Jews want to see a future in Turkey, but doubts linger

The 15,000-strong mostly secular community is beset by soaring assimilation rates and hate speech, but some of those who leave find it difficult to cope abroad

  • Interior of Istanbul's Bet Yisrael synagogue. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)
    Interior of Istanbul's Bet Yisrael synagogue. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)
  • Interior of Istanbul's Bet Yisrael synagogue. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)
    Interior of Istanbul's Bet Yisrael synagogue. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)
  • Exterior of Istanbul's Neve Shalom synagogue in Galata. (Avi Lewis, Jon Weidberg)
    Exterior of Istanbul's Neve Shalom synagogue in Galata. (Avi Lewis, Jon Weidberg)
  • Istanbul's Yeni Camii Mosque. (Avi Lewis, Jon Weidberg)
    Istanbul's Yeni Camii Mosque. (Avi Lewis, Jon Weidberg)

ISTANBUL — Gaining entry to Istanbul’s Bet Yisrael Synagogue can be quite an ordeal.

Located on an empty, nondescript street patrolled by armed guards, visitors are required to pass through two bomb-vault doors and a metal detector, weeks after presenting their passports for a security clearance.

Once inside, a handful of worshipers – mostly aging – are spread out across the vacant seats as a young cantor hums traditional Sephardic melodies.

The feeling of walking into a fortified cavern is augmented by the synagogue’s lack of windows.

Every seat is equipped with a helmet underneath: “Just in case there’s an earthquake,” one congregant tells me jokingly — a wry nod to the truck bombings, carried out by al-Qaeda in 2003 outside this shul and Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue, that killed 27 and injured 300. A conspicuous number of cameras — inside and out – link to a security room on site.

After the Friday night prayers, all worshipers remove their yarmulkes and replace them with baseball caps, or simply leave the synagogue bare-headed.

Pouring out onto the street with the guards grimacing nearby, the atmosphere seems relaxed and convivial. For a moment, the balmy summer night exudes a whiff of Tel Aviv. But the crowd quickly disperses, leaving the street as empty as before.

Interior of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)
Interior of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)

With an illustrious 700-year history behind them, Turkey’s Jews now seem wedged between a rock and a hard place.

While outbursts of anti-Semitic rhetoric and growing hostility toward Israel under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan make the 15,000-strong community increasingly uneasy, some Jewish leaders say they are just as concerned over assimilation, intermarriage and emigration.

But they remain adamant that Jewish life will persist here, regardless of the growing intolerance and Islamization of Turkish society.

A spokesman for the Jewish community’s official mouthpiece says Turkey’s Jews are dismayed by the uptick in anti-Semitic speech and media articles, but still try, in their limited capacity, to bring these issues to the attention of the public and government to solve them via the legal system.

‘We still believe in a future in Turkey’

“Anti-Semitism and rising hate speech (conspiracy theories, etc.) are issues for Turkish Jews and we feel the threat,” a spokesman from Turk Musevi Cemaati, the Turkish Jewish Community, says in an email. (Perhaps a case in point: The group and others interviewed asked to review the article ahead of publication before consenting to speak due to previous incidents.)

The spokesman adds that the community’s leaders are lobbying the authorities to crack down on the phenomenon.

“We still believe in a future in Turkey,” he says.

Indeed, Turkey’s Jews aren’t leaving en masse — yet. The emigration rate stands at an inconsequential 120 people per year (0.8 percent), according the community umbrella group. And for those who do mull an exit, the Jewish state is not always the primary choice. The United States, Canada and Europe are also popular destinations due to the education and economic opportunities they offer, with one in every four Jewish students leaving to pursue higher education abroad.

Interior of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)
Interior of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey. (courtesy Turkish Jewish community)

But Israel still remains a cornerstone of the community, and Turkish Jews feel more and more alienated as their support for the Jewish state is questioned and denounced by an increasingly hostile society.

Israel’s existence is “sacred” to the community, the spokesman says, and with over 100,000 Jews of Turkish origin living in the Jewish state, most Jews who remained in Turkey have family attachments there.

These ties mean the community feels all the more unsettled by frequent flareups of anti-Israel hyperbole, which inevitably spike during Israeli military campaigns in the Gaza Strip. As in other European countries, there is increasing conflation of Israel’s actions with the local Jewish community.

In June of last year, for example, a pro-government newspaper, the daily Yeni Akit, published an open letter to Turkey’s chief rabbi, Ishak Haleva, calling on the Jewish community to apologize for Israel’s actions in Gaza.

To leave or not to leave?

It could be expected that a visitor to Turkey would find an embattled Jewish community on the verge of a mass exodus — but the low rate of emigration and the sentiments of some Turkish Jews interviewed for this article seem to indicate otherwise.

While some members are indeed in the process of leaving because of the anti-Semitic environment, others are staying put, and a small number are even returning. The general consensus is that of a highly ambivalent community taking a wait-and-see approach to political developments.

Some say they remain here because of their cultural familiarity with the place; others note that they returned after stints abroad, citing language barriers or family ties.

One friendly congregant at Bet Yisrael tells me that he made aliyah, studied Hebrew and lived in Israel for five years before returning to Turkey because he couldn’t make it work financially.

The general consensus is that of a community highly ambivalent, taking a wait-and-see approach to political developments

“This is my home,” he says with a sort of shrug. Today he leads tours for visiting American Jews and the increasingly rare Israeli groups.

Another congregant bemoans the high levels of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the media, and describes Turkish Jewry as “a crumbling community.” But even he concedes he would find it difficult to leave because he speaks only Turkish and Ladino.

According to a 2015 survey by the Anti-Defamation League on anti-Semitic attitudes, 71% of Turks harbor anti-Semitic views. Of those polled, 78% said they believe Jews hold too much power in the business world, while 71% said that Jews living in the Diaspora are more loyal to Israel than their home countries. (To compare, “only” 60% of Iranians hold anti-Semitic views.)

In the wake of a series of terror attacks in Paris in January 2015, ADL director Abraham Foxman accused Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of “contributing to a worsening environment that promotes hostility toward Turkey’s Jewish community,” after they made inflammatory remarks equating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the attacks’ perpetrators.

It is still unclear what effect, if any, the upcoming November snap reelections in Turkey will have on their political standings or anti-Israel rhetoric.

Denis Ojalvo, a Turkish-Jewish international relations expert. (courtesy)
Denis Ojalvo, a Turkish-Jewish international relations expert. (courtesy)

But despite growing incitement in politics, print, broadcast and social media, those interviewed say actual anti-Semitic violence is rare, because Jews are few and far between and do not always self-identify in public. (The community umbrella group declined to provide statistics for this piece.)

“Ordinary Turks have no clue about Jews in their midst,” says Denis Ojalvo, a Jewish international relations expert residing in Istanbul.

“Most of them, especially those who live outside of Istanbul, haven’t even met one. Their opinions on Jews are shaped by low-grade TV discussions among ‘experts’ in religion or international relations. Those programs are biased and present a distorted picture of Jews and Israel,” he says.

According to Ojalvo, anti-Semitism is largely confined to the media and spurred on by officials from Turkey’s ruling Islamist AKP party. The politicians, he says, exploit local anger vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to garner additional votes at the ballot box.

Despite the uncomfortable climate, “there is no open anti-Semitism,” he acknowledges. Rather, the future of Turkish Jewry is linked to the official attitude on Israel.

Unless the stance toward Israel changes for the better, he says, “I do not think that Jews have a future [here].”

Fighting assimilation

But the Chabad rabbi of Istanbul’s 100-strong Ashkenazi community, Mendy Chitrik, says that the community is largely uninvolved in Middle East politics, and that the Turkish government’s approach to Israel has nothing to do with local Turkish Jews.

Chitrik, who also previewed this piece, notes that although hate speech is on the rise, it hasn’t affected him personally. He maintains that the greatest threats to Jewish life here are internal: assimilation and intermarriage.

Rabbi Mendy Chitrik of Istanbul's Ashkenazi Jewish community. (Avi Lewis)
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik of Istanbul’s Ashkenazi Jewish community. (Avi Lewis)

“I’ve been here for 15 years. I’ve never encountered any anti-Semitism. Nobody has ever said any comment to me or anything like that. I’m a rabbi, I’m visibly Jewish,” Chitrik tells me at a café in downtown Istanbul, hidden underneath a baseball cap. (Chitrik explains that until a few years ago there was a law against wearing religious garb in public.)

“There are some anti-Semitic expressions in the newspapers that feed anti-Semitism, and other sorry expressions of some political officials which should not have been said. Nevertheless, people feel very comfortable being Jewish [here],” the Israeli-born rabbi notes, adding that the Turkish government has been “helpful in many ways” to the Jewish community.

There is “no reason for Jews to claim that there is any official or semi-official anti-Semitism within government,” he says, referring to government subsidies to the country’s only Jewish school, Ulus, and the recent state-sponsored renovation of a synagogue in Edirne, which has no active Jewish community.

‘As a rabbi, I must tell you that there is no hope for secular Jewish life in the Diaspora’

Chitrik, who was born to American parents in Safed, describes the Turkish rabbinate’s uphill battle to stymie sinking observance rates in a largely secular society gripped by an Islamic resurgence. He compares his own work as a Chabad emissary to that of a contractor repairing the foundations of an ancient, historic building.

“As a rabbi, I must tell you that there is no hope for secular Jewish life in the Diaspora. That is the fact: Secular Jewish life ends after one or two generations,” he says. “It’s happening here in Istanbul.”

With an “intermarriage rate of 40%,” secularization is far more destructive to Turkey’s Jews than any perceived anti-Semitism, he claims. The only way to counter this trend, he adds, is to provide sufficient Jewish education, raise synagogue attendance and increase levels of observance.

When I ask the rabbi if he sees his children remaining in Turkey, he says yes, but adds that it may be difficult for them to pursue a religious lifestyle in a wilting congregation.

“With the rate of assimilation, it will become more and more difficult [to live Jewishly in Turkey]. Because, besides the fact that assimilation diminishes the number of affiliated Jews, it also diminishes the character of the community,” Chitrik says, adding that at the moment, “the Jewish community of İstanbul is [still] a united, beautiful and warm community.”

Zionism or more observance?

But if Chitrik’s answer to the slow decline of Turkish Jewry lies in convincing members to become more observant, for Ojalvo, the answer lies in convincing members to become more Zionist.

“We all prefer our children marry Jewish, but modern life takes its toll in mixed marriages. The way to prevent that is by sending youth for their university education in Israel,” Ojalvo says.

The Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Turkey (CC-BY-SA CeeGee/Wikimedia Commons)
The Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Turkey (CC-BY-SA CeeGee/Wikimedia Commons)

The Jewish community is passionately secular, he adds, and although religious leaders are respected, the community will resist attempts to impose observance.

“No Turkish Jew would bend to any [religious] diktat whatsoever,” Ojalvo says.

“Assimilation is a latent and long-term trend. The way to combat it is not more religion but more Zionism,” he says.

Going cold Turkey

A number of Jewish community members are taking matters into their own hands, unconvinced by Ankara’s token, symbolic gestures or the rabbinate’s assurances that Jews are secure here.

One family, who spoke off the record, says that they are preparing to move to Israel “soon” — despite little Hebrew or English — because the levels of anti-Semitism have become unbearable for them.

Laced beneath their words is a private fear that they would be giving up stable jobs, income and an apartment in exchange for financial uncertainty, a high cost of living and language difficulties in the Jewish state.

Still, they say, they see no future in Turkey.

Their son, 18, is a recent graduate of the Jewish school, Ulus. With a good grasp of English, he says, most of his classmates are preparing to make the move as well.

‘Most teens are ignorant about their heritage. They just know they’re Jewish — but not what being Jewish mean’

Ulus, he says, with its 650 Jewish students, doesn’t provide pupils with a strong enough Jewish education — Turkish law allows no more than one class on religion per day — leaving the youth, who are also overwhelmingly secular, aware of their identity but not much else.

“Most teens are ignorant about their heritage. They just know they’re Jewish, but not what being Jewish means,” he says.

So what’s in store for the future?

Turkey’s Jewish community today, with skyrocketing assimilation rates, and hate speech ever lurking in the background, may find itself beset by a steadily more anti-Semitic climate, ever more acceptable, but not yet entirely politically correct — neither condoned nor meaningfully condemned by the authorities.

And its polarized, secular Jewish youth may find themselves either moving abroad to Israel or the US after embracing their Jewish identity. Or perhaps they will conveniently discard it, to remain unfettered in the country of their birth — as locals, but not Jews.

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