Young Turkish Jews trickling away from shrinking community
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Young Turkish Jews trickling away from shrinking community

Faced with rising anti-Semitism, flagging economy, fewer than 17,000 members remain of once-burgeoning population

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Members of Turkey's Jewish community pray at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul on October 11, 2004, during a ceremony to mark the official reopening of the synagogue (AP/Murad Sezer)
Members of Turkey's Jewish community pray at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul on October 11, 2004, during a ceremony to mark the official reopening of the synagogue (AP/Murad Sezer)

Five centuries after Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Sephardic Jewish refugees to Istanbul, Turkey’s Jewish community is slowly dwindling. Faced with rising anti-Semitism, growing authoritarianism and dire economic circumstances, young Turkish Jews have increasingly set their sights on Israel, Europe and North America.

Despite a rich history under the Ottomans — rising to prominence as ministers, traders and buccaneers — and active involvement in public life in the early Turkish Republic, Turkish Jews no longer contribute significantly to the country’s political or cultural life. In 1948 Turkey was home to about 80,000 Jews; three years later nearly 40% had left. Talking with members of the community today, one is likely to hear the future for Jews in Turkey described as “bleak”.

The departure of Jewish youth is by no means an exodus. The numbers are small, but so is the community from which they’re leaving. Officially, 17,300 Jews live in Turkey today, the vast majority in Istanbul, making it the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. A decade earlier, it was closer to 20,000.

This much is clear: class sizes in Jewish kindergartens are shrinking, the birth rate is dropping and the community is aging.

Hard statistics concerning the emigration of young Jews, however, are difficult to come by. The official figure, for example, doesn’t account for the rising number of high school graduates who have left for opportunities abroad.

Mois Gabay, a columnist for the Jewish Şalom newspaper, wrote last year about the growing trend of young Turkish Jews moving abroad. He told Deutsche Welle in January that “40 percent of Jewish graduates chose to seek higher education abroad” in 2014. In 2013 it was half that figure. He said that number was expected to rise.

“I cannot tell you if young Jews are leaving, or how many young Jews are leaving,” he said over the phone. He added, though, that the community couldn’t ignore the fact that collective anxiety was taking hold.

Faced with anti-Semitic rhetoric that’s been given free rein by the government in recent years and amplified by social media, some young Jews have also opted to move to Israel for ideological reasons.

Immigration to Israel by Turkish Jews has remained steady at roughly 100 per year since 1980. In the past decade, 1,002 Turkish Jews have immigrated to Israel, according to statistics published by Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

“I always felt I didn’t belong to the Turkish people, I felt like a stranger, like I didn’t belong to them,” Israel Maden, 29, said. He grew up in Istanbul’s Göztepe neighborhood, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and was an active member in the local Jewish youth club.

Like many Turkish Jews, Maden has family living in Israel, and “the idea of leaving and coming to Israel was always there.” In 2009, he immigrated to the country whose name he carries.

Maden’s experience compared to that of Lisya Malki, a 31-year-old mother of one who moved to Israel in 2008 and now lives in a small town north of Tel Aviv.

“Even though I grew up there, we had our own holidays, our own culture,” she said in Hebrew tinged with a slight Turkish accent. “I was a Jew living in Turkey, that’s what I always felt.”

Alongside the ascendance of Islam and authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the volume of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric in Turkey has grown in state-sponsored media.

“Turkey has gained a much more conservative outlook that’s getting stronger day by day,” said Selin Nasi, an Istanbul native and PhD candidate in political science at Bogazici University. Islam has become “a way of conducting policy,” she said, and authoritarianism is on the rise.

Ahead of Sunday’s national elections, Erdogan on May 8 employed a Quran as a campaign prop — an unprecedented move in an officially secular government — waving it around onstage. His move was a cause of concern for Turkey’s religious minorities, including the Jews, and he was speedily accused of exploiting religion for political purposes.

Erdogan and his party’s open embrace of political Islam has also translated into strained ties with Israel, and the country’s Jews. Despite largely symbolic gestures, such as the recent restoration of the Edirne Great Synagogue (which has no accompanying community), tensions run high.

“Bilateral disputes between Turkey and Israel have an undeniable impact on attitudes toward Turkish Jews,” Nasi said, referring to tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem over Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.

Previously close ties between Israel and Turkey were frayed nearly to the breaking point in May 2010 after Israeli soldiers boarded the MV Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying activists attempting to break the IDF blockade on the Gaza Strip. In skirmishes between activists and Israeli troops, nine Turkish citizens were killed, triggering a diplomatic crisis. Tens of thousands of Turks protested in Istanbul, and hundreds attempted to storm the Israeli consulate.

Similar attacks on the Israeli diplomatic mission took place last summer during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, and latent anti-Semitic propaganda proliferated unchecked.

While recent months have been calm compared to last summer, Turkish Jews nonetheless “come across hate speech on a daily basis,” Nasi said.

“We know that some of the press, particularly close to the government, is involved in this hate speech and they are not sanctioned at all,” Nasi said. “The government totally turns a blind eye.”

Although anti-Semitism and ideology play a role in bringing Jewish youths such as Malki and Maden to Israel, Turkish Jews are also affected by the same socioeconomic pressures pushing middle class Turks to look abroad for a better life.

Turkey’s economic boom in the first decade of the 21st century has slowed, and its currency has lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year alone.

As tuition prices in Turkey’s increasingly competitive universities have skyrocketed in recent years, the quality of education lags behind schools in western Europe, the United States and Canada.

Like many middle-class Turks, Turkish Jews have contributed of the country’s brain drain.

“There’s no doubt anti-Semitism is a motivating factor,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has split his time in the last decade between New York, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. “But there are other groups [in the Jewish community] that are leaving because they’re part of the middle class, they can go to school in the US and get a job abroad.”

T., a 30-something resident of Istanbul who, like other Turkish Jews, preferred to speak anonymously for fear of backlash, works in a multinational company, which he said offers many Turks a means of emigrating with financial security.

“Almost all my friends think about what to do next,” said T., especially after the 2010 and 2014 anti-Israel uproar in Turkey. “Even though we are staying here, everyone is thinking of their next move.” He said that in the past five years he’s noticed a marked rise in Jewish emigration from Turkey.

Another indicator of the anxiety pervading the community is the number of Turkish Jews who have jumped at the opportunity to acquire Spanish citizenship. The vast majority of Turkey’s Jews are descendants of Spanish exiles who were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire.

Earlier this year the Spanish government announced its intention of extending citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492. Shortly thereafter 5,000 Turkish Jews — roughly a third of the community — applied for dual citizenship, potentially opening the doors to life in Europe, according to a recent Financial Times report.

Leaders from the Istanbul community declined to respond to inquiries concerning the departure of young Turkish Jews. The community’s official organ is notoriously tight-lipped and maintains a low profile. Rifat Bali, a prominent Turkish Jewish native to Istanbul, on the one hand denied there being “an exodus of young Jews” and called reports of one a “baseless allegation.” On the other hand, he acknowledged that since the 1980s young Jews of “more or less well to do families,” like their Muslim counterparts, leave for education abroad.

“As with all communities which are demographically so small and aged we will see numbers continuing to decrease,” Bali said by email.

Almost universally, the prognosis for the future of Turkey’s Jews, who have called Anatolia home for nearly 2,000 years, is grim. Malki, the young mother now living in Israel, said there are few Jewish men of marrying age still in Istanbul and, predictably, the birthrate is dropping.

“In Turkey, there’s no future for Jews,” she said. “There is racism, there is anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.” There are a million and one reasons for Jews to leave, she said.

 

“We have to admit that even if there is not an exodus of Jews leaving,” Fishman said, in light of its gradual senescence and young Jews trickling away,”the overall future of the community is not looking very hopeful.”

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Follow Ilan Ben Zion on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ilanbenzion

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