Turkish Jews feeling the heat

ISTANBUL, Turkey — At the end of a narrow alley, in a neighborhood dominated by hardware stores, a white sign marked “Museum” in simple block letters indicates that you have found the Jewish Museum of Turkey.

The sign is mounted on a small booth housing an armed guard.

Although the museum stresses the 500 years of tolerance and harmony between Turks and Jews — many of the Jews of Istanbul were exiles from the 1492 expulsion from Spain and Portugal — the  reality for this community of less than 25,000 is far less confident. 

Islamic terror has struck in recent years. Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue — which in Hebrew means "oasis of peace" — faced a 1986 attack by gunmen who killed 22 worshippers during a Sabbath service. In 2003, car bombs ripped through the Bet Israel synagogue and Neve Shalom, killing 27 and wounding hundreds — mostly Turkish Muslims. 

A 2008 Pew survey on European attitudes toward Jews and Muslims found that 76 percent of Turks had a negative view of Jews, up from 49 percent in 2004. A study on hate speech in Turkey’s national press by the Hrant Dink Foundation this past fall found that Jews were the third-most targeted group, falling just behind Kurds and Armenians. 

Then there was the recent deadly raids of the Gaza flotilla by Israeli commandos. As city squares across Turkey filled with irate activists protesting Israel's attack on the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara, Turkey’s Jews quietly shut their doors and kept their heads down.

“That hostile atmosphere is of great concern to us, because wrongly, but inevitably, some Turks will link Turkish Jews with Israel and may direct their anger at the community,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

While many Turks do draw a line between condemning Israel’s actions and placing Jews on the firing line, for some that distinction is increasingly becoming blurred.

“They are intimidated, their future is uncertain, they are insecure,” said Arnold Reisman, the author of "Turkey's Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Ataturk's Vision."

He continued: "I certainly would not want to live that way."

In Istanbul alone, security has been stepped up at 20 different locations, including synagogues and the Israeli consulate.

The government has made several statements distancing their Jewish citizens from Israel’s actions and the fury directed at it.

“Our Jewish citizens have, as members of the Turkish people, defended, and continue to defend, the right position of Turkey to the utmost," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a speech last week, adding that “looking with hatred upon our Jewish citizens ... is not acceptable; it cannot be and should never be.”

Turkey’s formerly strong ties with Israel have withered since the attacks. Erdogan has called for Israel to be punished for state terrorism. President Abdullah Gul said: “Turkey will never forgive this attack.”

The feeling is mutual.

According to a poll published by the pro-government Yisrael Hayom daily recently, 78 percent of Jewish Israelis now view Turkey, once Israel's only Muslim ally in the Middle East, as an enemy nation.

The fear is that the backlash over Israel's interception of aid ships headed for Gaza earlier this week would provoke anti-Semitism in the Muslim-majority nation. Public anger in Turkey is burning and Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish Jewish professor of political science and philosophy at Yale, says Turkey’s Jews are feeling the heat.

“I think that what Israel did was immoral, and highly illegal, but the Turkish government are pulling up forces in society that they can’t control,” Benhabib said. “They are playing with fire.”

Following the attacks, the Jewish community here released a statement expressing their grief over the military operation.

“We share the public reaction this operation has created in our country and express our deep sorrow,” the statement read.

In an interview later that week with Israeli radio station Kol Barama, Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva praised the government’s attitude toward its Jews, while condemning, in muted terms, Israel’s recent operation.

“They want to emphasize how much they share with the Turks; they feel that if they stand out too much they will be hit on the head,” said Fatma Muge Gocek, a Turkish-born sociologist at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

It didn’t take the flotilla incident for Turkey’s Jews to realize that they needed to reach out. This past March the community, led by Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, launched a project to introduce themselves, and their culture, to their non-Jewish neighbors. Funded through the European Union, the project is still in its early stages, but has never been more necessary.

Increasingly Muslim Turks are trading only with other Muslim Turks, explained Reisman, forcing Jewish textile businesses and other industries to close their doors.

“As long as the Sunni majority in Turkey is unwilling to critically reflect on its past, and recognize the discrimination and prejudice that all non-Muslim minorities suffer under them, then it is going to be very difficult for the Jewish community to sustain itself,” Muge Gocek said.