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Yom HaShoah Commemorated in the Ashkenazi Synagogue

The most effective and emotional Yom HaShoah ceremony I´ve attended in recent years was held in the Ashkenazi Synagogue of Istanbul on Monday night. Jilda Abravay and Igal Mevorah´s presentations, Sarah Chitrik´s music, and the speech made by Dr. Mehmet Ali Tuğtan of Bilgi University left their marks on this significant ceremony.

In the ceremony held in the Ashkenazi Synagogue on Monday, April 17th, 6 million Holocaust (Shoah) victims of whom 1.5 million were children were commemorated. On this significant day fully titled Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), Jews who had lost their lives during the Holocaust as well as the heroes who had resisted the Nazis and the horrible end awaiting them, through the Warsaw ghetto uprising were commemorated.

The ceremony began with Jilda Abravay and Igal Mevorah introducing six people who were Holocaust victims, survivors, or heroes. Following the telling of the life stories of Wolf Dormanshkin, Roza Robota, Ellie Wiesel, Eva Kor, Selahattin Ülkümen, and Frida Feldman, Sarah Chitrik touched the audience with her violin. After the showing of the short film titled Ani Maamin, 6 candles in memory of 6 million victims were lit by the Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva, Consul General of Israel in Istanbul Ehud Moshe Eitam, Turkish Jewish Community co-Presidents Erol Kohen and Ishak Ibrahimzadeh and members of the Turkish Jewish Community.

The influential speech made during the ceremony by Istanbul Bilgi University International Relations Department faculty member Dr. Mehmet Ali Tuğtan, is as follows:

"Shoah is the most horrific consequence of the efforts of the Nazi regime and its collaborators to realize their racist ideological vision in Europe. Although it has targeted hundreds of thousands of other people like the Roma, the Shoah was essentially conceived as a 'final solution' for the goal of eradicating the Jewish people in Europe, and its systematic and industrial application resulted in the killing of six million people.

Without going into the details of academic debates on its uniqueness, it can be said that the Shoah is a catastrophe with no other historical precedent, from the spatial and ideological complexity of the dehumanizing relationship that the perpetrators established with their victims, to the bureaucratic and industrial dimensions and sophistication of the method of massacre. Regardless of the historical context, the Shoah is one of the boundary-defining events of humanity: Politically, it is a category that constitutes the line of reference and comparison for other similar acts; morally, it is essential to keep it fresh in the memory of humanity in order to prevent similar disasters; and it is a category that has become universal, free from historical context and comparison.

As a matter of fact, the definition of the Shoah as a crime against humanity and the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for it constituted one of the major cornerstones of the post-World War II rebuilding of the polity in Europe by the victors through the confrontation with fascism. The International Law Commission, appointed by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 177/II, established the Nuremberg Principles based on individual and institutional responsibility for crimes against humanity; subsequently, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 and entered into force in January 1951. The adoption of the Genocide Convention was aimed not only at defining and preventing similar crimes from being committed in the future, but also at creating a part of the moral foundations of the new political order that was approved by all its participants.

These political and moral foundations, laid under the influence of the Shoah, determined the political language of the post-war world and the boundaries of legitimacy within this language; the denial, trivialization or affirmation of the Shoah was excluded from the boundaries of legitimacy, just like the symbols of Nazism and fascism. Post-war European politics, in which anti-Semitism, the denial of the Shoah and the affirmation of fascism, both at the individual and collective political level, were legally prohibited by European states, was built on these foundations.

The fact that Türkiye did not engage with World War II spared our country and our people, which was devastated by war and occupation only a generation ago, from great destruction. The government led by İsmet İnönü kept Türkiye out of the war, sometimes through shrewd diplomatic maneuvering, sometimes through a cold and rigid defense of the national interest, and often through pain and sacrifice. In this way, although they could not prevent the privations of war, they managed to protect the country and the people from paying a much higher price. Moreover, thanks to the post-war transition to multi-party democracy and the choice to join the Western Alliance, Türkiye was able to become an equal and respected member of the newly established order in Europe. However, staying out of the war also resulted in being left out of the change in the political climate in Europe after the war. As I tried to summarize at the beginning, an important element of Europe’s confrontation with fascism was the understanding of the Shoah in all its aspects and its becoming one of the cornerstones of politics as a border-defining event. Since Türkiye was not occupied during the war, it could not be fully part of this transformation. For Turkish intellectuals and public opinion, the Nuremberg trial, or the European-wide condemnation of fascism and Nazism, was a mere snapshot, which, unlike the rest of Europe, they did not participate in as victims or criminals, but watched from the outside, free from any sense of existential anxiety, anger, fear, or demand for justice. Moreover, in the early years of the Cold War, the growing anti-communist sentiment and concern about Soviet expansionism made confronting fascism a secondary concern. It can be argued that the ideological influence of Nazism and fascism in Türkiye was spread through the anti-communist mobilization during the Cold War, even more than during the interwar period or World War II.

Türkiye’s encounter as an observer, rather than a participant, in this process, which was of fundamental importance in the restructuring of politics in post-war Europe, had an impact not only during the Cold War period, but also in its aftermath and today. Indeed, it is possible to argue that this situation, among other reasons, has contributed to many of the negativities identified and criticized by internal and external observers of Turkish politics. It must be said that similar problems, albeit for completely different reasons, have been and continue to be experienced in the former communist bloc that acquired freedom with the end of the Cold War. However, another feature that distinguishes Türkiye from these examples is that the National Education curriculum does not include a holistic 20th Century Political History course. The history lessons taught at the high school level in Türkiye consists of the History of the Revolution and the early republican period. The scope of this historical narrative is limited to national politics, and its chronological trajectory does not go beyond the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on November 10, 1938, thus marking the end of the interwar period. Thus, not only is the political climate in Türkiye devoid of important elements that form the foundations of European politics, but due to deficiencies in our national education curriculum, all schools in Türkiye, even the most prestigious ones, are graduating their students with a that lack of knowledge of the 20th century political history that forms the basis of modern political consciousness.

To grasp the significance of this shortcoming, we need to go back to the words of former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the successful testing of the hydrogen bomb by both superpowers, Eisenhower made the following observation: In the span of a single human lifetime, the destructive power at our disposal has gone from the artillery shell to the hydrogen bomb. Yet humanity’s intellectual and conscientious progress has lagged behind this technological progress. Thus, Eisenhower pioneered the introduction of a nationwide General Education curriculum in colleges to address this gap.

Back to us: As of the centenary of the Republic, Türkiye is a long-established and important member of the Western Alliance, a country in an ongoing candidacy and customs union with the European Union, the 21st largest economy in the world, and a country with regional and global influence. Despite the economic, political, and social problems that we all know and feel to varying degrees, the republic has grown on the borders and foundations on which it was founded and has risen in the direction envisioned by its founders. The Treaty of Lausanne, whose centenary will soon be celebrated, is the only one of the treaties concluded after World War I that is still valid. Yet, as Türkiye enters the second century of the republic, it is raising generations that are ignorant of the basic sensitivities of European politics to which their country is intricately linked and with which the ideals of the republic belong, and members of these generations can buy one of the many and cheap translations of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf from any bookstore around the corner. Neo-Nazi, fascist and anti-Semitic movements, globalized by the algorithms of social media that equalize their audience on the most banal and profane commonalities, reach the screens and minds of these generations without any critical filtering. It is possible to say that this situation has a significant impact on the recent unpleasant incidents among our youth, which are well known to everyone present here.

In making this emphasis, I do not want it to be inferred that I am ignoring Türkiye’s own history of authoritarianism and discrimination, or that I am neglecting tragedies such as the Thrace Pogroms, the Wealth Tax or the Events of 6-7 September and the local dynamics that led to them. On the contrary, I think that the fact that we do not share the language and borders of European politics has an important correlation with many of the problems that have become chronic in Türkiye’s political climate, and I hope that the inclusion of the Shoah as one of the main events of 20th century political history and the post-war period in the curriculum will be instrumental in confronting these issues and discussing them in a healthier way.

Philosopher Avishai Margalit notes that a decent society is one in which individuals and groups do not humiliate each other. A decent society is a more realistic and achievable goal than a righteous society. This is because whether justice and goodness are manifested or not is a debate that is conducted from relative and subjective perspectives. However, humiliation, discrimination and the evil that accompanies them are universally evident and therefore much easier to both diagnose and prevent. One of the necessary steps for our republic, which is entering its second century, to become a decent society while maintaining the ideal of a just society, is to educate the public, but especially the younger generations, about the Shoah as a boundary-setting and fundamental cornerstone of contemporary politics."

The ceremony came to an end after Rabbi Mendy Chitrik sang the Ani Ma'amin hymn and with the Kadish prayer recited by Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva.

Translated from Turkish by Janet Mitrani Şalom Turkey 21 April 2023


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