Businessman warns: Act fast before political storm in 2015
Apology is a sign of maturity and it is time for Turkey to grow up, said a prominent member of Turkey’s Jewish community. There is little time left until 2015 when Turkey will face a huge campaign by the Armenian lobby, which claims it will be the 100th year of Armenian genocide, warns İshak Alaton, businessman and founder of the Open Society Institute. “Turkish society is changing fast, but its mentality still needs thawing,” Alaton told the Daily News in a recent interview.
You recently made a call for Turkey to face the realities of its past. What is the reality that Turks need to face when it comes to minorities?
I believe there is a dogmatic freeze in society that needs to be thawed. Our education system for the past 90 years relied on dogmas. I want Turkey to have a mental revolution. We should leave our prejudices aside and become an inquisitive society.
What are the prejudices that we have about minorities?
There is the dogma that minorities are harmful. Since the 1920s, the theory that those who are not accepted as Turks are not useful and even harmful has been indoctrinated into society.
Can you give an example of what it means to be a minority in Turkey?
In the 1990s a decree was endorsed with the title “Potential Saboteurs,” which included the description of “local foreigners including those with Turkish citizenship.” When I was asked who those could be, I said, “This is denominating me.” We went to court and won the case. The Justice Minister of that period İsmet Sezgin wrote me a letter congratulating me for saving Turkey from a big shame.
What does this case tell us: Is the glass half full or half empty?
Society is the glass’ half full side because it did not abide by the regime’s xenophobic and anti-Semitic policies, despite all the brainwashing.
What makes you say that. Look at reactions when people said “We are all Armenian” to show solidarity for slain Armenian writer Hrant Dink.
But this is so extraordinary that people are doing that. Even those who criticize it know well how this is such a noble act.
The state’s policies have certainly taken a terrible toll on minorities.
There was an atmosphere of oppression, an atmosphere with little oxygen. The number of Jews has fallen to 21,000 from 300,000. What would have happened if a reverse policy were endorsed? What would have happened if minorities were cherished? Turkey would have become a Sweden.
You believe this has changed in the 2000s?
There was huge propaganda claiming that in November 2002, a fundamentalist party would come to power in Turkey. But I said, “This is the happiest day of my life because this administration will not approve of the oppression that minorities were subjected to.” I knew Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he was mayor of Istanbul. I knew how pragmatic, rational and humanist he was. There has been improvement since that day.
Some say the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought international legitimacy by trying to please minority members.
I don’t share these views, but I won’t criticize them. The end justifies the means. If it (AKP) act out of pragmatism, it will in the future become aware of how democracy is useful.
But don’t you think it put on the brakes? Look at the Dink case.
No doubt there will be deviation, but we are on the right path. In the Dink case, it seems there is still a deep state. Despite all, the current government seems not able to put a strong policy to overcome that. But there is increased pressure from society.
There are a lot of Turkish non-Muslim minorities living abroad who are probably homesick.
Go to San Francisco, go to Los Angeles. They are crying. And I am sure there are a lot of Turks who are regretful and lament, saying, “Why did we let them go?”
The unknown brother
Turkey’s policies against minorities have taken their toll on Alaton’s family. His father was exiled to eastern Turkey in 1942 when he was unable to pay the disproportionate tax levied by the government. “My father entered into a depression and never went out of it,” said Alaton.
His brother could not take it anymore when the second blow came with the Sept. 6 pogroms. “He was a member of the academic staff of Istanbul University,” he said. “That day he came across thugs while walking to Tünel [near İstiklal Avenue where the shops of non-Muslim minorities were looted]. He sought refuge in a building and witnessed all the pillage. He said he could no longer live here and left for Sweden. Since then he scraped off Turkey completely.” With the exception of a brief visit in 1978, there has been almost no contact between the brothers.
Don’t you think those who are lamenting are a tiny minority?
No. Tens of thousands marched when Dink died. And there are also those who did not march, the silent majority.
What will be your call to the Anatolian non-Muslim diaspora?
Turkey is changing fast. Let’s leave the past behind and build the new Turkey together.
How can you convince them?
There is a speedy rise of awareness. There is a huge difference in society not only from five years ago but even from last year. There is mental change that looks for reconciliation with the past.
What was the aim behind your recent message?
I believe that we will not overcome some problems in a short period of time. But what worries me is 2015. In April 2015 hell will break loose. We need to act fast. That’s why I have convinced the Open Society Institute for a road map. We will showcase 10 cases of apology.
Do you think that conditions have become mature to heed your call?
We have a society that does not give the much needed support to the government. The NGOs should prepare societies so that the government feels comfortable for apology. The government is still affected by criticism although critical voices are limited to 10 to 15 percent of society. But their voice is so aggressive that it sounds much louder. It should be society that will ask the government to apologize.
You are alluding to a big campaign against Turkey for 2015.
Half of the world is against us (on this issue). But it is our insensitivity that lies at the root cause of the problem. We committed a murder, but we deny it. The victims of the murder are not suffering from the murder but from the denial of the murder.
So should we accept the killings as genocide and apologize for it?
I don’t have a simplistic view. I find the denial very mean, and that’s why I think we need an apology. I don’t suggest an apology for the murder committed but an apology for denying the murder. I did not commit the murder; it is the grandfather I don’t know. My philosophy professor had told me, “It is not fair to put the responsibility of the sins of fathers upon the shoulders of the sons and grandsons.”
You are asking for an apology not only for Armenians, I assume.
We have committed countless murders in the past and put the corpses in the closet thinking no one saw. But the corpses have rotted, and there is such a terrible smell that we can’t breath. We need to grow up. We need to open the doors of the closet and hold funerals. Society is coming to that point. But we need to act faster.
WHO IS İSHAK ALATON
İshak Alaton is not only known to the Turkish public as a successful businessman, but also as a prominent public figure who has never shied away from making bold and courageous statements. He is by far the most outspoken member of the Jewish community in Turkey.
Born in 1927 in İstanbul, Alaton is currently the chairman of the Board of Alarko Holding, one of the top Turkish companies.
He is the founder and currently vice chairman of the Board of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), as well as the founder and board member of the Open Society Foundation.
He was honored by the King of Sweden in 1993 with the Nordstjaernan (North Star), first degree, as well as by the King of Spain in 2007 with the ‘‘Merito Civil’’ award.
He has been the Honorary Consul General of South Africa in Istanbul since 199