Jewish communities still extant in Muslim countries tend to be weak and without a future, mere shells of the vital populations that existed half a century ago. Anyone with energy or ambition long ago fled Iran, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, or Tunisia; those who remain barely eke out a living. They have no role to speak of in the business or intellectual life of their countries; politically they count only as potential victims or as hostages to be bartered away. In The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (1991), Norman Stillman accurately described them as "a small, vestigial, and moribund remnant."
How different in Turkey! Here Jews, as in the West, play a disproportionate role in the life of the country. During a visit not long ago to Istanbul (the city where nearly all the Turkish Jews live), I had an opportunity to meet two of the country's tycoons, both Jewish. Jefi I. Kamhi is the flamboyant, jet-setting chairman of Profilo, a company which produces almost everything you can think of (prefabricated construction units, white goods, parts and accessories); in addition, it imports and exports, distributes consumer durables, and invests.
Üzeyir Garih, CEO of Alarco, is a more restrained figure; his company contracts projects, engineers them, and specializes in building big-ticket items such as pipelines, gas storage terminals, refineries, textile factories and office complexes. Both men are active in business associations, are counted among their country's leading philanthropists, and have strong ties to the highest political circles.
Thanks to their knowledge of European languages and foreign contacts, Jewish businessmen have played an important role in the expansion of Turkish companies into international markets. They also have a prominent role in fashion, advertising, and banking; for example, Jews dominate Istanbul's Tahtakale money market and effectively set the dollar exchange rate for Turkey's currency. These Jews are not small, vestigial, or moribund.
And it's not just the businessmen. I didn't get to see Sami Kohen this trip, but he's been for many the foreign affairs columnist for Turkey's largest circulation daily newspaper Milliyet, where he writes a sophisticated analysis of his country's geopoliticals, as well as frequently contributing to such American papers as the The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. Other Jews teach at the universities and work for the government, where they serve as diplomats and hold other positions of responsibility. In short, unlike the dying Jewish communities in other parts of the Muslim Middle East, the one in Turkey is vibrant and influential.
Interestingly, other Jews -- those of Israel and the United States -- also have a role in Turkey. In extensive talks with officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office, I found a consistent interest in strengthening ties with Israel, and near delight with September's Israel-PLO agreement because it hastens this process. These analysts see Israel in a variety of ways: as a trading partner, a fellow democracy to help stabilize the region, an ally which can help deal with the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and a means of access to Washington. The first-ever visit by Turkey's Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin to Israel last November consolidated these ties and raised high hopes for the future.
Which brings us to American Jews. One Turkish analyst pointed out to me that many of the leading American scholars of Turkey are Jewish (including Bernard Lewis, Stanford Shaw, and Avigdor Levy). A Foreign Ministry official who noted that Turkey's strongest advocates in the United States are Jewish, mentioning specifically Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, concluded with the comment, "We love American Jews." Turkey's government despairs of a Turkish lobby ever emerging in the United States which will be capable of standing up to the Greeks and Armenians; in the meantime, it counts on Jews to make the argument for Turkey in Washington. More effectively than anyone else, these individuals point out Turkey's importance as an ally in an especially turbulent part of the world (for example, vis-à-vis Iraq); its positive influence in the Middle East as an enduring democracy; and its importance as a model of secularism for the Muslim world as a whole.
Of course, Turkey also has its share of fundamentalist Muslims, fascists and other forms of anti-Semite. Like their counterparts elsewhere, these spread conspiracy theories about Jews and fulminate against Israel. But in Turkey, unlike Iran and the Arab countries, these people don't make policy, nor do conspiracy theories dominate political thinking. Perhaps most important, Turks don't engage in violence against Jews. (It was foreigners, not Turks, who carried out the one major act of violence against Turkey's Jews, the 1986 bombing of Neve Shalom Synagogue.)
There's every reason to think the good news will continue in the years ahead -- that Jews of Turkey will flourish; that Ankara's relations with Israel will expand; and that American Jews will play a valuable role explaining Turkey in the United States. With regard to Jews, as is the case in so many other ways, Turkey has successfully removed itself from the paranoia and repression of the Middle East and made itself a part of the West.