Decidedly, Turkish series like to free themselves from taboos. In 2020, It’s Another (Ethos) tackled the multiple social, ethnic and religious fault lines that cross Turkey from Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Still on Netflix, The Club (Club), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan, and whose second season has been online since January 6, 2022, brings the corpses out of the closet of Turkish history, delving into the recent past of the Jews of Istanbul, through the racism and persecution suffered by the community during the 1940s and 1960s.

State persecution

The Club first breaks with a connivance of silence. In Turkey, the anti-Semitism of the right and the anti-Zionism of the left had given each other the word to leave aside the fate of the Jews of Turkey.

From the first sequence, the tone is set. In a Turkish prison, among the rows of bunk beds and apart from the other inmates, one of them, a Jew, recites the Shabbat prayer in ladino (Judeo-Spanish), before starting the ritual meal. Later released, Matilda is reunited with her daughter, Rachel, who grew up in an orphanage. Seamstress, in charge of stage outfits, Matilda becomes the confidante and support of the whimsical and magnificent Selim Songür, extravagant gay music-hall star who made the reputation of “The Club”. She will fight, in particular against the manager of the premises who harbors an inextinguishable hatred towards her, without giving up any of her pride and her honor, that is to say her identity.

Everything is there from everyday life, joys and dramas, revolts, courage and small cowardices, too, experienced by the Jewish community of Turkey in a period of political turbulence which led many Sephardim to leave their country for Israel.

“I had tears in my eyes watching this series., exclaims director Ilana Navaro, who now lives in Paris. It was the first time in my entire life that I felt represented on screen, that I was able to project myself, that my entire history, that of my community, our language, had the main role in a movie. In short, the first time that I was able to identify myself at this point.

Vice President of the Jewish-Spanish Association Here we are, François Azar acknowledges that he initially feared that “this series is very kitsch, but there was a real research work. Hearing Ladino speak there is unexpected, and then the series courageously tackles the subject of wealth tax [le Varlık Vergisi, en vigueur de 1942 à 1944] of which the Armenians, the Jews and the Greeks were the object. An iniquitous tax, intended to restore the post-war economy by targeting these minorities who, if they were unable to pay it, were sent to eastern Turkey to break stones there. Matilda’s father never came back.

“This tax is one of the fallout from the war, says literary translator Rosie Pinhas-Delpuech, whose father was also sent to a labor camp. In addition to anti-Semitism towards the Jews, the minorities were perceived as spies for the “enemy”, whoever it was; it was therefore necessary to move them away from strategic centres.” Result: around 30,000 Jews would have left Turkey after the Second World War.

However, this is not the first time that the subject of wealth tax has been broached by the cinema. In 1999, the movie Grains of the Salkım Lady (Mrs. Salkım’s Diamonds) took up the subject. At the beginning of the 2000’s, Jewish Turkish businessman İshak Alaton – whose father had also been sent “to break stones” – had even published a column on this subject.

From the slap to the start

Most The Club goes well beyond the denunciation of an injustice. Filled with details and anecdotes that wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the average viewer, the series truly resonates with the community.

“Take the story of the slap that Rachel [la fille de Matilda] receives from her Muslim and Turkish lover when he discovers that her name is not Aysel but Rachel, therefore that she is Jewish. Well, we have all received this slap, we the Jews of Turkey, thousands of times, symbolically, and it is very innovative to show it”, explains Ilana Navaro.

“For once, we are not shown a “coward jew”, a frightened, obsequious Jew, who accepts everything that is asked of him.”

Esther Benbassa, senator, specialist in the history of the Jewish people

Another truth revealed by The Club: the fact that most of the Jews of Turkey who left for Israel did not do so for ideological reasons, that is to say for Zionism, but to find a better future there. “Leaving for Israel was not a joyful departure, it was a forced departure, mainly linked to economic reasons, and the Jews who arrived from Muslim countries were not always very well received in Israel”, says French Senator Esther Benbassa, who was not born during the great departures that began in 1949, and left Istanbul to join Israel years later, for personal reasons, before leaving for France and continuing her studies there. . From 81,000 in 1927, there are now only 13,000 Jews in Turkey.

come out of the silence

But where The Club stands out is that the Jews are represented there as normal types, at the end of difficult months, and not as bankers or heirs. This is one of the rare times that a film “shows Jews who are not rich, a Jewish woman who has to earn a living”, assures journalist Gila Benmayor. In 2009, she wrote an open letter to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Prime Minister, “to remind him that the Jews were not all wealthy, contrary to the speech he had made in a university”.

In The Club, the Jew is not either a spy, a traitor, or a frightened type, isolated and disconnected from his community. “For once, we are not shown a “coward jew”, a frightened, obsequious Jew, who accepts everything that is asked of him. The characters in the series do not hide their Jewishness, while our parents, in order not to have any worries, taught us that we had to remain discreet”, remembers Esther Benbassa.

It was the famous policy of the “kayadez(silence), of the silent Jew, who integrated the idea that he should above all not exceed a certain social level, nor meddle in politics while Turkish nationalism was growing. The Orphan of the Bosphorus, by Nissim M. Benezra (Lior editions, 2019), a formidable account of the life of the Jews of Istanbul at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the Republic, locates the origin of the “kayadezin 1927, after the assassination ofElza Niego, a young girl from the Jewish community killed by an unbalanced Turk in love with her. This murder gave rise to major demonstrations by the Jews of Istanbul, which were very severely repressed. Hence the lead screed that followed.

“In Turkey, the term “Jewish” (Jew) is an insult [on utilise plutôt le mot “musevi” qui signifie “descendant de Moïse”, une manière “d’adoucir” ce qui est considéré comme une insulte]; but Matilda says loud and clear “I am yahudi”, thus affirming her identity, and it is enormous”, considers Ilana Navaro.

Rather well received, The Club has however given rise to some criticism. “It’s a beautifully written and produced series, but it shouldn’t be taken as a history lesson in any way.”, warns academic Louis Fishman. Others may have regretted that the main Jewish roles were not played by Jewish actors.

An argument that Ilana Navarro brushes aside: “Wanting Jewish actors to play the role of Jews is very American in vision! I don’t care if the actors aren’t Jewish and even on the contrary: I think it’s great, especially for the Turkish context, it means that this story becomes the story of everyone, of the Turks as a whole, and I feel supported.”

“The introduction of the wealth tax is not taught in schools or mentioned in the media. Speaking loud and clear, The Club will allow the Turkish people to realize the foundations on which the Istanbul of today was built”, wants to believe Nesi Altaras who runs the Avlaremoz editions.

More doubtful, writer and lawyer Rita Ender, who also lives in Istanbul and has published Portrait objects: Conversations with young Jews from Turkey (Lior editions, 2019), warns: “When a subject is on the agenda of his little intelligentsia, we imagine that all of Turkey is talking about it. Beware! Although I recognize that in dealing with minorities, The Club marks an important turning point. Anti-Semitism will remain on the agenda of some and unfortunately this will not contribute to the elimination of injustices.

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In fact, there is still work to be done: up to the highest state level, the Jewish presence on Ottoman lands is traced back to 1492, when the Jews, expelled from Spain, found refuge there. However, the arrival of the latter in Anatolia was concomitant with the Romans: between the VIe and the IIe century BC. What to feed The Club of some additional historical episodes.

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