Jews in Turkey

A Quiet yet Fragile Happiness

More Jews live in Turkey than in any other Muslim country in the world. They are struggling to regain the normality they lost in the bomb attacks of 2003 and hope that their native country will accede to the EU. Tobias Asmuth reports from Istanbul.

photo: Tobias Asmuth
Neve Schalom Synagoge, spiritual center of 25.000 Jews in Istanbul

​​At long last services are being held again in the Neve Shalom Synagogue. For a full year, the Jewish community has waited with growing impatience, longing for the day when its state of emergency would come to an end. Now the walls of its synagogue have been repaired and repainted in a bright shade of ochre. The security measures have also been refreshed: anyone wanting to enter the synagogue has to pass through a security system comprising two steel doors. It's as if these doors bar the way to a bunker that promises protection against the evils of the world outside.

Outside on Büyük Hendek Caddesi, the houses beside the synagogue are still empty; the doors are nailed shut; the windows broken. The owners cannot find new tenants. For Istanbul, a city with a chronic housing shortage, this is a new and unbelievable state of affairs.

Trying to bomb Jews out of Turkey

The memories of 15 November 2003 are still too fresh: the day when Gökhan Elatuntas ignited a truck loaded with explosives in the street, and his accomplice, Mesut Cabuk, blew up a second vehicle filled with explosives in front of the Beth Israel Synagogue in the neighbouring district of Sisli. The terrorists killed 25 people, most of whom were Muslims; only six were Jewish, even though they were the intended target. The intention was to bomb them out of the country.

"We are now living in a sort of limbo," says Denise Saporta, spokeswoman for the Jewish community. "Our future is no longer certain." The shock runs deep. This was not the first bomb attack on the community: in 1986, 22 people were killed. That time, however, the bomb was planted by radical Palestinians. This time, the terrorists came from Anatolian Bingöl. This is why the Jews in Istanbul were almost relieved when five days after the attacks on the synagogues, Islamists committed two more suicide bombings in the city: one outside the British consulate and one outside the British bank HSBC.

In other words, the Jewish community was not the terrorist's prime target. Nevertheless, services in the Neve Shalom Synagogue cannot banish the fear. The elders of the community decided not to remove the blood of the victims from the carpets in the temple; instead, they serve as a reminder of what happened. The names of the victims killed in the attack are listed on a plaque. Neve Shalom means "Oasis of Peace".

"The Jews will find their happiness in Turkey"

A quote from Ataturk is engraved on a marble plaque on the wall of the Jewish Museum in the former Zulfaris Synagogue: "The Jews will find their happiness in Turkey". Alongside the plaque at the entrance to the museum police officers stand guard. The beeps emitted by the safety mechanisms are drowned out by the cries of the Muezzin calling the faithful to evening prayer. The museum, which is a member of the Association of Jewish Museums in Europe, opened its doors just under three years ago. It is the only museum of its kind in a Muslim country.

For its founder, Naim Avigdor Güleryüz (70), the museum is a symbol of the close ties between Jews and Turkey. The history of this relationship is documented on the walls and in the glass cases of the museum. Lengthy text passages tell how the Ottoman Sultan Beyazit II. invited the Jews that were banished from Spain in 1492 to settle in his empire; they celebrate the asylum that the Turkish Republic granted to many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany; old black and white photographs bear witness to the service that Jewish scientists, artists, and sportsmen and women have rendered their country.

Following the exodus to Israel – the Aliya – In the 1950s and under the military dictatorship of the 1970s, just under 22,000 Jews live in Turkey today, some 20,000 of whom reside in Istanbul. They are doctors, traders, journalists … and they seek their happiness and fortune quietly.

Jews as scapegoats

In a country where 99 per cent of the population is Muslim, the rules are straightforward: don't draw attention to yourself; adapt and assimilate. Even though Prime Minister Erdogan declared his solidarity with the Jews after the bomb attacks, Turkey's Jews are more than ever being held responsible for Israel's policies by the man on the street.

Moreover, a small but voluble anti-Semitic part of the press is trumpeting against the "infidel traitors". For Güleryüz, whose ancestors came to Istanbul on the ships in 1492, the "propaganda is like a slap in the face every day."

To date, few Jews have left Turkey since the terrorist attacks. Any who have left are young and this is why the communities are getting older. In the twelve synagogues that are used for worship in Istanbul, reading glasses are laid out alongside the prayer books at the entrance. Since last year, many Jews have applied for a second passport; not necessarily an Israeli passport, but rather a European one.

"Europe will decide the future of our community," believes Denise Saporta. According to surveys, almost 75 per cent of Turks are in favour of their country joining the European Union; virtually all Jews are in favour of a European Turkey. For Denise Saporta, her native land is an experiment that shows on a day-to-day basis that Muslims and Jews can live side by side. But without good prospects, the experiment might fail. "Membership would mean European principles like the protection of minorities. No membership might someday mean politics according to Islamic law."

Tobias Asmuth

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

Related Topics