ISTANBUL — Jews are not exactly popular in Turkey these days, especially after US President Donald Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The move infuriated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who at a summit of Muslim nations in Istanbul labeled Israel a “terror state,” said Trump had a “Zionist mentality” and warned that Jews have no right to “appropriate” Jerusalem.
But relations between Turkey and Israel — and by extension, between Turks and their native Jewish population — have been tense for years, even prior to a 2010 diplomatic row and subsequent attempt by the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara to break through Israel’s maritime Gaza siege.
More recently, in June 2017, far-right protesters kicked the doors of Istanbul’s historic Neve Şalom Synagogue and threw stones at the heavily guarded building after Israel imposed security measures at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem following a deadly attack there.
Still, all the violence and rhetoric hasn’t stopped a steady stream of curious locals and foreigners from visiting the Quincentennial Foundation Jewish Museum of Turkey — a cultural gem housed within Neve Şalom that chronicles 500 years of Jewish history.
During a trip to Turkey last November, I decided to stop by Neve Şalom for the first time in 26 years. While it took only seven minutes to walk there, it took much longer to get inside. That’s no surprise, given the incredibly tight security following two deadly terrorist attacks against Jewish institutions in 1986 and 2003 that killed a combined 48 people and injured dozens more. This is in addition to an unsuccessful bombing attempt in 1992, claimed by Hezbollah, that hurt no one.
Two armed guards stood at the entrance to the unmarked synagogue along Büyük Hendek Caddesi. After inspecting my Israeli passport and making a phone call, one of them escorted me around the corner and into the building itself — which is protected by a four-inch-thick blast-resistant black metal door along with a mandatory X-ray scan.
Once inside, I was greeted with a trilingual welcome mural from the Bible in Hebrew, Turkish and English: “And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away… and pray unto the Lord for it.”
It’s a comforting thought for uncertain times such as these, and one echoed by the people who work at the museum.
“I work at a Jewish institution that has been targeted three times, and I still keep coming to work every day,” said Nisya İşman Allovi, curator and director of the Museum of Turkish Jews. “So I feel secure.”
İşman, who has run this museum for nearly 16 years, declined to discuss politics or her views of the Turkish president. But long before Erdoğan’s latest outbursts against Israel, the attitude in the country towards Jews had clearly taken a turn for the worse.
According to the Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation’s Media Watch on Hate Speech project, Jews are the most frequently targeted ethnic group in Turkish media.
Of 2,466 examples of hate speech published in Turkey’s local and national media in the second trimester of 2017, some 493 singled out Jews, while 472 targeted Syrians. Greeks were third on the list with 256 examples, followed by Armenians, Cypriot Greeks, Christians, British people and Buddhists.
The report also said Turkish media outlets frequently demonize Jews as a collective group, with the term “Jews” often used instead of “Israeli” or “Israel Defense Forces.” Jews are portrayed as the “hidden power” in conspiracy theories and presented as a “threat against Turkey.”
In addition, a 2015 Anti-Defamation League global survey showed that 71 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic views — one of the highest percentages in Europe.
Yet this museum takes the long view, focusing on Jewish heritage and its rich contributions to both the historic Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Open every day of the week except Saturday, it was inaugurated in 2001 at the now-closed Zulfaris synagogue and relocated to Neve Şalom in December 2015.
For example, there’s a panel on Jewish lawmakers who have served in the Turkish Parliament. There’s also a copy of the 1925 book, “Die Juden der Türkei,” in which author David Trietsch wrote that 10,000 Ashkenazi Jews lived in Istanbul alone.
Religious artifacts on display include a “kosher for Passover” wooden matzah seal, an 18th-century shofar, an etrog box from the Italian Jewish community and a 200-year-old silver cup. There’s also a 19th-century brass Hanukkah menorah crafted in the shape of an Ottoman minaret, and a panel devoted to Sabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who raised the hopes of thousands of Jews in the 1600s, but ultimately converted to Islam.
Turkey is today home to about 17,000 Jews — roughly 16,000 of whom live in Istanbul. The remaining 1,000 or so are concentrated in Izmir, Edirne, Antakya, Bursa and Adana. Only 30 Jews live in Turkey’s capital city, Ankara, down from 578 in 1995.
In Istanbul, which once had 19 synagogues, only Neve Şalom and two others are functioning today; all are located in the city’s lively Galata district, on the European side. In fact, new street signs in Turkish and English now direct visitors to the museum.
“This is the only place Turks can learn more about Jewish culture,” İşman told me, estimating her institution receives at least 10,000 visitors a year, 70% of them locals. “They can see the synagogue, tour the museum and learn what is a Turkish Jew.”
As a reporter, I was naturally intrigued by an exhibit on Jewish journalism in Turkey. Among other curios, there’s an old manual typewriter in a glass case that belonged to Avram Leyon, who helped found the newspaper Şalom in 1947. (The weekly still publishes one page in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews).
Visitors can also pull out panels containing the front pages of various other now-defunct local Jewish newspapers, including El Telégrafo and La Boz de Oriente.
Neve Şalom and the museum attract relatively few tourists from Israel and the United States, which are home to 83% of the world’s 14.5 million Jews. No doubt many of them are scared away by the threat of terrorism; in fact, a clock in the hallway of the synagogue shows the exact time, 9:17 a.m., when the 1986 attack took place.
“We used to get more Americans, but they haven’t been coming to this country much for two or three years now, due to the security issues,” said İşman. “Israelis used to go mainly to the casinos in Antalya, but culturally speaking, not to Istanbul. Now we have many more visitors from Argentina, Brazil and other South American countries — and even people coming from Korea.”
On November 5, the museum hosted a European Day of Jewish Culture, featuring concerts, discussions, book signing, a film screening and a symbolic wedding. Some 1,300 people came, most of them Turks.
On December 19, it threw a Hanukkah party for the public — most of them Muslim — in which a menorah was lit and prayers were recited. And on January 3, the museum opened a new exhibit jointly with the Spanish Embassy titled “Beyond the Duty.”
Regardless of the latest tensions over Jerusalem and Erdoğan’s latest rants against the “international Jewish conspiracy,” İşman said she plans to stay in Turkey.
“This is my culture and it’s not easy to start over somewhere else,” she said. “I cannot speak on behalf of anyone else, but I would like to be an optimist about the future.”