The synagogue’s fate tells the story of Turkey’s dwindling Jewish community, which is dealing with rising displays of anti-Semitism and profound fears for its future.read more
“We’re not afraid of Islamic State and Kurdish terror – that’s directed against all Turks,” says another community member, who also wished to remain anonymous. “The problem is with our neighbors and the neighbors’ children we grew up with. Today, they are fed with wild incitement and treat us and our children with hatred and anti-Semitism. Our problem is at school, nightclubs, the supermarket.”
The synagogue is located in the heart of the city’s old Galata neighborhood, where Jews settled on first reaching Istanbul. Many of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 settled in the Ottoman Empire and until World War I the Jewish-Turkish community numbered some 150,000.
After the Great War it lost half of its population to Israel, Europe and the United States, and has been in constant decline ever since. By the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party rose to power in 2005, the community numbered 19,500. It fell to 17,000 over the following decade and has fallen by a further 1,000 in the past year.
The people I spoke to in Istanbul hold the Turkish leadership responsible, for ignoring the rampant incitement against Jews in Turkey and enabling it, even if President Erdogan himself didn’t make any public anti-Semitic statements.
The reconciliation agreement signed last week between Israel and Turkey has failed to lessen his fears. “The agreement is not between myself and my neighbor, or between my child and a gang of youngsters who attack him in a nightclub or at school,” he says.
“It was always unacceptable to look like a Jew in Turkey, but we looked the other way because we made a good living,” he says. “A Jew in Turkey never wears a kippa – except for the chief rabbi, because the job obliges him to. In the past, we did it out of the understanding that we live in a Muslim state and there’s no need to create an uncomfortable situation. Today, it’s from the fear of being attacked.
“A Jew can’t be a career officer in the Turkish army, no matter how many generations he’s lived in Turkey or how loyal he is to the state,” he adds. “A Jew can’t send his son to the military academy, or serve in intelligence or other sensitive posts.”