Uzay Bulut: Interview with exiled Turkish non-Jew against antisemitism in Turkey
A highly successful journalist and political analyst in her 30s, Uzay Bulut was in Israel studying toward her second MA at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, her first MA having been in Media and Cultural Studies in Ankara. She was researching the history of Israel and antisemitism in Erdoğan’s Turkey, something she hopes to publish as a book once completed. She is currently a research fellow of the Philos Project, and a writing fellow of the Gatestone Institute.
After two and a-half years in Israel, she is now living in Greece, which she says she loves. But being out of Turkey does not make her completely safe as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has put a bounty on hundreds of Turkish journalists outside the country.
What makes a member of the majority privileged class change the natural course of her life by taking on the human rights violations committed by her country’s government? And why is she so interested in antisemitism? At one point in this interview, Bulut taught me a history lesson that stunned me but should not have surprised me, really.
Sitting across from me on Zoom was a fair-skinned, brown-eyed woman whose red lips match the ruby red of her hair. A smile constantly played on her lips and she would periodically burst out in merry high-pitched laughter.
I started by asking her to describe her childhood.
I was born in Turkey, in a city on the north shore of the Black Sea. It’s such a beautiful and historic city, so green. I love forests and mountains – I’m a mountain girl. I feel happiest when I am in nature.
Because my background was Sunni Muslim Turkish, we were privileged citizens of the country. I was never exposed to persecution and had no problems because of my identity and ethnicity. In Turkey, the ideal citizen is a Sunni Muslim Turk.
I loved reading. I loved newspapers and I would read all the columns. I would cut out the good ones and put them in a file and archive them. Who did that in middle school? I would watch political debates on TV for hours.
It is not surprising, then, that you became a journalist. Did you always have in mind writing about Turkish human rights abuses?
No. I was indoctrinated at school in the ideologies of Turkish nationalism, Turkish history, and geography and when I was growing up, there were no minorities around me. I didn’t even know that there were minorities in Turkey. I only knew of eastern Kurds – but in a limited way – because of the news on TV. Therefore, I did not know of the persecution against any religious or ethnic minority in Turkey; the plight of these minorities wasn’t discussed on TV or taught at school.
I had no idea about Jews, Christians, Yazidis. I didn’t know anything.
What changed for you?
I think my eyes started to really open at university. But I remember I was also questioning things in high school to some extent. I remember, for example, that in our city there were Turkish nationalists and Islamic nationalists. I had two friends – one was a religious nationalist and one an ethnic nationalist. They were discussing which was more important: being a Turk first and a Muslim second or Muslim first and Turk second?
My response was that we should be human first. Before ethnicity and religion. I remember that conversation well. I kind of felt something was wrong with the political culture. So maybe I have had that feeling in me since childhood.
I always had a kind-of rebel inside me, even before I changed my mind completely about my country.
How did your career develop in the early years?
I received an MA in Ankara in Media and Cultural Studies. While doing my master’s, I started blogging and worked for Rudaw, a Kurdish news agency based in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The editor was in Canada – a Kurdish man – and I was in Ankara writing news reports. This was, to be honest, my favorite journalistic experience because I was reporting on the ground.
I covered Kurdish issues in Turkey, but I also covered other topics: political prisoners, protests, human rights abuses. I was interviewing people all the time. For example, I interviewed victims and eyewitnesses of a pogrom in Maras against the Alevi minority citizens that had taken place in 1978. Interviewing such individuals in person was a real honor for me.
Did you not have a problem with the authorities back then?
Back then, the situation was a little better. I didn’t get arrested. There was no criminal investigation against me, but the fear and anxiety were always there, you know. I would wonder what might happen. You hear of other journalists being arrested, so you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. There was no stability for dissident journalists and that’s one of the reasons why I left Turkey.
I know someone who was killed. I had briefly interviewed him twice on the phone for news reports I was writing. He was the greatest Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elci. He struggled all his life because he was also a political activist and lawyer for so many families whose children or family members were killed or disappeared. He shed light on these cases, and he ended up being murdered at a press conference in Diyarbakir. I was living in the United States at that time.
I know of a lot of journalists who fled Turkey. I didn’t flee. I left of my own free will.
In 2016, I had to go back to Turkey to change my American visa from a tourist to a work visa because I got a job with the Voice of America. That was the last time I was in Turkey.
I loved the USA, and I loved the people there, but my desire to go to Israel was even greater.
I saw that there is so much hatred toward Israel and they don’t deserve it. It made me so angry, so I said I will go to that country and experience the country first-hand and I will figure out what is going on there. I felt that, maybe because I am from this region, Israel is closer to me intellectually, even spiritually. I loved Israel even before going there.
And what was your experience of Israel when you were here?
I think people are so kind. They treat you like family. For example, I was in Be’er Sheva during one of the Hamas rocket attacks and I ran to the bomb shelter a few times. We were shopping at a supermarket, and while driving we had to stop and go to a shelter three or four times within a period of two hours maybe. I was traumatized and at the last bomb shelter I started crying. Nobody else was crying. They were so kind, bringing me water and asking why I was crying. You know, they are used to it and I am not.
One thing that fascinates me about Israel is the importance and value they give to education. I lived in a desert village, Sde Boker, because the campus of my department, the Israel Studies Program of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute, is there. There is a university in the desert; there are research centers, academic libraries. So you see education and learning everywhere, which I think is nonexistent anywhere else in the Middle East, so it made Israel a very special place for me.
I sometimes criticized the government of Israel but, because there is free speech and free press, I always felt safe. In the classroom, the students and academics freely discussed everything [said with a sweeping arm movement accompaniment]. All kinds of ideas, and nobody fears for their lives because it’s a free country. This is the most important thing in the world – freedom of mind. It matters to me because I come from a country where people are arrested or killed for having different opinions.
What have you found about antisemitism in Turkey under Erdoğan?
I think antisemitism in Turkey – Muslim antisemitism – is the most dangerous kind of antisemitism today. If we study Islamic theology, the scriptures, we see that it’s an annihilationist type of antisemitism. I can see how this kind of antisemitism is affecting Turkish society and other Muslim societies. It comes from the religion itself. That doesn’t mean that every Muslim is antisemitic, of course, but there is a very strong element of Jew-hatred in Islamic scriptures. I think light should be shed on that.
So where is this hatred coming from, I wondered? Israel wants to have good relationships with Turkey and with all other Muslim nations. Unfortunately, it’s not reciprocated.
I watched Turkish media – Islamist and nationalist media — there’s so much Islamic antisemitism by religious writers and columnists. It’s obvious; they’re not hiding it. They refer to scriptures and they say Allah hates the Jews.
You have seen racism and hatred toward different ethnic groups in Turkey. Is antisemitism somehow different from these other hatreds?
Antisemitism seems to be a unique form of racism for various reasons. Firstly, antisemites hate Jewish people for reasons that contradict each other. For instance, Jews were accused of being leading communists responsible for the actions of the Soviet Union while also being accused of being leading capitalists who run the international capitalist economic system.
Uniquely, throughout history, Jews have been the scapegoat for individual, and even national, misfortunes.
Are there any other forms of racism that are so deeply rooted and irrational? This irrational hatred seems to unite all kinds of extremists including radical Islamists, neo-Nazis, and even black supremacists who would otherwise hate each other. I doubt that there is any other type of racism that has such potential.
You write about the injustices in Turkey and there are Jews in Israel who are trying to get the EU and the UN to act against their own country, against Israel. Some call them self-hating Jews. Is it possible that you are a self-hating Turk?
First of all, Israel is a democracy. Arabs there have equal rights: they have their own schools, their population is skyrocketing, they are thriving, their language is officially recognized. Arabs have 21 states and in Judea and Samaria or the West Bank, they have their own administration. In Gaza, they have their own terrorist administration. Israel is a peace-loving country, they have made so many compromises to reach a settlement, a peace deal with the Arabs, to share the land and live in peace. And as you know, Christians are safe in Israel; it is the only Middle Eastern country in which Christians are not persecuted.
When I look at Turkey, I see that Kurds are treated as less than human. Thousands of Kurdish political prisoners are rotting in Turkish jails. This includes members of parliament and democratically elected mayors. The Alevi faith community is also oppressed; their faith is not even officially recognized. The indigenous peoples – Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians- are dying out. Jews are also dying out. Yazidis are almost completely extinct. Why? Because of long ongoing persecution. I could give you lots of examples of how they are persecuted. And not just minorities. Try writing something on Twitter criticizing the Turkish government and you could get arrested. You could get blacklisted and get dismissed from your job.
The differences between Turkey and Israel are as clear as sunlight.
I write about torture in Turkish jails. Some of the victims are Turkish, some are Kurds. I don’t care about the ethnicity of the victims. When I write these things, they are not anti-Turkish, they are actually pro-Turkish because I want to help innocent people there who are oppressed by the government.
But Israeli leftwing writers and activists are also saying they are doing it for the sake of Israel because the occupation is evil and they care about the good of Israel.
There is nothing wrong with critical analysis of the policies or actions of Israel. Israelis often criticize their government for one reason or another. It is a sign of a vibrant, healthy democracy. But what those far-left activists do is to question or even deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Some far-leftist activists may say they love Israel, but I don’t think they really care for the facts. And their advocacy harms both Jews and Arabs. Israel is not a genocidal country that is targeting Palestinians to persecute them. The Arab population is growing, so where is the genocide here?
I criticize Turkey because of Turkey’s actions, not because they are Turkish. They criticize Israel and even try to damage the legitimacy of the existence of Israel, not because of Israel’s actions but because Israel is a Jewish state.
And here, Bulut told me something that should not be surprising but was:
If one knows the true history of the Turkification and Islamisation of Anatolia, one can’t ignore the true essence of Turkish nationalism. In the eleventh century, with a relatively small army, the Turks invaded Anatolia, which was then part of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Those lands were majority Greek and Armenian. Important Assyrian and Jewish communities were established there as well. Throughout the centuries, these indigenous populations were forced to convert to Islam through persecution, discrimination, and pressure. They became Turkish Muslims. It was a long process.
Ironically, today’s Turkish supremacists are therefore racists towards their own ancestors. If they were not so ignorant and conditioned, they would honor and respect the true heritage and civilizations of the indigenous nations of Anatolia. Those are the ancestral civilizations of the majority of today’s Turks. But Turkish nationalists don’t do that. They still violently target Armenia, threaten Greece with another invasion, continue illegally occupying Cyprus and persecute the descendants of the survivors of the 1913-23 Christian genocide in Turkey. Most Turks who commit or support such crimes are actually descendants of Islamized Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians or Jews.
That does put the issue of Turkish oppression of ethnic minorities in a different light. Returning to you, which article are you most proud of?
I love my articles about the Turkish occupation of the Republic of Cyprus. The situation has been ignored by most journalists, and the Western mainstream media largely covers it in a misleading and uninformed way. The whole island was majority-Greek. There were many minorities across the country such as Armenians, Jews, Maronites, as well as Turks. In 1974, the Turkish military invaded and ethnically cleansed the northern part of Cyprus and forcibly displaced the people. They targeted and violated churches. They destroyed Christian cemeteries and a Jewish cemetery. And then they said this is ours now and that’s that!
I write about this a lot and that is one of the reasons I can’t go to Turkey. Those articles put me in trouble. I remember the first article I wrote about Cyprus when I was in Turkey. That was the first time I was indirectly threatened.
When I interview someone about a horrible human rights abuse and I expose something and I help people and I am bringing it to the attention of the world, those are the articles that I am most proud of.
Is there an example of an article that concretely provided help for someone or a community?
Yes. The chairwoman of an Assyrian organization in the Netherlands told me that when they meet with Dutch officials to discuss something, they often bring my articles so the officials can learn about the background of what they want to discuss. This made me so happy.
What is your view of journalists in Turkey today?
The bravest journalists inside Turkey are Kurdish. They are writing the truth even though they are under constant threat from the government. They can leave (if they can leave) or surrender, but they don’t want to give up. They are targeted violently. Their families are targeted. This persecution has been going on for decades; it’s actually an ongoing war. So if you give up, if you surrender, you lose. They defend themselves through writing.
In my case, I wasn’t targeted like that in Turkey. I wasn’t targeted for my identity or my ethnicity. I chose this path of my own free will.
When I look at my own situation, I had no reason to do that. I was fine in Turkey. I was never persecuted. I knew nothing about minorities. If I hadn’t started this path, I would still be in Turkey enjoying my life.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
OMG! [Bulut erupts in a hearty laugh that includes her whole body, then she takes a breath] I want to be a mom. That’s my greatest dream and greatest goal – to be a mom. I’m not a mom yet. So hopefully in ten years, I will have children.
And in ten years I will also publish books. My MA thesis that I did in Israel and am writing now, on antisemitism in Erdoğan’s Turkey, I want to publish it as a book. I want to collect my writings about minorities in Turkey and it will be another book. I want to be a teacher in an academic position. I want to continue writing. But most of all, I want to be a mother.
My Ph.D. thesis is going to be on minority journalists in Turkey. Greek, Jewish, Armenian, and Assyrian. One hundred years ago, they had a lot of newspapers and publications and journalists, especially Jewish. They no longer operate. There’s only one Jewish newspaper. It’s a small one because Turkey now only has a very small Jewish community. So I want to study what happened to those newspapers and those journalists. Because I’m also in self-imposed exile, and I’m not saying that my life is as difficult as theirs, but I can relate to them to a certain extent.
Are you learning Greek now?
I am determined to learn it because I want to stay here. Greece and Turkey are not culturally close; Greece is a lot better, a lot more civilized.
But you love Turkey
I love Turkey [her voice softens] because I spent my childhood there. Turkey to me means childhood and it was a beautiful childhood: the streets I walked, the mountains I went to, our village, my loved ones, my friends. But the regime, and what they are doing, the State, no.
When I was growing up, the Turkey that I knew was a beautiful country that I was taught had a glorious, victorious history. But now I know that there is actually another history, a genocidal history. What I thought was true was actually not true. So now I look at Turkey completely differently. I still love the landscape – it’s Anatolia, Asia Minor – it’s where I come from.
The Black Sea is a very harsh sea, it’s not calm – I sometimes see it in my dreams. I am on the shore again and I feel the breeze. My dreams are now the only place where I can see my homeland.
This article first appeared in Israel National News and can be reposted elsewhere with links to the original
Feature image was provided by Uzal Bulut and used with permission.