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Student’s Research Examines Jews’ Role in Modern Turkish History

Apr 18, 2022 |

Alizé Dreyer is digging into Turkish history – and her own.

Alizé Dreyer, a history and global studies undergraduate student, examines the role Jews played in the formation of a Turkish national identity. The work, she said, is personal.

Dreyer is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in history, as part of the History Distinguished Majors Program, and in global studies, focusing on the Middle East and South Asia. She also is conducting her own independent research as a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant recipient.

Dreyer focuses on how nationalism and nation-building in Turkey during the nation’s “one-party period” – from 1923 to 1945 – affected Jews in comparison with other groups in Turkey, and how Jews also participated in nation-building.

“The crisis following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and national consolidation efforts from the late 1890s to the 1940s is crucial for the context of this topic,” Dreyer said. “I also look into how Jewish life differed from that in the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. This will connect with a shift to increasing antisemitism and ‘otherization’ amidst various rising nationalist movements.”

Dreyer said Jews in Turkey were excluded from religious and ethnic interpretations of Turkishness and were targeted by antisemitic and racist nationalism that also targeted Armenians, Greeks and Kurds. She said that while Jews in Turkey have historically tried to remain quiet, unobtrusive and unseen by the government and society, her research looks into them as active agents in Turkish history, criticizing the harm of nationalist rhetoric while examining how minoritized populations used nationalism as a tool to fit into new conceptions of society and identity.

“My research is necessary because Turkey is a microcosm of the phenomenon of identity formation that was happening globally in the early 20th century,” Dreyer said. “Turkish Jews have not been ignored in historiography, but many of their stories and voices have not been fully heard. However, this is also slowly changing.”

The research is not just academic, but personal. Members of Dreyer’s family are part of that story, having been sent from Greece to Turkey in 1923 as part of a population stabilization and homogenization effort negotiated along religious lines by Greece and Turkey. Her mother’s side of her family still lives in Turkey.

In response to being defined as outsiders by some forms of Turkish nationalism, while facing discrimination and accusations of disloyalty, some leaders of the Jewish community – such as Avram Galanti, a Jewish educator, linguist, historian and politician – espoused their own form of Turkish nationalism, one that could accommodate Jews. However, Turkish Jews are not monolithic and had various opinions on this subject.

“Galanti is representative of this turbulent time as one of many who tried to get in on the ground floor of national construction to create a space for their community early on, but he does not represent the entirety of the Turkish Jewish experience,” Dreyer said. “He serves as an interesting case study to examine the phenomena of assimilation, Jewish-Muslim relations, how Jews perceived themselves within Turkey, nationalism and how antisemitism and general anti-non-Muslim sentiment affected Jews.”

Dreyer noted that while other scholars have not ignored Galanti and his writing, few have explored all his works.

“Turkishness also was defined in opposition to other identities.”

Dreyer said the multi-religious and multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire brought in Sephardic Jewish refugees after the Inquisition, a Catholic movement to uncover denial of or deviation from that religion’s doctrines that started around 1200 C.E. and continued for several hundred years.

However, the political atmosphere changed when the Republic of Turkey was established following the Turkish War of Independence after World War I.

“The creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 caused a shift in society for everyone,” Dreyer said. “State nationalism envisioned a secular republic, where Turkishness was not defined by ethnicity or religion. However, ethnicity and religion still played a role in practice. Turkishness also was defined in opposition to other identities.”

Part of her research into this shift, Dreyer said, examines how Jews and Turks coped with change, defined themselves and how others defined them, amidst the changing politics and upheaval.

“Jews such as Galanti wished for their coreligionists to speak Turkish and basically remove markers of difference that made them more visible as non-Muslims, which made them more of a target,” Dreyer said. “Many Jewish leaders encouraged other Jews to subscribe to Turkishness for this reason. Non-Muslims not speaking Turkish was a common complaint by nationalists, and language was seen as a crucial part of being part of a new state as secular nationalists did not want Islam to be the defining factor of identity.

“This did not stop antisemitism in Turkey. However, Jews who were outspoken supporters of Turkish nationalism were in a minority. Many everyday Jews just wanted to live their lives.”

Antisemitism in Turkey was generally lumped into animus toward all non-Muslims, Dreyer said.

“Jews were affected by policies that also hurt Greeks and Armenians,” she said. “However, Greeks and Armenians, who were also more populous, experienced more direct harm. There was still rising antisemitism that specifically targeted Jews, particularly during World War II.”

Dreyer’s research indicates that in 1914, one in every five people in the Ottoman Empire was not Muslim; 13 years later, in 1927, one in every 40 people was not Muslim, which can be attributed to territories lost. There were roughly 80,000 Jews in Turkey in 1923. Today, there are about 14,000.

“The Armenian genocide in 1915 and various massacres throughout the years killed many non-Muslims,” Dreyer said. “With the Population Exchange of 1923, Muslims living in Greece were resettled in Turkey and Greek-speaking Christians in Turkey were resettled in Greece in both nations’ attempts to homogenize the populations of the new states. Many non-Muslims fled as a result of pogroms [ethnically targeted massacres] such as the Thrace Pogrom of 1934, which resulted in over 15,000 Jews leaving the region. The Wealth Tax of 1942 also pushed many non-Muslims to leave, as it intentionally and disproportionately targeted non-Muslims and placed exorbitant taxes on them.”

“A significant part of culture is learning about where one came from.”

Dreyer’s research has forged stronger connections with her mother’s family, whom she visited in Turkey over the summers while growing up.

“A significant part of culture is learning about where one came from,” she said. “It was fascinating to flip through primary and secondary source material and find the names of people who I am related to or are the ancestors of people I know. This kept me engaged throughout the research and writing process and reminded me of how history is often so personal.”

Her research into the foundations of Turkey and how it became an idea and a nation-state has shown her how the processes affected millions of people in the lands of what became Turkey – people whose narratives are often ignored or erased from official histories.

Her mentors appreciate that Dreyer is on the road less taken.

“Dreyer’s research engages thoughtfully with the complexities of religion and nationalism in the modern Middle East,” said James Loeffler, the Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History and the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies. “While so much history looks at the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she tracks how Jews in Turkey experienced and shaped the rise of modern Turkish nationalism. This is terrific research by a dedicated, curious young historian who has honed her skills through years of deep study in history and Jewish studies here at UVA.”

Joshua Michael White, an associate professor of history, said he is impressed with Dreyer and her abilities.

“I would describe Alizé as hard-working, diligent, curious, unfailingly polite and pleasant,” he said. “She has an impressive command of a range of languages … that permit her to conduct research in original primary sources that would be unusually ambitious, even for a graduate student. The questions that she is asking have very recently begun to occupy professional historians more, but it’s important and difficult work, and there’s still much more of it to be done.”

Dreyer said she learned other lessons in her research.

“The project I did this year refined my writing skills and taught me critical skills of time management and communication with difficult tasks,” she said. “I learned I am a lot more capable and resilient than I originally thought.”

A member of the Raven Society, Dreyer plans to take a break from school after graduation and work in an internship, fellowship or job before pursuing a master’s degree in history or library science. Career-wise, she hopes to do museum or archiving work, while volunteering for human rights and environmental organizations.

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