Jewish-Turkish Dialogue in Germany

A Rabbi and a Turkish Diplomat as Figureheads

In the wake of the recent Lebanon crisis, Muslim-Jewish relations have further deteriorated. In Germany, however, the Jewish-Turkish Ülkümen-Sarfati Society, is actively encouraging better relations between the two communities. Abdul-Ahmad Rashid reports

The Ülkümen-Sarfati Society has drawn their inspiration from the two symbolic historical figures of Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati and Selahattin Ülkümen. Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati lived in the Ottoman city Edirne in the 15th century and praised the great tolerance of the Ottoman rulers, asking fellow Jews in Europe to join him in order to escape prosecution in Europe.

The other is Selahattin Ülkümen, a Turkish diplomat who helped 42 Jews to flee from the extermination camps in World War II – which earned him the honorary title "Righteous Among the Nations" in Israel. The members of the association aim to imitate the tolerance and commitment to human rights of its eponyms.

Muslim-Jewish friendships

"Personally, I grew up with a lot of Turkish friends, and some of my best friends are Turkish. Therefore it was pleasant to see all the similarities, which I also had to rediscover. I think it's great to support this project," says Michaela Fuhrmann, a German Jew and the youngest member of the Jewish-Turkish Ülkümen-Sarfati Society. Growing up in a multicultural city such as Cologne has profoundly influenced the 24-year-old student of the Political Sciences.

"You grow up together and you realize that you are just a human being. So at first, the religious or national background is of no importance," she says.

It seemed a logical step for the young woman to actively participate in the only Jewish-Turkish organization in Germany, which was founded in Cologne two years ago. So far, the organization has attracted fifteen members; all aged between twenty-four and thirty. Five of them are German Jews, five are of Turkish descent with a Muslim background, while the other members are German Christians, who sympathize with the concern of the association. The group has two presidents: a Jewish chairman, who currently lives in London, and a Turkish chairman, the twenty-five-year old Kemal Önel.

"The founding members were just old friends," says Ömel. "We know each other since the days of primary school and we discovered our historical and cultural similarities. So we thought that collaborating in order to preserve our common cultural heritage would be the right thing to do."

Good historical relations

Good relationships between Jews and Turks have already existed since medieval times. The Ottoman Empire accommodated more than a hundred thousand Jews from Spain in the year 1492 that were forced to flee from the Christian "Reconquista". From that time onwards, a big Jewish community has formed in Turkey. Although its number has diminished in the last decades, Turkey has nevertheless been the first Muslim country to officially accept Israel's right to exist. Furthermore, the two states are linked by a close military alliance and share a common political goal.

In spite of Israel's self-conception as a Jewish nation, both countries have secularized democratic constitutions, which is still a rare phenomenon in the Middle East. It has thus been a logical consequence for these ethnic and religious communities to establish good relations, also in Germany. Organizing lectures and movie screenings are just two of the activities promoting this rediscovered friendship.

Kemal Ömel is optimistic: "And so we would like to show the documentary 'Spit Hours' that deals with the following story: Turkey in World War II and during the Shoa (i.e. the Holocaust, the ed.). Additionally, we also cooperate with a German-Israeli-Christian-Jewish exchange program. They approached us and declared that 'a significant fraction of the German society consists of young Turkish persons who we would like to include in our project.'"

The Jewish-Turkish organization "Ülkümen-Sarfati" has been rather quiet in regards to the current conflict in the Middle East. Its members agree on two basic principles: Israel's right of existence may not be questioned and terrorist acts have to be condemned.

Positive response from various organizations

There are already numerous Jewish-Turkish associations all over the world which are dedicated to dialogue, especially in the US and in Britain. The first initiative of that kind on German soil has encountered a positive response right from the start. It managed to win over Jewish and Turkish organizations like the Central Council of Jews in Germany or the DITIB, the official representation of the Turkish state in Germany, to its cause. Common projects include mutual visits to religious institutions or folkloristic meetings. Sometimes, however, confusion still seems to arise over the cooperation of Jews and Turks.

Önel states: "The only negative reactions we got were actually by German journalists, who kept on asking us: 'What are you doing here? Everybody knows that all Turks are anti-Semites – and all Jews hate Muslims! Why are you even trying, you know that you can't change anything!'"

The members of "Ülkümen-Sarfati" see it as their special duty to fight the spreading anti-Semitism in the Islamic world. That is the reason why they regard it as particularly important for young Muslims to get to know Jewish peers of the same age and to realize that they are all "ordinary human beings". According to Michaela Fuhrmann, in relation to its work with young people, the association deems it necessary to realize and address possible resentments among the young as early as possible in order to fight prejudices and promote dialogue.

Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

© DEUTSCHE WELLE 2006

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