ISTANBUL — Turkish citizens woke up on May 20 to discover that the Soma disaster, in which 301 miners were killed in the worst coalmine accident in the country’s history, had a Jewish angle.
A front-page headline in the Islamist daily Yeni Akit announced that the mine owner’s son-in-law was Jewish, finding in this fact an explanation of why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rather than the mine owner, was taking foreign media heat for the disaster. Erdogan, for his part, was reportedly caught on tape four days earlier calling an angry demonstrator “Israeli spawn,” though many in the country question that version.
Turkey’s public atmosphere is far from favorable for the Jews these days. A recent anti-Semitism survey carried out by the Anti-Defamation League found that 69 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic beliefs, significantly higher than the Western European and Eastern European averages (24% and 34% respectively) and only slightly lower than the Middle Eastern average of 74 percent.
Though Jews trace their presence in Turkey to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, they have never managed to become accepted as full citizens, said Rifat Bali, who studies minorities in Turkey and has published numerous books on the country’s Jewish community.
“Turkey is secular on paper, but was never secular,” Bali told The Times of Israel from his office in the Libra publishing house in central Istanbul. “Regardless of whether people are Kemalist [followers of modern Turkey's secular founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk] or Islamist, a non-Muslim was always perceived as a non-Muslim, not as a Turkish citizen.”
Kemal’s social engineering project, which since the mid-1920s tried to turn the subjects of the defunct Ottoman empire into equal Turkish citizens, has failed, Bali said.
“You cannot expect society to transform within 20 years,” he added. “It takes a few centuries.”
Violence has rarely struck Turkey’s Jewish community of 15,000, but when it has the outcome has been bloody and tragic. In September 1986, a terrorist belonging to the Palestinian Abu Nidal movement opened fire at worshipers at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul’s Galata neighborhood, killing 22. In November 2003, four truck bombs went off across Istanbul, leaving 57 dead and 700 injured. Two of the bombs targeted the synagogues of Neve Shalom and Bet Israel.
Today, visitors to Bet Israel must send their passports to the community days in advance in order to gain access to Friday night services. Worshipers pass through a metal detector in a sealed room before entering the sanctuary. After prayers, the Jews cram back into the passageway where a metal door locks behind them before the exit door is opened, as they deposit their shiny white skullcaps in a wicker basket.
Traditional anti-Semitism, present in Turkish society since time immemorial, was given a boost 12 years ago with the rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AK PARTİ. In its wake, anti-Jewish sentiment once limited mainly to social discourse and to extremist fringes found its way into mainstream politics.
“What changed is that the government comes from an Islamist ideology, where anti-Semitism is one of the dominant themes,” said Bali, tracing the ideological roots of the AK party to former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and the movement he founded in the late 1960s, Millî Görüş, or National Way.
“The government claims it has cut its ties to its former ideology and is now mainstream, but [anti-Semitism] is still there. That makes people [in the community] uncomfortable,” Bali said.
But despite that sense of discomfort, Bali argued that Jews are not perceived as a threat to the country. “They don’t have the financial power to be considered by Islamists as a threat,” he said. “Jews are a small group with no leverage, but are good for the image of Turkey [abroad] as a multicultural society.”
The numbers in the ADL’s anti-Semitism poll tell a different story. Sixty-nine percent of Turkish respondents said that the country’s Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Turkey, and 75 percent said Jews have too much power in the business world.
In any event, the angst of Turkish Jews is not pushing them to Israel. According to the Ministry of Immigration Absorption, only 13 Jews immigrated to Israel from Turkey since the beginning of 2014. During the entire year of 2013 just 70 immigrants relocated to the Jewish state. Statistics for recent years are not much different. Well-to-do Jews often prefer to send their children to get an education in the United States, where they often remain.
Medi Nahmiyaz is one of the few Jews who chose the holy land over the megalopolis on the Bosphorus. The coordinator of the Forum for Contemporary Turkish Studies at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, Nahmiyaz left her native Istanbul to study in the US in 2000 and then relocated to Israel in 2005.
“I never experienced anti-Semitism growing up, but some of my Jewish friends complain that they are discriminated against in the job market,” Nahmiyaz said. “Most of my friends back home are secular Muslims, who share the concerns of Jews over Erdogan’s economic and social policies.”
Like the Dönmeh, or crypto-Jews, of the Ottoman empire, Jewish intellectuals cannot profess their Zionism in public in Turkey, said Bali. There may be no legal obstacles to founding Zionist organizations in the country, but such a move would immediately attract the wrath of Islamists who would hurl accusations of dual loyalty, an inexcusable crime in the Turkish republic.
“A public intellectual can forget about his status if he defines himself as a Zionist,” Bali noted. “So people say one thing in public and act differently in private.”