New Netflix series sheds light on social and political pressures on Turkish minorities

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Photo: Netflix

By Dr Merve Reyhan Kayıkcı

“The Club”, a new Turkish series released last Friday on Netflix, sheds light on the social and political pressures faced by religious minorities in Turkey in the early 1950s, leading to their exodus from the country in search of a better life and more sure.

The main character is a young Jewish woman, Mathilde, who lost her father and brother in a labor camp in the district of Aşkale, in eastern Erzurum. The father and son were sent to the camp after an employer falsely complained to the authorities that they had not paid the mandatory capital tax.

The Capital Tax Law (Varlık Vergisi) was a wealth tax enacted by the Turkish parliament on November 11, 1942. Although its apparent purpose was to raise funds for Turkey’s possible entry into the Second World War, it was intended to destroy the economic position of non-Muslim minorities in the country and reinforce the ongoing process of economic Turkification. The law was the final act in a series of anti-Jewish and anti-minority measures adopted in the early years of the Turkish Republic.

By law, the tax had to be paid within a month and although it was imposed on both Muslims and non-Muslims, non-Muslims had to pay taxes 20 times higher than Muslims. Many non-Muslim merchants had to pay taxes that exceeded their existing wealth and had to urgently sell goods to raise money in a short period of time.

Non-Muslims who were unable to pay the tax were sent to labor camps. A total of 2,057 people were sent to the camps and, according to official records, 21 people died.

The television series is one of the first to discuss the harmful effects of these discriminatory laws from the perspective of minorities. Gabi Behiri, a Turkish Jew, said on Twitter that Jews were often portrayed through anti-semite tropes in Turkish popular culture and that it was the first time that their culture, language and religion were truthfully portrayed.

“Jews are often portrayed by stereotypes, such as Mossad agents or greedy loan sharks,” he said. “The Jews are presented as rich and dark figures, but thousands of Jews, like me, who have lived in this country know that is not true. “

Behiri added that the series highlighted a community that has shrunk over the years due to oppressive policies.

Journalist Karel Valansi, of the Jewish newspaper Şalom, said on Twitter that the series portrayed the lives of Jews in Turkey who had been grossly under-represented in Turkish popular culture.

However, the series doesn’t just cover stories from the Jewish community. One of the main characters in the series, Orhan, who owns a club, is Greek but poses as a Turkish Muslim. He warns his mother to speak Turkish at home and in public. In an atmosphere of growing anti-Greek sentiment, Orhan fears he will lose everything if he learns that he was born under the name Niko to a Greek family.

Orhan’s fears are not unfounded, as he is being forced to fire his non-Muslim employees from the club because authorities warn him that the entertainment industry should be “Turkish”. Drawing up a list of all Greek, Armenian and Jewish workers, the club management fired them one by one.

The 1950s were difficult years for all religious minorities, especially in Istanbul. The pressure to speak Turkish has increased, and many Greeks and Armenians have been tried for “insulting the Turkish nation”. The charges were brought in response to complaints from disgruntled neighbors, employers or workers.

A campaign called “Citizens, speak Turkish!” »(Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş!)

Political tensions gradually increased, leading to a pogrom in September 1955, in which mobs attacked the homes and businesses of Istanbul’s minorities.

According to the Greek press, 15 people died and up to 300 were injured. Dozens of women have been raped and thousands of properties destroyed. Thousands of Greeks and other minority communities left Turkey in the wake of the pogrom, permanently damaging Istanbul’s cosmopolitan social structure.

Garo Paylan, an MP for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), introduced a motion in parliament in September demanding that an investigation be opened into the incident and that authorities identify the public officials and civilian perpetrators who organized the pogrom .

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