A historic cycle was closed here last week, as Israeli President Chaim Herzog visited the Neve Shalom synagogue in the heart of Istanbul.
Six years ago, on Sept. 6, 1986, Palestinian terrorists burst into the building, the most important Jewish institution in Istanbul, and killed 22 Sabbath worshippers.
Last week, the Jewish community of some 25,000 welcomed the most senior representative of the State of Israel to where the massacre had taken place.
The message sent to the terrorists was loud and clear: Not only have you achieved nothing in the terrorist attack, but the status of both Israel and the Jewish community in Turkey is now stronger than ever.
Israel and Turkey this year upgraded their ties to full diplomatic relations and signed a tourism agreement. Now Herzog was visiting the country, meeting with both President Turgut Ozal and Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel.
Although it was not an official state visit, Demirel later told Herzog that in his view, it was a state visit for all intents and purposes.
Herzog came to this Moslem state of 56 million to celebrate a Jewish event. He and his wife, Aura, were invited by a joint Jewish-Moslem committee marking the 500th anniversary of the absorption of both Jews and Moslems ousted from Spain in 1492.
Throughout the 48-hour visit, security was tight. Armed police guarded the Herzogs wherever they went. A police patrol boat was placed right next to the luxurious Ciragan Palace Hotel on the waters of the Bosporus.
And a helicopter kept guard from above while the president went on a one-hour cruise in the Savarona, a cruiser originally purchased for the founding father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.
There was obvious nervousness here among security officers, not only because of the attack at Neve Shalom, but also because of current terrorist activities by both leftist and Kurdish insurgents.
A GALA PALACE DINNER
The magnificent Neve Shalom synagogue was packed with some 700 members of the Jewish community. Herzog was seated in front of an ugly scar in the wall, a reminder of the 1986 attack.
He was welcomed by Rabbi David Asseo, the chief rabbi of Turkey, who compared the president’s visit to that of a Jewish king.
“My short visit to Turkey reflects a historic chapter in Jewish history,” Herzog told the audience in English, praising the warm welcome that was granted by the Ottoman authorities for the Jewish exiles who came here after the 1492 expulsion.
He challenged the local Jewish community to be the spearhead of improving relations between the two countries.
The next night came the climax of the visit. Herzog was received at a gala dinner, attended by some 1,100 guests, at the garden of the majestic Dolmabahce Palace, one of the eight impressive palaces of the city.
It was a rare occasion. Not only was it attended by the creme de la creme of Turkish society, but it was also honored by the presence of two political rivals, President Ozal and Prime Minister Demirel. The two have hardly spoken to each other in the past few weeks and the reception gave them an opportunity for at least a temporary reconciliation.
“It is so nice a feeling to remember with pride the tolerance and understanding of our forefathers,” Ozal said in his address. “We have gained fellow citizens whose friendship, dexterity and solidarity have contributed greatly to our society.”
Ozal quoted Beyazit II, the sultan at the time of the Spanish expulsion, who said: “To expel such a community from its native soil is a loss to the perpetrators of that deed, and a gain to those who provide them with shelter and relief.”
He reassured Herzog that Turkey is eager to contribute to a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Demirel, in his address, expressed support for Israel’s right to live in secure boundaries, but with the same breath expressed support for an independent Palestinian state.
Ozal and Demirel met separately with Herzog for political discussions. Demirel met with Herzog before his departure on Friday. He told him how he had met a day earlier with 17 Arab ambassadors and told them that it was time to wake up and adopt a more realistic policy toward Israel.
None of the Arab ambassadors voiced any protest at the warm reception Herzog had received in Turkey.
“As far as I am concerned,” Herzog told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the revelation of this visit was the tremendous admiration for Israel, the Turkish readiness to turn a new leaf in the history of the countries, and to ignore all our enemies.”