It is a curious phenomenon: when people don’t like Israel’s policies, they take their anger out on Jews in another country. Laura Pitel examines the fragile state of Turkish-Jewish relations in Ynet News following last week’s protests outside two Istanbul synagogues over the Temple Mount crisis.
No one was injured in Thursday’s attack, which was later followed
by a second protest by an Islamist group outside Istanbul’s Ahrida
Synagogue. But the demonstrations served as a reminder of the challenges
confronting Turkey’s small Jewish community, which not only contends
with widespread anti-Semitism but also finds itself caught in the
crossfire any time Israel faces criticism.
Turkey has a complex relationship with its small Jewish
minority, which today numbers around 17,000 people. Officials talk
proudly of the fact that Ottoman Sultans welcomed Jews expelled from
Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, and of the efforts made by
Turkish diplomats to save Jews from the Nazis. But anti-Semitic tropes
are deeply engrained and widespread in the media, popular culture and in
A new historical drama, Payitaht, aired on the state
broadcaster’s flagship entertainment channel, depicted a plan to kill
the Ottoman Sultan by plotters who exchange coins imprinted with the
Star of David. Hitler’s Mein Kampf can often be found on sale in
mainstream bookshops and supermarkets. Turkish president Recep Tayyip
Erdogan himself once used the term “spawn of Israel” to insult a
protester after a mining disaster in 2014. His ministers, advisors and
officials have repeatedly been criticized for using anti-Jewish language
and conspiracy theories when attacking critics or seeking to explain
economic or political problems.
The phenomenon is not confined to Erdogan and his Justice and
Development Party (AKP). Anti-Semitic diatribes are also prevalent in
anti-imperialist and left-wing nationalist circles, as well as their
right-wing and Islamist counterparts.
However, Erdogan, who casts himself as a leader of the Muslim world,
has taken a tougher stance on Israel than some of his predecessors.
Ahrida synagogue, where the cantor’s podium was built to resemble Noah’s ark
Although Turkey and Israel announced a rapprochement last year after a
six-year diplomatic freeze, Erdogan has made clear that he will
continue to censure Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Following
the decision to place metal detectors—since removed—at the Al-Asqa
mosque after the killing of two Arab-Israeli policeman by Muslim gunmen,
Erdogan issued a series of harsh condemnations.
Turkey’s Jewish citizens defend the right of politicians and the
public to criticize the state of Israel. The problem, they say, is that
ordinary Jews face blowback. “The intensification of the conflict
between Israel and Palestinian always extends to the Turkish Jewish
community,” said Karel Valansi, a columnist at the news portal T24 and
the Jewish newspaper Shalom. “There is no clear distinction in the minds
of many in Turkey between Israel and Jews.”
Turkish officials have made efforts to publicly support and
promote the Jewish community in recent years. In 2015, a Hanukkah
celebration was held in public in Istanbul for the first time in several
decades. The same year, one of Turkey’s deputy prime minister’s
attended the re-opening of Edirne Synagogue, near the border with
Bulgaria, which was given a $2.5 million renovation after languishing
for many decades in a state of disrepair.
But Aykan Erdemir, a former member of parliament with the
opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) now based at the Foundation
for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that life has become more
difficult for Turkey’s minority groups in the wake of last year’s
attempted coup. Erdogan portrays the failed putsch, which left 250 dead,
as a plot by foreign and domestic powers conspiring to destroy the
country—tapping into deeply-ingrained national fears about threats to
the Turkish state.
“Turkey was a challenging place for religious minorities even
before the coup,” said Erdemir. “Things, however, have gone from bad to
worse within the last year. Turkey’s government-controlled media
systematically demonize minorities, presenting them as fifth columns.”
President Erdogan (Photo: Reuters)
Erdogan condemned the attacks on Istanbul synagogues, saying
that it was “a big mistake” to target a place of worship. “We have no
issues with the houses of worship of Christians or Jews,” he said.
Opposition leaders also denounced the attacks.
Despite the protests, Turkish Jews say that physical assaults
against them have been rare in recent years and that the government has
taken warnings of Islamic State attacks very seriously. Some say they
feel safer in Turkey than they would in Europe.
But most agree that Turkey must do more to tackle the hate
speech that Jews encounter in public debate, the media and on social
networks. And they would like to see greater awareness of the fact that
Jews are separate from Israel, so that they do not have to brace for a
backlash each time it hits the headlines.
Selin Nasi, a columnist for the Turkish newspapers Shalom and
Hurriyet Daily News, said that Turkey’s Jews want to feel accepted by
politicians and by society. “They want to be treated as equal citizens,”
she said. “They don’t want to be perceived as enemies. They love their
country. They don’t want to come to the fore each time a crisis breaks
out and be held responsible for what Israel is doing.”