Turkish Rabbi Assumed to Fear Defending Israel

Turkey’s Chief Rabbi publicly condemned Israel’s action vis-à-vis the Gaza-bound flotilla – proof, some say, that Turkish Jews feel at risk.

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Hillel Fendel, | updated: 15:00

Neve Shalom Synagogue, Istanbul
Neve Shalom Synagogue, Istanbul
Israel news photo: Wikipedia

Turkey’s Chief Rabbi publicly condemned Israel’s action vis-à-vis the Gaza-bound flotilla – proof, some say, that Turkish Jews feel at risk.

Turkey’s Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Haleva publicly criticized Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Gaza-bound flotilla, which he called a “provocation,” and said that Israel should have acted differently. His interviewer, from the hareidi-religious radio station Kol BaRamah, was clearly shocked, saying, “You are outright pro-Palestinian! How should Israel have acted differently when its soldiers fell into a lynch mob?”  The interviewer then said, “We must say ‘thank G-d’ that you are not engaged in advocacy for Israel on the world arena.”

Rabbi Haleva also said that the Jews in Turkey are not scared, that the increasing Turkish hostility over the past year or so did not originate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and that he is hopeful and confident that everything will soon quiet down.

Most see Rabbi Haleva’s words as proof that Turkish Jews are scared of the Islamic regime, and that the Jewish community there is reacting as Jews did in Communist Russia and other anti-Semitic environments. Turkey announced Wednesday it is beefing up protection for Jews in the country in wake of spreading anti-Semitic protests.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt of Moscow writes that Rabbi Haleva should not be criticized, but should rather be assumed to have either been pressured to say what he did by Turkish authorities, or to be expressing the fears of his Jewish community – or both. “Those among us who remember the Jewish communities behind the Iron Curtain,” he explains, “and those who are familiar with the history of Jewish communities in various Muslim countries, know for certain that [Rabbi Haleva spoke under pressure and/or out of fear… It is important that this be known in the world."

At the same time, the Foreign Ministry has instructed the families of Israeli diplomats in Turkey to leave the country immediately, for fear that anti-Israel rage will lead to violence.

The Jewish community in Turkey has traditionally been treated well. It began in 1492, when a large number of Spanish Jews found refuge there after being expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. After World War II, having been basically protected from the Nazis, some 100,000 of Turkey’s Jews were permitted to leave for the Land of Israel to fulfill their age-old religious yearnings.

Turkish olim (immigrants to Israel) founded the city of Yahud, as well as Kerem Ben Zimra and Kibbutz HaGoshrim, and were instrumental in starting Kibbutz Nachsholim, Kizbbutz Gvulot, Tzipori and other locales in Israel.

At present, there are estimated to be some 26,000 Jews in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, where some 20 synagogues are active. Istanbul has a Jewish elementary and high school, and Izmir has a Jewish elementary school.

Eliyahu Birnbaum, head of the Strauss-Amiel Rabbis Training Center for the Diaspora reported in 2008 that the Jews in Turkey are fearful, their synagogues are highly protected, especially following the two terror attacks since 1986 [in which nearly 30 Jews were killed in total], and no longer speak their native Ladino language.