Despite warnings of Iranian threats in Istanbul, life for local Jews hasn’t changed

Turkey’s chief rabbis say Israeli officials’ calls to heed danger have had little impact on expats or city’s 15,000-strong local Jewish community

Illustrative: Commuters take a ride in a ferry crossing the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, Turkey in April 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Illustrative: Commuters take a ride in a ferry crossing the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, Turkey in April 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

JTA — In a scene straight out of the espionage thriller “Fauda,” Israeli security forces whisked Israeli citizens away from their Istanbul hotel last week, reportedly acting on intelligence showing that the visitors were at immediate risk from Iranian assassins.

The real-life drama played out amid reports Iranians were targeting Israeli tourists in Istanbul as retaliation for the assassination last month of a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, which Iran blamed on Israel.

But far from sowing panic, the evacuation and repeated warnings from Israeli officials were met with confusion, and some apathy, on the ground in Turkey among both local Jews and Israelis visiting the country.

The warnings also came at a time when Turkish-Israeli relations are warmer than they have been in over a decade. Earlier this year, President Isaac Herzog met with his counterpart, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and last month, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu traveled to Jerusalem to meet with his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

Lapid will fly to Ankara on Thursday to meet with Cavusoglu, despite the impending dissolution of Israel’s government.

Israel reportedly put off issuing the warning for some time in order to give Turkish authorities a chance to resolve the Iranian threat internally. Ultimately the evacuation was done in cooperation between Mossad and Turkish authorities, whom Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised this week.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center speaks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 25, 2022. (Asi Efrati/ GPO)

“The operational efforts alongside Turkish security forces have borne fruit,” Bennett said. “In recent days, in a joint Israeli-Turkish effort, we thwarted a number of attacks and a number of terrorists were arrested on Turkish soil.”

Israel’s National Security Council also issued its most severe travel warning for Turkey, putting it on the same level as war-torn states like Afghanistan and Yemen — as well as Iran.

“If you are already in Istanbul, return to Israel as soon as possible,” Lapid said on June 13. “If you planned a trip to Istanbul — cancel it. No vacation is worth risking your lives for.”

“The State of Israel’s security forces are doing everything [in their power] to thwart these attacks and to neutralize the attackers and their operators,” Bennett said the next day. “We will not hesitate to use the power of the State of Israel anywhere in the world, for the protection of our citizens.”

As the week went on, warnings from Israel only became more dire, though it was reported that several of the Iranian cells were neutralized by Israeli and Turkish forces.

On Friday, Israel called on its nationals in Turkey to lock themselves in hotel rooms and be wary of opening the doors even for service staff and delivery people.

Illustrative: The Egyptian bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, April 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

For Israelis on the ground however, the warning has elicited a more subdued response.

“Honestly, I just heard about it from the news,” Itay, an Israeli living in Turkey, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He asked that his last name not be shared for safety and privacy reasons.

He said he has felt little reason to change his routines and does not know any other Israelis who have either.

“I’m not screaming in Hebrew or something like that, of course. But if someone asks me where I’m from, I will always say from Tel Aviv,” he said.

Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, Turkey’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi and a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who deals with dozens of Israeli tourists weekly, said he was inundated last past week with messages from local Israeli expats and Israeli travelers asking for advice.

“When people call me, and ask me if they should come, I say they should refer to the security instructions of their government and try to comply with that,” he said.

People walk towards the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Saturday, July 11, 2020. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

Nonetheless, he has seen little change.

“I walk on the streets of Nisantasi [one of Istanbul’s hip shopping districts], and still hear Israelis speaking,” he said.

Chitrik said he had no direct knowledge of how many individuals have decided to change their plans to travel to Istanbul based on the warnings. However, as the director of kosher supervision operations in Turkey for both the Israeli and Turkish rabbinates as well as the US-based Orthodox Union, Chitrik noted that the number of kosher meals ordered for Turkey-bound airline flights has not seen any decline.

According to the Walla news site, some 3,750 people on 21 flights departed from Israel to Turkey on June 13 despite the warnings. However, that also includes those just passing through Istanbul airport, the second busiest in Europe, which was not included in the warning.

Overall, Chitrik does not envision much change in his regular routine either.

“As a rabbi, a person of faith, we trust, first and foremost, in God, and then we also trust in the authorities of Turkey that they protect their citizens and Jewish community and also the millions and millions of tourists that come to Turkey,” he said.

In their coverage of the affair last week, Israeli media seemed hard pressed to find anyone who actually heeded the warning to leave the country, though many did shelter in their hotel rooms after Friday’s warning.

Israeli expats are far from the only Jews in Istanbul, home to a 15,000-strong Turkish-Jewish community.

The community has also been a target before over Israel tensions, notably in 1986, when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Istanbul’s flagship Neve Salom synagogue, killing 22. In 2003, two car bombs exploded outside of Neve Salom and another synagogue in the city, killing 28. The 2003 attacks are believed to have been the work of the Al Qaeda terror group.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, on March 8, 2022 (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

Nonetheless, Turkey’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva publicly urged Israelis to continue to visit Turkey, despite the warnings of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“There was an issue that occurred, [and] the State of Israel rose to its feet – and rightly so,” Haleva said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. “Otherwise they would be responsible if something happened and they didn’t warn about it beforehand.”

Nonetheless, he referred to the alleged plot as “a lot more noise than actual threats.”

“I think that Israelis should continue to come and visit. Turkey is a very beautiful country. They can come and enjoy it without making a fuss about it,” Haleva said, “Turkey is beautiful in the summer, so please be our guests.”

Though he also said that, “when talking on the streets, they shouldn’t speak as loudly as they usually do.”

Bennet stressed Monday that despite the arrests, the threat remained active.

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