Is it all over for the Jews of Turkey?

Last week, Turkey poured cold water over relations with Israel when it withdrew from a joint military exercise and stepped up its rhetoric on Israeli ‘injustices’ in Gaza. For Turkey’s 17,000 Jews, is the writing finally on the wall?

The Turkish-Jewish community is that rare thing – a Jewish community still living in a Muslim-majority country. Yet, as expert Rifat N Bali observes, it has no political, cultural or intellectual impact on the host country. Between 1946 and 1961, a few Jewish MPs sat in parliament. Now there are none.

With hostility growing from the Islamist government, anti-Israelism and anti-Americanism, the climate is on the verge of tipping over into outright antisemitism. Turkish Jews will not speak up for Israel. They insist on their Turkishness, and keep their heads down. A population of 81,872 in 1921 is down to a quarter of its original size. Half the Jewish population left for Israel in the three years after 1948.

Between 1923 and 1948, Jews became increasingly marginalised as the country underwent Turkification. The community was resented for its economic success and for its failure to even speak Turkish. The Jews of Turkey are overwhelmingly Ladino-speaking Jews from post-Inquisition Spain. Although they have been in Turkey for 500 years they have never been able to shrug off a certain ‘foreign-ness’.

Although Ataturk’s Turkey was a secular, ‘democratic’ republic, it was a one-party state in its first 22 years and excluded Jews from public service jobs. After 1923, Turkish companies sacked 50 to 75 percent of their non-Muslim staff.

In June and July 1934, there erupted the Thracian events in the provinces of Edirne, Canakkale and Kirklareli. Jewish shops were boycotted, Jews stoned and Jewish women assaulted. There followed a mass migration of Jews to Istanbul.

In May 1941 all non-Muslim males between 27 and 40 were conscripted into forced labour gangs and made to build roads and airbases in Anatolia. This was the practice in Ottoman times – Turkey was reverting to type. It feared that non-Muslim soldiers – Armenians especially – would constitue a fifth column in case of a Nazi invasion.The entire minority male population was interned.

On 11 November 1942 Turkey passed a law taxing non-Muslims four times as heavily as Muslims. Those who could not pay had to do hard physical labour. In practice this was applied selectively to non-Muslims and foreigners.

Although Turkey now has a multiparty system, politicians have preferred to use populist methods to appeal to the great uneducated, rural, religious mass of electors. Following the 1980 military coup, the financial and economic gap between Jewish and Muslim businessmen narrowed, thus reducing ‘economic’ antisemitism; at the same time, and with the rise of radical Islam, ‘conspiracy theories’ about Jews and power have multiplied.

In 2003 the dentist Yasef Yahya was murdered for being a Jew. Three months later, Islamists attacked the two main synagogues of Istanbul. The authorities and media have since downplayed the Islamist threat.

Conspiracy theories concerning infiltration into positions of power by donmeh or crypto-Jews and agents in the pay of Israel and the US became rife following the American invasion of Kuwait.

Only if Turkish society in general liberalises is there any hope for the future survival of the Jewish community.

With acknowledgements to Entre nationalisme et islamisme: la lente disparition de la communaute juive de Turquie by Rifat N Bali ( La fin du judaisme en terres d’Islam – ed Shmuel Trigano)

Turkish state did great injustice to non-Muslim minorities – minister

Top photo : the Zulfaris synagogue, now the Jewish museum of Istanbul. Bottom:the 15th century Ahrida synagogue, Balat, Istanbul.

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