'It exploded in the media, and on social media'

How the removal of Jewish scripture from Turkey marred Israel’s rescue operation

ZAKA volunteers brought back and showcased 2 Scrolls of Esther said to be decades old, sparking frenzied allegations of ‘archaeological theft’ in the Turkish media

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

An Israeli rescue worker holds a scroll found in Antakya, Turkey on Feb. 16, 2023. (IDF Spokesperson)
An Israeli rescue worker holds a scroll found in Antakya, Turkey on Feb. 16, 2023. (IDF Spokesperson)

In the wake of the tragic earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in Turkey and parts of Syria last month, countries from across the fractious region and beyond immediately sent in rescue teams that pulled hundreds of people out of the rubble and aided thousands more.

Israel, which has a complicated relationship with Turkey under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist AKP party, dispatched a 405-person strong rescue team, the second-largest delegation of any country, trailing only Azerbaijan. The Israelis saved at least 19 lives in Turkey before returning home on February 13.

But what should have been a neighborly act of kindness that transcends ideology and politics was marred by the actions of a handful of rescuers who took back to Israel without permission two pieces of scripture that they’d found in a ruined synagogue. When word got out in Turkey, their actions were reported in mainstream Turkish media as archaeological theft.

The scripture, decades-old Scrolls of Esther — copies of the biblical Book of Esther, which recounts the story of the salvation of the Jews in the Persian Empire when they were under threat some 2,500 years ago — were returned to Turkey and given to its rabbinate days after they arrived in Israel. By the time Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating that salvation, came around, the scrolls were already back on Turkish soil.

But in Turkey, “the whole affair gave interested parties the perfect opportunity to say that the Israelis really came here only to steal,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and an expert on contemporary Turkish politics and society.

Cohen Yanarocak, who has followed the affair, chalks it up to a cultural misunderstanding exacerbated by the Turkish sensitivity to the country’s vast archaeological treasures, and perhaps an undercurrent of suspicion vis-à-vis Israel.

It began when a local from Antakya gave an Israeli volunteer for ZAKA, a Jerusalem-based emergency relief agency, the scrolls for safekeeping following the destruction of the local synagogue. Saul Cenudioğlu, the longtime leader of the southern city’s Jewish community, and his wife Fortuna were among the earthquake’s many victims.

ZAKA volunteer Chaim Otmazgin holds one of the scrolls brought back from Turkey to Israel on Feb. 13, 2023. (ZAKA)

“The scrolls found were maybe a few decades old. Certainly not an archaeological artifact: The sort of thing you’d find and buy at a Judaica store in New York,” Cohen Yanarocak said.

But Turkey, the cradle of multiple empires over the millennia, isn’t like New York, and the importance that locals and their government officials attach to the country’s precious cultural heritage is enormous, Cohen Yanarocak said.

“When Turkish media and authorities learned from Israeli media that scrolls had been taken, that term, ‘scroll,’ was a trigger that advertised archaeological theft. To make things worse, by foreigners. To make things even worse, by Israelis on the margins of a national tragedy. It exploded in the media, and on social media,” Cohen Yanarocak said.

Millî Gazete, a pro-Islamist publication, made the scrolls item its cover story, complete with a picture of them in the hands of “a Zionist,” as the caption described ZAKA volunteer Chaim Otmazgin, who held up the scrolls for a photo. TGRT Haber, a leading television broadcaster, also aired several items on the scrolls’ removal and later, on their return. On Turkish Twitter, the Turkish-language word for “scroll” trended briefly as the most-discussed term.

Following the outcry, an Israeli rabbi returned the scrolls to Turkey. Turkish authorities examined the scrolls at the rabbinate in Istanbul and issued the all-clear on February 20, promising that the scrolls would return to the synagogue of Antakya after it is renovated.

“It was all resolved quite quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction, but it’s a shame that an easily avoidable cultural misunderstanding ended up casting something of a shadow on an important moment of shared fate,” Cohen Yanarocak concluded.

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