in this kind of climate.”

Rifat Bali’s son, Nedim, who has applied for a Spanish passport, says he is considering emigrating to “give a better future” to his two children, though not necessarily to Spain.

Economically speaking, Turkey “is a great country with great, great potential,” Bali said. “But it’s not for people, Jews or non-Jews, with intellectual motives, as it gradually becomes more conservative with more restrictions on free thought and expression.”