More Turkish Jews seek new life in Israel

One Sunday evening, I learned that my Jewish friend, Izak, had left Istanbul to settle in Israel. So I messaged him on his anonymous social media account. He immediately asked me to delete the message, which included his name, and contacted me through another account, explaining that he had been receiving threats for his posts on Jewish issues, and that it could be dangerous for him if hackers found a way into his account and learned his name.

This may give you some idea of what it means to be a Jew in Turkey. At 32-years-old, Izak left the city where he had spent his whole life, to become one of the 400 Turkish Jews who settled in Israel last year. This was not an easy decision.

“I thought about it for two years. Then when the coup attempt in July 2016 happened, I made the decision that it was right to leave Turkey without wasting more time. A few months later I was here.”

So what happened on July 15?

That night, Izak (who requested we use a pseudonym for his safety), looked at Twitter to find hundreds of posts by Turkish users blaming the coup attempt on Jews.

The fact that opposition to the coup was heralded by mosques playing Islamic prayers on their loudspeakers added to the feeling of alienation – did he have to be a Muslim to want to defend democracy?

So, with his family’s blessing, he left his life in Istanbul behind and moved to Tel Aviv.

Israel grants citizenships to diaspora Jews as soon as they settle in the country. According to the Turkish association in the country, 400 Turkish Jews settled in Israel last year– more than double the 164 who moved there the year before.

This number keeps rising each year, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a trend that contradicts the figures for diaspora Jews from all other countries except Russia. The agency cites what it says are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-Semitic policies as the cause of this rise.

With the number of Jews in Turkey estimated to be around 12,000, the 400 emigrants amounts to more than 2 percent leaving the country – a significant amount.

Those who decide to make this trip and settle in Israel – an act known as Aliyah – enjoy a number of benefits provided by the Israeli state, as Aaron, a member of the Turkish Jewish community, explained.

“This is a country that opens its arms to immigrants. They give citizenship to Jews, provide six months of language tuition in Hebrew, and the state meets living expenses for a set period, as well as providing financial benefits for the duration of your life.”

Despite all these benefits, settling in Israel is not all easy. On the one hand, new arrivals have to become accustomed to what Aaron calls the country’s war (with Palestinian militants). On the other, learning Hebrew presents a real difficulty for incoming Turkish citizens.

This is corroborated by Izak, who despite knowing Turkish, Spanish, English and French, finds the language a completely different matter. Yet “to integrate, one needs to speak the language to a high level. Everyone here is bilingual – even cleaning ladies can speak three languages.”

Without a firm footing in his new country and its language, Izak had to resort to what he calls “running errands” to make a living, in spite of the engineering degree he earned in Turkey.

He is happy to now be holding down an office job, and talks about the respect for law and order as one of the country’s benefits over Turkey.

“You go to and from work, and nobody treats you unfairly. You won’t be fired for an unfair reason. If you run a red light, they take your licence. It isn’t like in Turkey, where they apply the laws to some people but not to others.”

The country also enjoys far greater personal freedom than Turkey, according to Izak, with gay, religious and secular people coexisting. Moreover, the government tolerates harsh criticism from the press, and, he said, people have a greater right to protest.

Aaron, who asked to use a pseudonym for his safety, is a Jew still living in Turkey. He believes that, though some Jews leave the country for Israel once they retire, the majority are young people who have had enough of the anti-Semitism in Turkey.

This exodus of young Jews, has sped the process already set in motion by the rapid natural decline in Turkey’s Jewish population, said Aaron.

Many of these young migrants have moved to Israel to take advantage of free tuition in the country’s universities, said Rafael Sadi, a spokesperson for the Turkish Jewish Association in Israel.

Many also come to join family members. But the most painful reason driving migration is poverty, according to Sadi. “Jews may appear to be rich, but many of us are poor. Our poor come to Israel looking for work.”

Discrimination against Jews is another factor driving migration, said Sadi, who describes how attitudes can suddenly change when colleagues discover somebody is Jewish, even after decades of knowing that person.

Thus Izak uses two names in Turkey; one a name that is common in the country, and another that his family use to address him. The pressure felt by Jews in Turkey prevented him from using that name in daily life or on official papers. Yet in Israel no such problem exists, and seeing the name his family gave him on official papers has been an emotional experience.

“My father had a non-Muslim name on his identity card; as a result he suffered a lot of problems when he did his military service. So my family made sure I had a Turkish name on my ID. Being able to use my Jewish name on my official documents was strange at first, it’s a new feeling entirely.”

Despite everything he enjoys about his new country, making the change to his new home in Israel, where he had to contend with a new system and a new way of life, was demoralising, even depressing, at first.

In spite of all these troubles, he is happy with his new country.

“They place a certain value on a person in Turkey, but I see myself as worth more than that. I didn’t want to keep getting myself down about the state Turkey has come to.”