I usually introduce myself as being from Istanbul, where I spent my first 18 years. This introduction leads to the reasonable assumption that I am Muslim, since 99.9 percent of Turkey is Muslim. So, it is surprising when later I mention that I am Jewish. This confuses Americans, with little understanding of the Middle East as an Islamic region. This prompts questions on whether my family recently moved to Istanbul, which is not the case.
When I share this critical part of who I am, there is a visible change in how I am perceived. First of all, I am absolved of all the negative stereotypes associated with Muslims. While being Muslim is seen as “weird,” problematically othered, being Jewish in America is “normal,” even pedestrian. This normalization goes so far that it seems to devalue this identity that has been so central to my life. Saying that I am Jewish at Tufts is perceived as saying I am left-handed or gluten-free: a minor curiosity. As a generic Turk, assumed Muslim, my background seems “exotic” and my hometown merits the question “Is it safe?” but those questions wash away when I say I am Jewish.
What does not translate is that, while being Jewish, I am still also from Turkey. You cannot compartmentalize these identities. Being Jewish does not suddenly mean I am from New Jersey or Westchester. Jews of Turkey are simply different from most American Jews, in life experience and heritage. My community of 10,000 people (four of whom go to Tufts) is almost exclusively Sephardic. We trace our roots to Spain, Portugal and Italy. The way we pray, the architecture of our synagogues and most importantly our cuisine, is different from the Ashkenazim, Jews of Northern Europe who make up the majority of the U.S. Jews. A useful term here is “ashkenormative,” pointing out that Jewish discourse and culture treats Ashkenazis as the default and marginalizes all other Jews.
The Turkish-Jewish experience is one of an openly hated minority, slandered in the media, even by the Turkish president. Culturally accepted hatred for Jews is shocking to many at Tufts, especially American non-Jews, who know of anti-Semitism only in the context of the Holocaust and do not have a comparative framework to understand the Jewish experience in Turkey. In their view, in their American-centric view of the world, Jews are well-treated, privileged white people who face no marginalization. It is as if any understanding that living in Turkey is no easy task disappears when I tell people I’m Jewish but my life is not that of an American Jew; it is laced with employment, educational and social discrimination on top of immigration concerns that I face while I live in the United States.
The American-based view of Jews decontextualizes and delegitimizes non-American, non-Ashkenazi Jews at Tufts. This should be unacceptable. This mindset is dismissive of the fact that my community is treated as an internal fifth column in my country of birth. Tufts Jewish organizations need to question their ashkenormativity while gentiles need to rethink their American-based preconceptions of Jewish identity.