The following is extracted from Farewell España, the World of the Sephardim Remembered by Jewish historian Howard Sachar.
In 1985, a majority of Congress’s Jewish senators and representatives initially favored a pro-Armenian resolution. A few drew specific parallels between the fate of the Armenians in 1915 and that of the Jews in World War II. But soon these legislators, and Jews elsewhere, came under heavy Turkish pressure. Indeed, three years earlier, Ankara had similarly protested to the government of Israel. An international symposium on genocide then under way at Tel Aviv University included several Armenian scholars among its participants. The Turks got wind of the conclave and protested. The Israeli government then intervened and academic sponsorship was revoked. Afterward, however, the event continued, although under “private” auspices.
Yet if the Jews would not abandon their wide-ranging exploration of genocide, neither would the Turks relinquish their campaign of intimidation. The following spring, in April 1983, two officials of the United States Holocaust Commission in Washington, Dr. Barbara Abramowitz and Rabbi Seymour Siegel, dropped by my home to discuss a vexing problem. The commission had tentatively formulated plans for an Armenian “section” in the impending Museum of the Holocaust, but lately had faced stiff Turkish warnings to drop the proposal. Was there truth, my visitors queried, to the Turkish argument that the Armenian genocide was a non-happening? In reply, I offered a personal and unambiguous evaluation, then suggested appropriate reading material. But the episode was troubling. As I learned afterward, it was but the tip of the iceberg of a triangular Armenian-Turkish-Jewish crisis.
While Congress’s mandate to the Holocaust Commission in 1980 ostensibly was to memorialize all victims of genocide, there was little question that the principal emphasis would be laid upon the Six Million of World War II. Nevertheless, the commission’s Jewish members at the outset assured their Armenian colleague, Set Momjian, that his people’s tragedy would be “substantially” integrated into the exhibit. That pledge failed to materialize in ensuing years. The Turkish government had learned of the proposal, and reacted with characteristic spleen. In the summer of 1980, Ankara dispatched a sharp protest to Washington. If Armenia were so much as mentioned in the Holocaust exhibit, it warned, there would be repercussions against NATO bases in Turkey. The State Department passed on the warning to the Holocaust Commission without comment.
Three years later, in June 1983, the Turkish cultural attaché in Washington invited several of the Holocaust Commission’s staff members to an “educational” session at his office. Waiting with him were four or five American scholarly authorities on Middle Eastern history, among them Richard Chambers, Justin McCarthy, and Heath Lowry, executive director of the Institute for Turkish Studies. Virtually on cue, these men proceeded once more to attack the notion of an Armenian genocide, invoking the familiar arguments of Turkish self-defense and of extensive killings on both sides. After approximately an hour of this edification, the group broke for cocktails and lunch with Ambassador Sukru Alekdag. At the luncheon table, the ambassador, equable and gracious until then, suddenly became a man transformed. “If the Armenians are so much as mentioned in your holocaust museum,” he threatened, “it will go badly for the Jews in Turkey. Also for Jewish refugees from Iran. We permit them to cross into our territory, you know, even without passports. That could all stop.”
Soon after this discussion, a full-page statement was published in ten or twelve leading American-Jewish newspapers. This time the signatories were the principal rabbis and communal spokesmen of Turkish Jewry. The text was imaginative. It emphasized the warm hospitality Turkey had extended the Jews over the previous five centuries and the Jewish community’s heartfelt gratitude. The choice of the American-Jewish press for the declamation was by no means a scattershot tactic. Beyond its rather poignant display of Turkish-Jewish insecurities, the statement bore witness to a widely shared Turkish assumption that Jews in the United States were authentic movers and shakers on the American landscape. Perhaps, then, at the initiative of the Turkish-Jewish community, the American-Jewish community could similarly be mobilized to produce a more “balanced” understanding of Turkey’s record of “tolerance and love” (in the words of a Turkish Information Office brochure). In the process, Jewish influence might similarly be exploited to help bury the unrequited ghost of the Armenian people.
The Quincentennial Foundation
One of those who contested the perennial Armenian-genocide resolution, both in published statements and in direct testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1989, was an eminent Turkish-Jewish industrialist, Jak Kamhi. Upon returning to Istanbul following his appearance before Congress, Kamhi gave more intensive thought to a potential Jewish role in making Turkey’s case. As he acknowledged later to an Israeli journalist, “Some newspapers [here] complained that we Jews are not doing anything in this matter of defending Turkey’s image.” Evidently, it was not enough simply for local Jews to cooperate in Ankara’s public relations campaign; their cooperation had to be visible. To that end, Kamhi and other prominent Jews set about organizing a “Quincentennial Foundation.” Its purpose was to mount an extensive series of events to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Sultan Bayezid II’s historic welcome to Sephardic Jews in 1492.
Kamhi was both the driving force and the principal financial benefactor of the undertaking. Estimates of his personal contribution ranged up to $5 million. He could afford it. One of the richest men in Turkey, Kamhi was chairman of the Profilo Group, a vast industrial-real estate conglomerate. Doubtless much of his enterprise depended upon official licenses and favorable tax assessments, and upon a general atmosphere of public and private approbation. Moreover, after the recent Jewish vicissitudes in the Turkish Republic, other local Jewish businessmen would similarly find it useful to remain on the qui vive for official goodwill. As Kamhi explained patiently to his interlocutors, the Quincentennial Foundation “is just a way to say thank you, to honor the remarkable spirit of tolerance the Turks have shown toward their Jewish compatriots.” And the foundation’s charter would add, in language that was all but a road map: “This spirit is not an isolated instance of humanitarianism. Throughout its history, Turkey has welcomed people of different creeds, cultures, and backgrounds. The Jewish community in Turkey is part of this tradition.” And so, one was left to assume, were the Armenians.
Kamhi and his associates projected an extensive agenda for the foundation, especially in the United States. They opened an office in New York. Under its direction, a speakers’ bureau made available to Jewish organizations a wide selection of lecturers and artists, of music, dance, and other folklore groups, all offering “authoritative” insight into Turkish-Jewish life. A documentary film on Turkish Jewry was prepared for public television, as well as text material, audiovisual aids, articles, fact sheets, human-interest stories, and photo essays for Jewish schools, synagogues, adult-education courses. The foundation also underwrote scholarly symposia on Turkish Jewry at selected American universities.
The largest of these programs, in November 1992, took place at UCLA, and its organizer was Stanford Shaw. Indeed, it was the foundation that sponsored the publication of Professor Shaw’s The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic in 1991. Although densely textured and engaging, the book was essentially prefigured in a background paper Shaw had whipped up earlier for foundation distribution, intended for a more popular readership. Its summary established the theme for Shaw’s—and the foundation’s—enterprise in the United States:
In secular Turkey there has been no place for the separate … millets, since all citizens have equal rights and equal legal status regardless of religion.… Jewish Turks have participated in all areas of life in Republican Turkey … and almost every area of the economy.… Jews remain extremely comfortable with their lives in the Turkish Republic and secure in their Turkish patriotism and loyalty to the Turkish Republic.
The high-powered media campaign was an unqualified success. American Jews were won over almost without reservation. Local Jewish communities participated enthusiastically in programs the foundation organized and often partially funded. At its Chicago convention in September 1990, the American Sephardi Federation adopted a resolution of “gratitude to the people and government of Turkey,” and encouraged all members and friends to participate in the 1992 “celebration in Turkey.” B’nai B’rith passed an identical resolution at its international convention in Dallas in August 1990. The goodwill—American and American Jewish—was powerfully enhanced in the ensuing year, as the Turkish government proved a steadfast and valuable ally in the Persian Gulf campaign against Iraq.
The “celebration in Turkey” of 1992 was the apotheosis of the foundation’s two-year program. It encompassed a sequence of elaborate guided tours; visits to synagogues, schools, and cemeteries; scholarly symposia with papers offered by Turkish, American, and Israeli academicians (whose expenses from the latter two countries were generously underwritten); communal conclaves; drama and music festivals; government receptions. The extravaganza culminated in early August 1992 with a series of performances by the Israel Philharmonic, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, in a concert hall in Istanbul and later at the Roman amphitheater of Ephesus. Turkish Airlines assigned five special jets to fly the Ephesus passengers to and from Istanbul. The visiting thousands of American Jews were overwhelmed. Kamhi and his associates doubtless were relieved. The Turkish government could not have been less than gratified.