Betsy Penso: ‘’Jews in Turkey do not feel like equal citizens.’’

Our participant Seval Gülen interviewed Betsy Penso as a final assigment project in our “Current Forms of Antisemitism” course. It was first published in Turkish on the Karakutu website.

Seval Gülen from Karakutu spoke with lawyer and Avlaremoz writer Betsy Penso on antisemitism and its manifestations in Turkey, anti-Israelism, the role of right-wing, left-wing or Islamic groups, conspiracy theories, the impact of social media, the Holocaust and the fight against antisemitism.

First of all, what do you think antisemitism is? What forms of antisemitism are prevalent around the world?

Antisemitism, in my opinion, is all forms of prejudice, discrimination and hate speech against Jews. And any crime committed with antisemitic feelings and motives is a hate crime.

Unfortunately, antisemitism exists all over the world, and occasionally it appears in different forms. Lately, we see antisemitism mostly  based on anti-Zionism/anti-Israel themes. Antisemitism begins at the point where the Jews’ right to self-determination is disregarded. Israel can be criticized but its existence cannot be questioned, this is antisemitism. We can also see that conspiracy theories have reinforced antisemitism for centuries. In the Middle Ages, it was blood libel, today it is the spreading of the Coronavirus. Looking for Jews behind all kinds of question marks and mysteries is also a kind of antisemitism. There is also antisemitism in the form of Neo-Nazism, which has been rekindled in Europe and the US. This, of course, corresponds to the rise of the right-wing worldwide. As a result, synagogues are attacked, Jews are threatened and discriminated against in places that we define as “developed”.

When we talk about antisemitism in Turkey, which types are currently more common? What forms of antisemitism do we encounter more often?

There is antisemitism in Turkey. It is worth emphasizing this first. There is already xenophobia in general in Turkey. It is possible to see this in hate speech against Syrian refugees and fake news about Afghans. But of course, Turkey’s policy and provocation against its “local foreigners”, its “non-Muslims” throughout history is a completely different matter. Jews in Turkey do not feel like equal citizens. This is because of the antisemitism they experience or their fear of being a victim of antisemitism. Jews in Turkey assimilate into the wider society in order to be equal citizens: they change their names, forget their language, they try to keep their relations with the state on good terms. However, according to their constitutional rights, they have the right to use their language, practice their religion and live their culture without sacrificing anything. But they did not keep those alive. They have been intimidated repeatedly, their properties have been confiscated, they have been subjected to violence, they have been raped, their places of worship have been attacked and they have been threatened.

Today, the Jewish community in Turkey is treated as an ambassador of the Israeli government. An explanation, an apology, a condemnation is expected from them. Jews in Turkey can be a bargaining chip, they are treated as if they were taken hostage. If this isn’t antisemitism, what is? This community is subjected to these forms of discrimination simply because they are Jewish.

As for today, at the lowest level, antisemitism is found online, on social media. Anyone can easily produce antisemitic discourse, from posts made by bot accounts to celebrities. I noticed that the discourse in Turkey is generally based on Holocaust images. The love of Hitler, soap, if only… are some of the expressions being thrown around.

Can we elaborate a little more on the issue of anti-Israelism as a type of antisemitism? Why is it so prevalent in Turkey, and at what point does anti-Israelism converge with antisemitism?

I talked a little bit about this. There is a tendency in the world to criticize the state of Israel much more harshly than other countries. It is even possible to call it a fashion. While world-famous persons can criticize Israel in a constructive/solution-oriented way, they prefer a more sensational stance, questioning Israel’s right to exist. This is the point where antisemitism begins. You can criticize Israel as you criticize France, as you criticize Nigeria, as you criticize Turkey. You can be harsh on its government, its decisions. But you cannot say that the existence of this country is problematic. In this case, you disregard the right of self-determination of all Jews in the world. This is antisemitism. So, if I go back to your question, any form of anti-Israelism is antisemitism. There is a fine line between criticizing a country and being against a country.

As for Turkey… In my opinion, the Israel issue is one of the rare issues where the whole country can be one heart. It is a subject that can bring together the right and the left, the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the villager and the urbanite. In a politically shattered country, I guess anti-Israelism acts as the “glue”. For instance, no politician gets angry at another for being anti-Israel. It is the simplest [example]. When this is the case, it should not come as a surprise that antisemitism is widespread at a grassroots level. It settles into the language. When there is no reaction, it becomes easy and ordinary to perpetrate antisemitism.

How do you see the role played by different political groups (party, initiative, community, etc.) in antisemitism in Turkey? Do you think we can generalize that it is more common in right-wing or Islamic segments?

I don’t have a clear observation about this. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be right for me to say anything. All I can say is that although the right-wing nationalist segment is more racially discriminatory in general, there is a serious anti-Israel/anti-Zionism problem on the left. I can’t say that one is better/worse than the other.

Do you see antisemitic statements or behaviors in political groups that describe themselves as left-wing or social democrats, too?

The Left is at peace with itself about facing the past. Wealth Tax, Istanbul Pogrom of 6-7 September, the Holocaust… These are topics they can talk about and try to understand. On the other hand, they are very fond of the Palestinian issue. I understand and respect it. Personally, I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about the Palestinian issue and antisemitism together, I know there are Jews who are offended. The issue that bothers me arises in two points. One arises in the field of questioning Israel’s right to exist, which I mentioned before. The other is that the left-wing, too, is asking me its questions about this problem just because I am Jewish. In other words, you are seen as the spokesperson of the Jews/Israel within the left-wing, too. I think this goes against the spirit of the Left.

We see that conspiracy theories are very effective in Turkey, how is the relationship between conspiracy theories and antisemitism?

There was a story in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Jews made the matzo (unleavened flatbread) that they consumed on Passover from the blood of small children. They placed the children in a barrel with needles and rolled them downhill. Because of these stories, all kinds of bad things happened to the Jews. Whichever country they went to, they were exiled, they were not wanted. Now, when you look at it today, one says, it must have been the Middle Ages. Back then, people could believe such things… Then one day in 2019, you see that Akit newspaper shares this story as if it happened yesterday. Its readers believe it as if this event happened yesterday. Back to square one… Then, all of a sudden, you come across the outcries of “We know what you do to little children” on social media.

While the mainstream media channels/newspapers present such fake news and conspiracy theories by deliberately inciting the people to hatred and hostility and portraying a common enemy, it remains only an optimistic dream to expect Turkey to be purged of antisemitism.

I think the role of social media should also be mentioned here, the hate speech produced on social media plays a big role in the dissemination of both conspiracy theories and antisemitic ideas. Do you think these media have an important role in the dissemination of antisemitism in Turkey?

I absolutely agree. I think today everyone is aware of the power of social media. Of course, there are several dimensions to this as well. A conspiracy theory/false information or just a biased opinion can become a hot topic thanks to real or bot accounts and can appear publicly . Social media managers have been trying to combat this information pollution in recent years. They are trying to prevent certain parts of hate speech with various reporting methods and artificial intelligence techniques. They delete the content or prevent it from spreading by being shared. In this case, another level of prejudice comes to the fore, claiming that social media platforms are run by Jews and they destroy the content they don’t want.

What worries me more about social media lately is that each person/business/social media phenomenon is forced to take sides, they feel obligated. They are afraid of losing consumers if they do not share anything about this issue. Because if they do not share something, it is thought that they do not feel the same as those who share. They think that they will be excluded from that “community.” I mentioned earlier. For this reason, without enough knowledge or even interest in the subject, they follow this fashion and put their minds at ease by sharing a few things. No one can ask them “why didn’t you share?” anymore. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I saw this especially during the war in May. Without realizing what it was, people started to engage in politics over a photograph that was presented to the media specifically to create trouble and did not reflect the truth. Although I never wanted to get involved, I had to make a statement to fight against all this information pollution. Instead of asking me “how are you?” while rockets rained down on me, some of my friends shared things they had no knowledge of, just to stay in “community “. Thanks to/because of social media, we can see two different faces of people. Or these people create a profile on social media the way they “want to be seen”. And believe me, people, that I didn’t know as antisemitic are turning into antisemites on social media.

Do you think the existence of the Holocaust is widely accepted in Turkey? Can we say that the denial of the Holocaust is an antisemitic attitude?

I’m not even sure that a large part of Turkey is fully aware of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not taught during the 12 years of compulsory education. Of course, some private schools include it in their curricula in different ways, but those who graduate from schools other than those, think World War II was just a war between the USA and Japan. Of course, some know Hitler’s name, and some admire him. This is why Mein Kampf sells so well. If proper Holocaust education is given in schools, people’s views of refugees, LGBTI individuals and minorities will change at the end of the day. Holocaust education is an extensive subject, of course, it should not be based on blood, barbed wire and tears. Even inclusion in the soft curriculum of schools is valuable. Teaching about Anne Frank or showing a few movies can be a good start. To understand the Holocaust, empathy is required, and for this, it needs to be told on a humanistic basis.

I think I got too far from the question. Unfortunately, there is also Holocaust denial in Turkey. Some claim that it never happened, and some say that the numbers are exaggerated. This, of course, is antisemitism. How can the denial of the existence of the difficulties that the Jews have experienced throughout the ages and the claims that  the Jews are liars, that they fabricate these lies to lay the groundwork for their plans to play for sympathy, be acceptable?

Well, let’s talk a little bit about the fight against antisemitism, what do you think is being done in Turkey in the fight against it, are there any people, institutions or practices that are effective?

I think antisemitism is fought on a daily basis in Turkey. I do not think that the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey, the institution that officially represents the Jews of Turkey, is fighting against this issue in a general sense. There may be individual initiatives, but there seems to be no institution that acts bravely…

At this point, of course, I should mention Avlaremoz. It is an activist platform that was established to make news and commentary against antisemitism and today it tries to spread news and information about all minorities in Turkey and Jews around the world. Of course, Avlaremoz is also not enough to fight antisemitism. Maybe we need a much more systematic, supported, funded NGO that is only concerned with this issue. It is necessary to raise public awareness and to explain what’s right and what’s wrong visually by Turkish guidelines in line with the period. Avlaremoz can do this, but it is event-based. It tries to report the antisemitic events that took place and sometimes didactically explains why it is antisemitic. We need to take this to the next level. A system that sets its agenda not according to the incidents but the needs of the people, without waiting for an incident to happen. Of course, at this point, it is necessary to mention SEHAK (Civil and Ecological Rights Association). They raise the awareness of many people with the Holocaust education programs they have been running for years. I find it especially valuable that they train teachers who will train students.

How do you think a better struggle should be, what should we do to fight against antisemitism in Turkey?

I think I answered this question in general. This job starts with education. We don’t get this education at school. People who want to take these trainings voluntarily are already more or less conscious people. For example, in the media, the Jewish/minority figure should be portrayed as the founding element of the country. But the opposite is done. For example, all the villains of the Payitaht Abdulhamit series, which aired for four seasons, were Jewish and Armenian. This series was broadcasted on Turkey’s national television.

Under these circumstances, I think that the fight against antisemitism can only be achieved through alternative means. Civil society is of great importance. We must turn the frightening features of social media in our favor with the right campaigns and discourses. Part of this job is PR. Increasing Jewish visibility is important. We need to produce more content, reach more people. The important thing should be to inform people correctly. Not deceiving them or fighting them by answering back.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you so much for hosting me. This is the first time that I am answering such appropriate, full of content and meaningful questions. I hope I was able to answer even a single person’s questions.