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Turkish Jews feeling the heat

The Gaza flotilla raids made life a lot harder for Jews in Turkey.

Istanbul street graffiti
Locals pass by anti-Israel graffiti in the Istanbul neighborhood of Galata. As city squares across Turkey filled with irate activists protesting Israel's recent attack on the Mavi Marmara, Turkey’s Jews quietly shut their doors and kept their heads down. (Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

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.