A groundbreaking Netflix series set among the Jews of Turkey has been an unexpected hit there, challenging taboos and captivating audiences with its perspective on a long ignored community.
The global success of Turkish TV series, which often feature narratives that appeal to the government, has made the country a television superpower.
But “The Club” and its lavish recreation of 1950s Istanbul is new, not least because some of the dialogue is in Ladino, the language of Istanbul’s Jews derived from medieval Spanish.
While minorities once thrived in the cosmopolitan capital of the Ottoman Empire, they have since suffered persecution and discrimination.
Jews generally kept their heads down for protection, adhering to the Turkish Jewish custom of “kayades,” which means “silence” in Ladino.
But “The Club”, which settles around a discotheque of the historical European district of Istanbul, puts an end to this silence.
– Pogrom against minorities –
It discusses the attacks and persecutions that drove many Jews, Greeks and Armenians out of Turkey in the 20th century, including a crippling 1942 tax on non-Muslims and a 1955 pogrom against Greeks that also sparked violence. against all other minorities.
“Silence has not protected us from anti-Semitism or prevented migration to other countries,” said Nesi Altaras, editor of the online magazine Avlaremoz run by young Turkish Jews.
“We have to talk, even about political issues that previous generations wanted to avoid,” he told AFP.
Fewer than 15,000 Jews remain in Turkey, down from 200,000 at the start of the 20th century.
Most are Sephardim, whose ancestors fled to the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain in 1492.
In a rare case of life imitating art, “The Club” became Netflix’s number one show in Turkey just as Ankara tried to mend ties with Israel.
While the two countries have historically been close, relations have deteriorated significantly over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and comments by the Turkish president criticized as anti-Semitic.
In fact, until recently, pro-government Turkish newspapers regularly published articles considered anti-Semitic.
But Israeli President Isaac Herzog made a historic visit to Turkey earlier this month, where he held talks with his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Herzog even visited the area of Istanbul where “The Club” takes place.
The spectacle, and in particular the scenes of the pogroms on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue in September 1955, when mobs lynched minorities and looted their shops, also sparked fierce debate in Turkish media and online about the need to confront history.
“No other television program has presented the anti-Semitic incidents of this period in such a remarkable way,” said Silvyo Ovadya, president of the Jewish Museum of Turkey.
“This part of history is not taught in schools in Turkey. Many Turks learned about it from the series,” Altaras said.
“The series invites us to question the official narrative and ask ourselves, ‘What happened to the Jews of Turkey?'” said Pinar Kilavuz, a researcher on Sephardic Jews at Paris-Sorbonne University.
Altaras believes the series has influenced Turkish national politics.
“It is no coincidence that the leader of the main opposition party included in his campaign ‘heal the wounds of the past’, in reference to the attacks on minorities,” he said.
“We are part of this country”
For Izzet Bana, musician and adviser to the series, the show performed a “miracle” by recreating the Jewish neighborhood of her childhood.
“At first, I was worried because other shows caricatured Jews. But the series reflects real characters, far from clichés,” Bana said.
Despite this on-screen progress, Kilavuz said, more needs to be done to make Jews in Turkey feel equal.
“There is a myth about the Ottoman Empire hosting Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century,” he said.
“It is used to stigmatize anyone asking for equal rights as a sign of ingratitude,” he argued.
Even though everyone is considered equal before the law in Turkey, in practice non-Muslim minorities face enormous obstacles, ranging from getting government jobs to opening or repairing churches or synagogues.
It is also rare to find a prominent minority figure in government or state institutions where Sunni Turkish Muslims still dominate.
For Altaras, the series, which will return for a third season, shows Turkish society that Jews were part of “the history of this country”.
“We already knew that, but it’s good that the Turks realize that too.”