Turkey's Jewish Community: Future Unknown
Turkey's Jewish Community: Future Unknown

The Jewish community in Turkey is one of the few surviving ones in a Muslim country. Its numbers have however, dwindled greatly.

In 1927, the Turkish Republic conducted its first general census which found that there were 81,872 Jews. After Israel’s independence in 1948, about half of Turkey’s Jews left for Israel. In following years, emigration continued parallel to political and economic turbulences. The present number of Jews is somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000.”

“In recent years, the Jewish community has become the target of much hostility and verbal abuse by the country’s Islamic and ultra-nationalist sectors. Zionism and Israel are publicly demonized and this sentiment often crosses the line into anti-Semitism. It is unthinkable that any Turkish Jew would make pro-Israel statements openly to correct all the misinformation and disinformation concerning Israel and Zionism.”

Rifat N. Bali is an independent scholar. He is a Research Fellow of the Alberto Benveniste Center for Sephardic Studies and Culture in Paris. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the history of Turkish Jewry.

“On 31 May 2010, the Israeli Defense Forces stopped the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship of the flotilla of the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).  In the ensuing fight, eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish American were killed.

“This became a critical moment for the Jewish community. The Turkish public perceived the incident as the murder of Muslim Turks by the Jewish army. A new wave of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories appeared in the Turkish media and were supported by public figures. One conspiracy theory was that Israel was behind the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) attack on a Turkish military base which occurred a few hours after the IDF intervention on the Mavi Marmara.

“It came as no surprise that the Turkish media would ask Jewish leaders to declare which side they were on. The Chief Rabbinate responded a few hours after the incident saying, ‘We are distressed to learn of the military intervention carried out against the ship Mavi Marmara, which was heading toward Gaza. The fact that, according to the first reports we have received, there have been dead and wounded in the intervention, has increased our sorrow all the more. We fully share our country’s reaction generated by the stopping of the aforementioned [relief] effort in this manner and our sorrow is the same as that of the general public.’

“Besides this declaration, the Jewish community tried to keep as low a profile as possible. This void was filled by two Turkish Jewish public figures. Mario Levi is a well-known novelist. He told the Italian daily ‘La Repubblica’ that, ‘As Jews in Istanbul, we are in solidarity with the people in Gaza.’ He added that he did not think there was anti-Semitism in Turkey.

“Roni Margulies is a Jewish Trotskyite poet and a columnist at the liberal-leftist daily Taraf. He stated that he approved of the Gaza flotilla, disapproved of Israel’s raid and wished he could have been there. He remarked that ‘For a Jew, Israel is the most dangerous place to live in the world and Israel is a danger to world Jewry.’ Both Levi and Margulies’ statements were well received by the Turkish media.

The Mavi Marmara incident has thus shown again, that the Turkish public and media see an anti-Zionist as a good Jew and a pro-Zionist as a bad Jew.

“In such an environment, the leadership of the Turkish Jewish community cannot reach out to Turkish society. In order to preserve the identity of the Turkish Jewish youth, Zionism and an attachment to Israel are two main themes taught to them.

The Turkish public and media see an anti-Zionist as a good Jew and a pro-Zionist as a bad Jew.
Jewish parents however, counsel their children not to display Star of David necklaces in public and to ignore as much as possible the hateful criticism of Israel in the Turkish public sphere.

“The Turkish Jewish community has one element of added value for the government. It is expected to help convince American Jewish organizations to use their influence to block the official recognition as genocide by the U.S. Congress of the 1915 murderous deportation by the Ottoman Turks of the Armenians.

“In the past decades, there has been increased violence toward the Jewish community. There was an assassination attempt against a Jak V. Kamhi in 1993, the President of the Quincentennial Foundation and a prominent businessman. The Foundation was established in 1989 to celebrate the quincentennial anniversary of the arrival of Sephardi Jews to Ottoman lands.

In 1995, there was another attempt against the president of Ankara’s small Jewish community, Professor Yuda Yürüm.

An Istanbul dentist, Yasef Yahya was murdered in 2003. Later that year, there were two suicide bomb attacks by radical Islamists against two Istanbul synagogues, Neve Shalom and Beth Israel.”

Bali concludes: “The long-term viability of the Turkish Jewish community is doubtful. Its influence in society is negligible. It plays no role in the country’s cultural, political or intellectual life. There is no one in Turkish civil society to respond to the widespread, hostile rhetoric. The Jewish community is therefore totally dependent on the government to protect its members.”