Turkey and the Holocaust


Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to Washington, formerly served in Tel Aviv.

I met him briefly at the Israeli embassy’s Yom Ha’atzmauth party in April, and those who know him say he is very skilled at the diplomatic arts and a mensch, to boot.

I have to call him out, though, on a passing reference in his op-ed in the Washington Post today demanding an apology from Israel for its raid on a Turkish-flagged ship in the aid flotilla headed to Gaza:

The offense is painful, too, because the Turkish people have for centuries been hospitable to Jews. Unlike many nations, the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Our diplomats risked their lives to save European Jews from the Nazi threat during World War II and brought them to refuge in Turkey. In recent years, Turkey played a critical role as a peace mediator between Syria and Israel, supported Israel’s membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and worked tirelessly for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006.

All true, except the business about the diplomats. The ten Turkish envoys (at least) who rescued Jews during the Holocaust risked their careers, not their lives. As this History News Network article shows, Behic Erkin was recalled from his Paris ambassadorship, probably because of his dedication to the proposition of saving Jewish lives.

The distinction is important for at least two reasons.

— Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania, was, in 1985, the first diplomat named by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile for defying orders and processing visas for Jews to save their lives. There was considerable controversy prior to Yad Vashem’s decision to confer the honor on Sugihara; the standard until then was proof that a savior had risked his or her life. Yad Vashem’s leadership pressed for the exception, and I think their reasons made sense: Sugihara lived his life out in professional opprobrium for defying orders. He had not risked death, but he had the certainty of isolation and of knowing that his beloved career was shot.

The concern, at the time, of the critics of the decision was that such distinctions would eventually be lost and that the honor would be cheapened. It’s depressing to see them vindicated, to a degree, by Tan.

— The Turkish diplomats — nine in France, mentioned in the article above, and at least one other I know of, in Rhodes — risked their careers precisely because the Turkish government at the time had an uncomfortably close relationship with the Axis. This was not Turkey’s shining hour for the Jews; my grandfather felt the brunt of a discriminatory law at the time that effectively stripped Jews and other minorities of their businesses and sent them to labor camp. And while he was in labor camp, my aunt set up a sock darning stand in the street to get my grandmother through the hard times. (My Dad was in the army.) The Turks joined the allies in 1944, and the law was repealed.

(Quick aside: A cousin of my grandfather converted to Islam at the time to stay in the family business — importing and selling electronic goods. Decades later, I was visiting my aunt in Istanbul around Purim, when she got a call. She exchanged a hag sameach or two with the caller and hung up. It was the Muslim convert. It tickled me that he not only remembered the holidays, he remembered the minor holidays.)

Which is to say: Yes, Turkey’s history with the Jews is one in which Tan and others should take pride. From what I understand, one of the compelling factors for those Turkish diplomats is that many of the Jews they rescued were entitled to Turkish citizenship; the diplomats were outraged that Jews should be singled out for their religion, that the Nazis were saying, "You can repatriate the Muslims and Christians of Turkish descent, but not the Jews." That says a lot about what was good about how Ataturk redefined Turkish nationalism.

But: It’s complicated. The status of Jews in Turkey has been good relative to other nations. "Relative" is not a standard to live by.

And "it’s complicated" is not only a useful motto for diplomats, it might apply even in the case of what happened with the flotilla.

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