Ivo Molinas: “Turkey is the only Muslim country where a large Jewish community live”
Ivo Molinas is the editor-in-chief of Şalom, a Jewish weekly newspaper which has been published continually in Turkey since 1947. The newspaper was founded in Istanbul by the journalist Avram Leyon. It is the only publication serving the Jewish community in Turkey, covering the news mainly about Turkish Jewish community, domestic and international affairs, and Jewish culture and traditions.
Interview: Pınar Işık Ardor
You are a member of the Jewish-Turkish community. Moreover, you are the editor-in-chief of ŞALOM, a Jewish weekly newspaper. What would you like to tell us about being Jewish in Turkey?
We live in a country with a population of 80 million people. At the beginning of the century, the Jewish Turkish population was around 100.000. However, nowadays the number of Jewish Turkish people is only 15.000. I publish this small community newspaper. It has always been difficult to be Jewish in Turkey just as it has been for the other ethnic minorities. After establishment of the Republic of Turkey, which was based on a nation-state model, non-Muslim minorities had been alienated, marginalized and looked upon as the enemy. In 1934, Trakya (Thrace) events broke out. Trakya used to have a significant Jewish Turkish population. They all were affluent and hardworking people. When the situation worsened, 90 percent of those Jewish people were ousted either to foreign countries or to Istanbul due to the Trakya events. These events had been the most serious acts of violence committed against the Jewish Turkish people. Afterwards, the wealth tax was imposed. Yes, this tax was imposed on Muslims too but not in an equal manner. The wealth tax on Jewish people were 10 times more than the ones on Muslims. Many of the Jewish citizens could not afford to pay this tax.
Then, there were the events of 6/7 September, which were triggered by an explosion of the existing pressure and the animosity towards minorities that had been building up. It has been difficult to be a non-Muslim in Turkey, but there are different opinions on this among the Jewish community. Some point out the Trakya events, the events of 6/7 September and anti-semitism, and some others point out the wealth tax. However, what was going on in Europe then? 6 million Jewish people were killed in gas chambers. Here, only their money was taken away from them. This is looking at black and seeing it as white. I am trying to be realistic. Of course, I am not legitimizing that wrongdoing by saying that only our assets were seized while others’ lives were being taken away; however, it is all relative.
There is no hardship in practicing one’s own religion.
There are foreign allegations that Turkish people are deprived of their freedom, basic rights and liberties under the current AK Party-led government. Is that true?
This is black propaganda and it is not based on facts. I am speaking for my own community, but I also have Armenian and Greek friends. There is no hardship in practicing one’s own religion. In fact, it was during the AK Party rule when the historic Grand Synagogue of Edirne, which is the second biggest Synagogue in Europe, was entirely rebuilt from its ashes. All the visitors are fascinated with this house of worship although it is without a congregation. An extensive amount of money was spent for the restoration work. Its management is conducted solely by us. There is no congregation, but the government saved this unique piece of cultural heritage.
Moreover, the process of giving minorities their confiscated estates back has already started. The process has not been finalized yet, but it was initiated during Erdogan’s rule. Minorities do not face any hardships in terms of religion, nor citizenship. Today, I can study at universities, and receive healthcare at public hospitals. The bureaucratic procedure I go through is just like yours. I don’t experience racism and issues such as people asking me if I am Jewish. We can’t become neither generals nor governors. There are historical reasons for this, but we also didn’t try to do something about that. We also cannot become mayors. One way or another we will be interrupted. But I have accepted this. Turkey is the only Muslim country where a large Jewish community live, except a small amount of Jewish people in Morocco. Other than these two countries, Jewish people can’t live anywhere else in the entire Muslim world.
Why? Is it because of fear?
They were expelled. Because once the State of Israel was founded, anti-semitism spread across the world. For example, this was not the case for Turkey. Turkey was the first country to recognize the State of Israel. Marginalizing people increased in Turkey in conjunction with the rise of populism. A survey was conducted about 4-5 years ago. One of the questions was ‘‘Whom would you prefer not to have as your neighbor?’’ Homosexuals ranked at the top of the list by 75%, followed by Jewish people by 65%. When the responses to this question was further analyzed, it was revealed that 80% of those who did not want Jewish people as their neighbors have not even met any Jewish person before. People are naturally afraid of strangers. I consider myself an educated world citizen, and even though I do not fear from strangers, I may build a wall between me and others.
Isn’t this a problem faced by minorities everywhere?
Of course, it is tough. Especially, Turkish people are a closed society. They don’t mix with others. That is why from the moment I became ŞALOM’s editor-in-chief, I have tried to increase the awareness about Jewish people, their culture and their ideology in Turkey. What it is to be Jewish? Who are Jewish people? What do they want? We have had a fascinating feedback. We made the online paper public so that everyone could read about us and get to know us.
Who are Jewish people?
First of all, they are educated people. Education is a must in order to be successful. This is related to the Torah reading tradition by the sons of Abraham. It used to be considered pivotal in ancient times. We can say that children are continuously exposed to the culture so that it is integrated into the collective memory and the genes. Also giving utmost importance to education emerged as a social model. It is the rule of living in the Diaspora. If you are not one of the best, you will be marginalized and disappear. But you will be respected when you become a successful and an accomplished Diaspora. Wealth also gives you power. That is a Jewish person. Of course, they can be capitalists, exploitative, rich etc. One needs to be aware of the reasons why people behave in such a manner. Now the newspaper is accessible to anyone. We also have Turkish/Muslim colleagues who are writing for us.
How many Turkish/Muslim people work at ŞALOM?
The ratio is between 70 and 30. It used to be 90%. Now, I have culture-art-sports sections.
Do you receive criticism for it?
Yes. Especially, earlier generations give critical comments. They say ‘‘a Jewish Newspaper is supposed to be published by Jewish people’’. Only 15.000 of us are remaining. How much more can you shrink? You will die. You need oxygen. You have to branch out. You have to reach as many people as possible so that those who marginalize you, will get to know you. They tell us that we are just like them, that we also feel joy, sorrow, and fear. We have received many letters asking why we were demonized.
Personally I didn’t agree with the U.S. decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Is the turbulent relationship between Turkey and Israel behind this? For example, the Mavi Marmara incident, latest issues that had emerged with regard to Jerusalem, such as the controversial US Jerusalem embassy opening. Can these influence public opinion in Turkey?
It is worrisome. They don’t draw a line between Israel and all other Jewish people living around the world. As if Israel’s decisions could represent about 15 million Jewish people…. Is that possible? How can all Jewish people have the same notions, when even siblings may differ from each other in many ways? When I try to treat this issue critically, I end up with being criticized. They ask me how I could criticize Israel. Ivo Molinas publishes a Jewish newspaper. However, I am praised when I say that Israel has found a cure for cancer. Behind these hasty generalizations of the non-Jewish people, there is a kind of racism. They assume that all Jewish people are the same. It is considered that all Jewish people speak the same way about the Jerusalem controversy. That is not true.
For example, personally I didn’t agree with the U.S. decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. It would further complicate an already complicated situation. I think this is the most critical mistake Trump has ever done. There is no point in interfering into that particular situation. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It is that way for me too. The Parliament and its bureaucracy are there. It doesn’t matter whether others accept it or not. But there is a problem. It is impossible to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without establishing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump has unnecessarily provoked Muslims all around the world and ignited animosity against Jewish people. They legislated a nation-state law in Israel. They granted Arabic, once an official language, a special status in the state. This bothered a 1,5 million Arab population. This is a considerable number. But when asked, 70% of these people state that they would opt to live in Israel even after the State of Palestine is founded. Because Israel is a well-developed country. Annual income per person is $40 thousand. Basic healthcare services and education are free of charge and developed.
To sum it up, there are millions of Jewish people who do not approve everything that Israel does. This number has increased especially after Trump-Netanyahu alliance and the following steps taken in the wrong direction.
There is an assumption that ‘Israel controls the U.S.’, and that “Jewish lobby” is incredibly powerful and it controls the media. Yes, it might be a small country but they are behind all the significant decisions that affect the fate of world. What is your take on this?
The owner of the New York Times is Jewish. They have created a fierce controversy a couple of days ago. It appears that this newspaper is significantly anti-Trump. If there was a Jewish lobby controlling the media, wouldn’t they support Trump who is in favor of Israel? A senior White House official said s/he would submit an op-ed providing that her/his name would remain anonymous. That op-ed stirred up a lot of controversy. Trump is supposed to be Israel’s biggest ally, but look what is published about him. It is true that Jewish people created a world personality because of sociological reasons. 25% of the Nobel Prize winners are Jewish. How such percentages are possible?
It would be a lie to say that there is anti-semitism in the streets. It would be a lie to say that there is anti-semitism in the government…
Are you very smart?
Saying we are smart would seem racist. It is education that uplifts people. You have to be persistent and focused. Jewish people’s, including those who are religious, most significant feature is that they enjoy life by maximizing their potential. God has given you this life and you have to appreciate it. You have to create your own conditions. Others may envy you. That’s one of the reasons behind animosity. I don’t think Israel likes Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg so much, because they are open-minded Jewish people. They are not like those who accept whatever Israel says. We are not monolithic after all. Let’s get back to Turkey. It would be a lie to say that there is anti-semitism in the streets. It would be a lie to say that there is anti-semitism in the government, the bureaucracy, at hospitals etc. However, I should state with regret that there is a high level of anti-semitism in pro-government media and social media, and this is deeply worrying. We have administrators and we have close ties with them. Whenever we have a problem, we are able to talk with the government officials and discuss solutions. We are not a weak, outcast community, but we haven’t still found a solution to that particular problem. The media is troublesome. The media create a perception that Jewish people are behind everything. This is what really bothers us.
There is no doubt that these issues also generate threat. After the 1986 terrorist attacks, you had to perform your religious services under safety measures. Isn’t it tough?
It is very tough. Have you ever been to a Synagogue? Even your access to ŞALOM was not easy. Try going to Neve Şalom (Shalom). In order to enter the Synagogue, you have to go through about 2-3 iron gates. There is a small section where it feels like you are stuck and may suffocate. They scrutinize you from a hidden room. If they recognize you, they open the doors. If they don’t, they ask questions, take your ID information and you have to go through a series of safety measures. In sum, while accessing the Synagogue, they have to scrutinize you carefully. They have to be sure that you are not a terrorist. If you act suspicious, you’ll get trapped in that section.
There are typical features of all religious and ethnic groups. How do you deal with them?
Speaking of typical features, for example, there are some who criticize me for criticizing Israel. There is a considerable number of those who do not believe in democracy nor freedom of speech. They believe that whatever Israel does is right. I also have to deal with those people, and consequently been through serious troubles. They called me a traitor. But what they do not understand is that I am not an Israeli citizen. I am a Turk. I am a Jew in the Diaspora, who believes in the legitimacy of Israel and supports its existence, while criticizing it at the same time. An honest person, a person who seeks the truth, should be able to criticize anything.
The U.S is our friend and ally. Turkey is a member of the NATO Alliance. However, our relations with the U.S. strained over the Pastor Brunson crisis. Since then, Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have repeatedly demanded his release while Ankara insists the decision is up to the independent courts. Why does the U.S., a country with a reputation of its respect for democracy and the rule of law, insist on the release of the Pastor without due process of law? Don’t they trust Turkey?
If it was Obama who requested the release, he would have said that he doesn’t trust in Turkish judicial system. I can’t comment on these questions. I respect Obama. I find him more democratic and humanistic. Don’t we have problems with respect to our judicial system? Of course, we do. This is a very complicated issue. I think these problems will definitely be resolved. Our allies are always in the West. Numerous previous incidents have proved this.
The only country that can end Islamophobia is Turkey.
Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe and the United States. Particularly in Europe, Islamophobia has increased markedly over the last few years. Of course, this increase is largely due to the terrorist attacks by extremist groups who claim to be Islamist. How can we cope with this perception and stereotyping?
We can overcome this by integrating into the European Union, visiting there and defining our Turkish Muslim identity. The only country that can end Islamophobia is Turkey. We are the only Muslim-majority country that is secular. Other Muslim countries do not develop strategies to cope with these prejudices. Turkey is the only state that can defeat Islamophobia with its hard working people, and its Turkish and Muslim identity. During the first years of AK Party, all European countries were praising us. The EU accession process had accelarated, but eventually we have returned to our roots. Consequently, this distanced us from the European mentality. AK Party has pragmatic concerns. They are not extremely strict. They rather tend to adapt to the changing conditions. This is because of Mr. Erdogan and his pragmatic approach can result in significant improvements.