Interviewed by Yaron Lapid
11 May 2020
My name is Ralf Arditti. I was lucky to have been born right after the war, on 1 October 1945 in Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey. My parents suffered during the war – maybe not as much as Jews suffered in Europe, because Turkey was neutral in the war – but they still suffered.
When the Nazis occupied Greece and were on the Turkish borders in Bulgaria and Greece in 1942, the Turkish Parliament imposed a Wealth Tax on minorities. Most couldn’t raise the cash – they couldn’t sell their property during wartime – so many Jews were sent to the Eastern region of Turkey to break stones. It wasn’t a concentration camp, it wasn’t a death camp, but the people who went there, 90 per cent were Jews, so the Turks could show the Nazis they weren’t tolerating the Jews.
This went on for about nine months. The Wealth Tax destroyed the confidence Jews previously had in the new Turkish republic. That’s why, right after Israel’s foundation in 1948, about 50,000 Jews left Turkey to go to Israel.
My mother’s name was Carmen Navaro. My father was Isaac Arditti and he was from Izmir, the main city on the Aegean. My mother was from a city not far from Izmir called Aydin. I didn’t know my grandparents, but a few years back, we did some ancestry with the Navaro family and we went all the way back to the 1850s, 1860s. The Arditti family, I don’t have a lot of information about. One of the problems is that in the early 1920s in Izmir, the Jewish community had a big fire and all the records belonging to our ancestors were lost. So, we cannot go back beyond the 1920s.
My father was a tobacco exporter. Tobacco was an important agricultural crop in Turkey at the time – less so now – so my father used to travel around to check on tobacco leaves. He exported them to Hungary, Finland and other European countries. My mother was a housewife. She could have been a good businesswoman but she never got the opportunity. My maternal grandfather sold haberdashery to Turkish villagers who would pay him with IOUs. But during the war of independence of 1920-1923, no one could pay what they owed him, so he went bankrupt. He never recovered from that. But from the other grandparents, I don’t know much.
Unfortunately, even in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv there is not much information about the Arditti name. But we are probably from Spain and in 1492, when our ancestors were chased from there, we moved over maybe to Italy, maybe directly to the Ottoman Empire. There are about 40, 50 Arditti families in Turkey and most of them have been based in the Izmir region for 400 years.
As concerns Sephardi culture… I go to the Bevis Marks synagogue for my High Holy Days. It was established in 1601, I think – the first big Sephardi synagogue. The prayers are very much music to my ear because they are Sephardi, in Oriental style, Ottoman style. They don’t say Shabbes there, for example; they say Shabbat, correctly.
My parents both spoke excellent Ladino, but right after the war, there was a movement in Turkey towards French-speaking, which was considered more prestigious, with more international connections. Ladino was identified with peddlers or small shopkeepers, who spoke Turkish with an accent that revealed them as Jews, whereas French-speakers mostly spoke Turkish without an accent.
My father knew excellent Turkish, as well as five other languages – he was really multilingual. My parents spoke Ladino between themselves, when they didn’t want me and my sister to understand (they spoke to us in French). So, to understand whatever secret was going on, we had to learn Ladino, and over time I understand the language pretty well. The problem is I can’t speak it. I learned English when I went to school.
I think we are the first generation – the ones born after the war – to speak good Turkish. Before the war, Jews mostly went to Alliance Israélite schools that were established by the French, to teach French and the culture. It’s only after the war that we started going to Turkish schools.
School days and working life
I didn’t suffer from antisemitism as such, because the schools I went to had about 20, 25 per cent minorities – Jews, Greeks, Armenians. You could feel there was official antisemitism back in the 1950s, because there were pogroms. On 6 & 7 September 1955, there was a pogrom, mainly against the Greeks, but Jews were also affected, even though we weren’t the main target.
Unlike the Greeks and Armenians, the Jews never claimed a part of Anatolia. So, to a certain extent, we were considered to be more loyal by the Turkish authorities. But antisemitism grew with the establishment of Israel. Especially after 1967, with the Palestinian question: then antisemitism became bigger than anti-Armenian or anti-Greek movements.
I went to a very good American university, Robert College, established in 1863 by missionaries, one of the best universities in the Middle East. I graduated as a mechanical engineer there; then I came to London and took an MBA. I returned to Turkey, did my military service and started working as a trader. A few years later, I formed my own company and for more than 25 years I sold equipment to food retailers – people like Tesco, Carrefour, Migros. I established a very good rapport with a major Japanese company and we formed a joint venture in Turkey to manufacture and market electronic scales. We were the top company in that field in Turkey for a long time. So, I got to know the Far East.
I was also a consultant on mergers and acquisitions. I assisted quite a few European companies to make joint ventures with Turkish companies. I helped French firms establish themselves in Turkey after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a very pleasant time. It lasted until 2014, when I started reducing my business in Turkey. My company is still active there, but at a very small level.
Establishing contacts and understanding the different national mindsets – it’s a typical Jewish profession. It was important to be trusted – not only by the Europeans, but also by the Turks. Because most Turks don’t speak many other languages, they often feel Europeans want to profit from them rather than work with them. My allegiance was always very much towards Turkey, but at the same time, I felt I was a European citizen. I was at ease in France, at ease in Switzerland, at ease in Britain.
In 2002, I helped to found a charity addressed at young Turks between the ages of 17 to 27, building links with all the Turkish universities. What Turks lack a lot is self-confidence. They need to be empowered. I worked in that NGO for about 10 years, travelling all over the country. This was part my allegiance towards Turkey: I wanted to help Turkey become a richer country. My objective in bringing European companies to immerse themselves in Turkey had the same target: persuading companies to bring their knowledge and their investment to Turkey, so Turks can benefit.
When I started the advisory activity, Turkish GDP per capita was about $4,000. When I left, it was about $11,000. I hoped it would get to $20,000, but that didn’t happen, unfortunately. But that period was very proud for me: bringing these companies, finding partners; at the same time, helping young people to appreciate how the world functions.
I would say, my allegiance to Turkey was probably 60, 70 per cent of my personality 10 years ago. But with Erdogan becoming more and more oppressive, my Turkish identity, has declined. Today, I follow four countries closely: Britain, where I’m living; Turkey, where I used to live; Israel because I’ve always had ahava l’Yisrael (love for Israel); and France, where my daughter lives. I’ve got maybe less allegiance towards Turkey, but I still love Turkey very much – food, culture, people. I don’t love the administration but I still love the country. It doesn’t deserve to be in this situation.
Antisemitism or anti-Israelism declined tremendously in Turkey in the 1990s with Demirel, our president, when there was a very close relationship between the Mossad and the Turkish MIT, between the Turkish army and the Israeli army. Erdogan changed that. His initial instincts when in power were not anti-Israeli, or anti-Jewish. He actually received an award from B’nai Brith in America as one of the courageous men. But Erdogan comes from an Islamic context and, for him, being against Israel meant getting votes from the 10-15 per cent of the Turkish public who normally vote for Islamists. These guys could have been rivals to Erdogan, but he destroyed them by being extremely anti-Israeli.
The first visit I made to Israel was in 1963, when I was 18 years old. The kibbutz I went to was Ha Goshrim, on the Lebanese border, which was founded by Turkish Jews in 1948. I was there about six weeks, picking apples early in the morning and going to the pool afterwards. I visited all of Israel. At one point, I even thought of staying there, but I had to come back to Turkey. Anyhow, I had this ahava l’Yisrael and I kept this relationship. My sister lives in Tel Aviv, and I’ve got lots of friends there.
Hudna is a ceasefire that the Muslims used in Mohammedan times before they took over the city of Medina and the Jewish tribes there– I think it took 10 years. They knew they were weak. That ceasefire meant they could strengthen before they waged war once again. It was used by the Muslims as a temporary commitment not to have war.
In the Turkish context, understanding the hudna means keeping and building your strength; in any case, not reducing your strength. I’m not talking about military strength only; I’m talking about strength of alternatives, strength of mind, strength of ideas, even to a certain extent, strength of finances. You have to keep your options open. The hudna mentality means that you don’t have a permanent friendship with Muslims. Take care: things might change. There is no permanent animosity or permanent friendship. You have to take precautions.
So as a Jew, I took my precautions in Turkey. I didn’t get into business where I would invest more than 50 per cent of my capital. I never tried to do business with the government – because the State might say at some point, we don’t like this, we’re changing this project. This precautionary attitude is typically Jewish, not only from Sephardim but also Ashkenazim. Keeping your options open, that’s what’s important. So, I use the word hudna in that respect: I know that things might change, things might become bad, so be careful, be careful. That’s the hudna side.
Jews in Turkey
After the war, the Jewish community in Turkey numbered about 80,000. At the time of the Ottoman Empire, there were 200,000 Jews – these included the Jews in Greece and some of the Jews in Palestine, of course. When I grew up, there were about 25,000, 30,000 Jews in Turkey. We had our hospital, our newspaper, our clubs; we still could marry other Jews – there were enough Jews to find a partner. Now, the Jews in Turkey have declined to about 11,000. In the past 10 years, with rising anti-Israelism, antisemitism, many Jews have emigrated: to Israel mainly, of course, but also France, North America and Britain, and quite a few to Germany. So, this is probably one of the last important Jewish communities in the Islamic world. You have maybe 3,000 Jews in Morocco, you have Jews in Iran, but Iran, we don’t know what they are doing so much.
Turkish Jews were an important factor in bringing Turkey towards the Western world – so much so that, in 1974, when the Turkish army invaded Northern Cyprus, and the US Senate introduced sanctions against Turkey, the committee that was created to appeal to the senators was about 25 per cent Jewish businessmen. They brought about the secular, international side of Turkey and the sanctions were lifted two years afterwards. So, the Jewish businessmen had a great importance in expanding Turkish diplomacy in the Western world.
I would say that whenever a country loses its Jews, in a few years, maybe a century, they lose also power and richness. Look at Russia; look at Algeria in 1962, when the Jews left Algeria and went back to France – the Pieds-Noirs. So, try not to lose your Jews if you want to understand what’s going on with the world. They are an instrument of transmission: transmission of knowledge, ideas, investment.