Turkish synagogue throws open its doors

Turkey’s small Jewish community got a rare chance to showcase its
culture in Istanbul on Sunday during the European Days of Jewish Culture
event. But cultural initiatives to break down antisemitism seem to have limited effect. Report in the Jewish Chronicle:

 The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, target of deadly bombings in 1986 and 2003.

“Our target is non-Jews who want to know more about us,”
said Nisya Isman Allovi, director of the Quincentennial Foundation
Museum of Turkish Jews that organised the event, which was attended by
about 1,300 people.

Hatice Yilmaz and Halime Niyaz, 26-year-old
divinity graduate students studying Jewish culture, were impressed with
the professionalism of the events, which included a theatrical
representation of a traditional Ashkenazi wedding, a living library and
musical performances.

“For me, the best part is that there’s no
prejudice here. Everyone is behaving really well. We have different
religions, but we clapped for the same things during the concert,” Ms
Niyaz said.

Both women said that such events can reduce antisemitism in Turkey.

“There
can be prejudice sometimes, but that’s only because of a lack of
knowledge and because the cultures have been kept apart,” Ms Yilmaz
said.

Turkey’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community of approximately
17,000 has long been targeted with antisemitic stereotypes and hate
speech from media outlets and politicians. According to a 2015 report by
the Anti-Defamation League, 71 per cent of Turks agree with a majority
of common antisemitic stereotypes.

The Neve Shalom Synagogue in
Istanbul, which is part of the heavily guarded complex that hosted the
events, was hit by devastating attacks in 1986 and 2003.

On July
20, the synagogue was pelted with stones by Turkish ultranationalists
protesting against new security restrictions in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa
mosque. “We will prevent your freedom to worship here just like you are
preventing ours there,” Kursat Mican, district leader of the
ultranationalist Alperen Hearths, said at the time.

“Unfortunately,
there is no difference between a Jew and Israel in the eyes of some
people, so whenever there is a problem between Turkey and Israel, it
affects the Jews of Turkey,” said Karel Valansi, a columnist with
Turkey’s Jewish-focused Şalom newspaper and participant in the living library exhibit.

Ms
Valansi explained that Jews in Turkey were generally very low-key about
their identity for fear of discrimination, but that this was beginning
to change. “We are more vocal for sure,” she said.

Antisemitic
statements from prominent politicians have not helped, such as when
ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party MP Samil Tayyar tweeted “May
your race vanish and may you always have your Hitler,” during Israel’s
Operation Protective Edge operation in the Gaza Strip in 2014. Even
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was heard calling a protester in 2014 the
“spawn of Israel”.

However, Rifat Bali, historian and expert in
Turkey’s Jewish community, said there had always been antisemitism in
the country, but that it had become easier to see now with social media.
He added that the AK Party had made important overtures to religious
minorities like the Jews.

“In general, the AKP has been positive, trying to solve problems, which they have,” he said.

In
2011, Mr Erdogan announced that hundreds of properties seized from
minorities after a 1936 proclamation would be returned or compensation
provided. This has been happening gradually, when ownership can be
proved in a court.

In 2015, there were several positive
initiatives, including the first publicly celebrated Chanukah, and the
restoration and inauguration of the Edirne Great Synagogue in the
country’s north-west.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former opposition member of
the Turkish parliament, said the AKP’s mixed record on religious
minorities was the result of self-serving policies.

“Erdogan
understands well the electoral benefits of scapegoating and smearing
Jews and Christians in Turkish domestic politics,” he wrote in an email.

“At
the same time, Erdogan also has a keen awareness that symbolic
benevolent acts toward Jews and Christians help improve his tarnished
global image. So, there have been well-choreographed positive steps.”

Ms
Valansi said that hate speech in the Turkish press, particularly in
Islamist newspapers, still runs rampant, despite the re-establishment of
formal relations between Turkey and Israel.

“I can easily find
three or four articles containing antisemitism on a daily basis,” she
said. “The lack of anti-hate-speech legislation shows indifference
toward antisemitism.”

Mr Bali argued that the AKP, like
governments before, has failed to stem the tide of antisemitism in
Turkey because its political base largely believes the negative
stereotypes and will always come before the tiny Jewish minority.

Read article in full

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About

This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.