Jews in Turkey
Jews in Turkey – A Varied History

Turkey is one of the few countries in which Jews found a safe home after fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition. In his article, Baha Güngör of Deutsche Welle sketches the history of the Jewish minority.

Up until the attacks on two Istanbul synagogues on Nov. 15th, Turkish Jews were well accepted into Turkish society. Baha Güngör sketches the history and present situation of the approx. 20,000-strong Jewish minority in Turkey

On November 15th, bomb attacks on two synagogues in the centre of Istanbul left twenty-three people dead and several hundred injured. The National Chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, Hakki Keskin, says that the terrorists clearly intended to place these attacks in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, Keskin insists, Turkey’s Jewish population have “nothing to do with such matters”. As he describes it, Turkey is one of the few countries in which Jews have always lived in safety, suffering neither persecution nor discrimination.

Approximately 20.000 Jews now live in Turkey. While a large majority of them are located in Istanbul, smaller Jewish communities exist in the capital, Ankara; in Izmir on the Aegean coast; and in Hatay and Gaziantep, two Anatolian provinces bordering on Syria. The exact number of Jews in Turkey cannot be determined, as they are registered as Turkish citizens in national censuses.

Ottoman tradition of religious tolerance

Up to now, Turkey’s Jewish minority has always felt secure. The Ottoman Empire typically respected other religions, and Turkey has generally been tolerant and cosmopolitan since the establishment of the secular Republic 80 years ago.

At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Turkey. The subsequent radical decline in their numbers can be traced back to developments in the period leading up to the Second World War. The anti-colonial War of Liberation fought by the Turks under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was accompanied by considerable economic hardships. Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated to Europe and the United States.

Gaining the status of an officially recognised minority

In the 1950s and 60s, there were further waves of emigration after a substantial property tax was imposed on members of non-Muslim communities, including the Jews. In 1924, the Treaty of Lausanne had included provisions for the recognition of the Jews, Armenians and Greeks as minorities within Turkey. These groups – in contrast to the Kurds, for example – were permitted to maintain their own culture and language, and to publish newspapers and other publications in their own languages and scripts.

During the Nazi period in Germany and Occupied Europe, many Jews sought temporary refuge in Turkey before moving on elsewhere. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, this led to a further wave of emigration.

The Ottoman Empire as a shelter from the Inquisition

Jewish immigration to Turkey dates back to 1492, when Arab rule collapsed on the Iberian peninsula. As the Inquisition began to turn its attention to the Jews, Sultan Beyazid II welcomed them to settle within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, granting them the same religious freedoms that had been accorded to the Christian minorities by Sultan Mehmed II (The Conqueror) after the taking of Constantinople in 1453.

Living in relative peace

Today, there are nearly 40 synagogues in Turkey, almost half of them in Istanbul, the bustling city on the Bosporus. In addition, 19 Jewish charities and five Jewish schools are officially registered in Turkey.

Although Jews have lived in relative peace in Turkey, Jewish institutions have suffered violent attacks previous to November 16th: An earlier attack on the Neve Synagogue had already been carried out on September 6th 1986 – also a Saturday. Twenty-one Jewish worshippers were killed while celebrating the Sabbath.

Baha Güngör

© Deutsche Welle/ 2003

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

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