Dorner for President!

Everyone has written off Dalia Dorner's chances of becoming the next president, but an Ashkenazi-Turkish Jew who isn't nostalgia-ridden is exactly what Israel needs

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Since Dalia Dorner announced her candidacy for president of Israel, I have been doing everything I can to drum up support for her. But whenever I mention her name, people respond with a dismissive gesture and say despairingly, “She doesn’t stand a chance.” This is because she is not the candidate of a political party, and only those who are party promoted achieve the presidency.

What’s my connection to Dalia Dorner? Well, of late we have met several times at events related to the heritage of Turkish Jewry. Dorner is descended from the community of Ashkenazim in Turkey (which today looks exotic and quasi-rare). It’s a community that has almost no representation anywhere, or in any body. Its members, some of whom held and hold key positions in a variety of government institutions, in academe, in business and in the liberal professions – Dorner herself is a retired justice of the Supreme Court and the current president of the Israel Press Council – never bothered to note their special descent, but tried with all their might to integrate into Israeli culture. And those who remained in Turkey tried with all their might to integrate into the general Turkish society.

My father was a member of this hush-hush community of Turkish Ashkenazim. So were the brothers Shlomo and Mordechai Gazit, who had distinguished military and diplomatic careers, respectively, and whose parents were close friends of my Ashkenazi grandparents from Istanbul. My Haaretz colleague Yoel Marcus is also from that community (he is, by the way, Dorner’s cousin). Another well-known Turkish Ashkenazi was the late journalist Erel Ginai, who, under his Turkish name, Erol Guney, lived and worked in Istanbul and was a member of the intellectual elite there until he was expelled from it for political reasons during the first military coup, in the 1960s. His original name was Mishke Rotenberg.

So you can see why it’s so sad for me to hear the remark “She doesn’t stand a chance,” which rules out in advance the possibility that a representative of the minority within a minority within this minority will reach a high position, whose prestige might perhaps rub off on the mute community to which she belongs. The fact is that when I see Dorner, I see my father, who was a ramrod-straight yekke (a German-speaking Jew) but with the addition of this distinct Levantine-Turkish seasoning that is hard to define clearly.

On the morning when Dorner announced her candidacy for the presidency, the two of us took part in one of those panel discussions about the Jews of Turkey. The occasion was a conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dealing with German Jews who immigrated to countries of the East. She talked about her grandfather, Rabbi Marcus, who was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Istanbul at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl, and later on became a favorite of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic.

Personally, though, she doesn’t remember him. All she knows is what she read about him on the Internet. In fact, she said, she doesn’t remember a thing about her childhood in Istanbul – her memories of the first 10 years of her life were completely erased after she immigrated to this country.

I imagine that for her, Istanbul is linked to the memory of a trauma, because when she was a young girl, in World War II, the Jews of Turkey were subjected to harsh decrees, such as a notorious property tax that was meant to bankrupt them(Dorner was born in 1934). Her father, who was unable to pay the tax, was sent to a forced-labor camp in eastern Turkey, and, already sick and frail, died shortly after being released from it.

I believe that the fact that her childhood that was erased completely from her memory is, paradoxically, a tremendous virtue, and for that alone Dorner should be elected Israel’s president. A person whose childhood is erased is everything other than kitsch-obsessed and nostalgia-ridden. He is a person who is occupied with the here-and-now and the future, and not immersed in longings for some imaginary past.

And longings for the imaginary past – of which each person has his own – is perhaps the most acute ailment that people here are afflicted with. The left longs for its supposed period of splendor; the right longs for its supposed period of splendor; the religious long for the time of Moses; the Palestinians for the days of Salah al-Din – and all of them alike are convinced that things were once a lot better than they are now.

There is a chance that Dorner, with her cogent realism, would wield influence and help provide a cure for this sickness of longings. The reason is precisely that she is a member of this exotic and seemingly odd community – of Ashkenazi-Turkish Jews – which gives the impression of having trained its offspring not to belong automatically to any community, but instead to choose how to define themselves, as people free of any kitschy identification with “roots.”

In the course of our panel discussion, Dorner told a story about how, one day, a woman she didn’t know came up to her and claimed that the two had attended the same school in Istanbul. The unknown woman related that she had envied Dorner (whose first name was then Dolly) because she came to school accompanied by a nanny and a chauffeur. Dorner has no memory of either of those persons either – the woman’s story did not stir any memory in her, nor any desire to remember anything about those details.

At first, I – for whom Istanbul carries only delightful memories – found it hard to understand this amnesia. But then I was overcome by tremendous appreciation for this representative of our community, whose members always made a point of never making a big deal out of themselves and their lineage. Which is precisely why – because they are so far from being schvitzers (show-offs) – they really do stand no chance, and probably never will, of becoming president of Israel.

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