Living Quietly in Turkey (part 1): a Tiny Speck in a Muslim Land, Jewish Community Remains Apart

“We do not hide as Jews, but neither do we make much noise,” a journalist writing for Turkey’s sole Jewish weekly told a recent American visitor.

The phrase neatly encapsulates the posture of Turkey’s 24,000 Jews, a tiny speck among the country’s 60 million Muslim citizens.

The circumspect attitude us partly the result of a sense of vulnerability, but more of a genuine gratitude for what one community leader hailed as Turkey’s “unequaled record of religious tolerance.”

To understand the Turkish Jewish community, the closest historical analogy may be the Jews of pre-World War I Germany, who combined a profound aversion to making waves with superpatriotic support of the reigning monarchy.

“We have lived peacefully under Turkish rule for 1,300 years,” said Nedim Yahya, a retired industrialist who sports on his jacket lapel a likeness of the legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic.

The centuries-long record of Jewish benefactors include a 14th century Ottoman sultan who sent ships to bring persecuted Ashkenazi Jews from France to his empire. He was emulated by Sultan Beyazit II, who warmly welcomed Sephardi Jews, after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

In more recent times, Ataturk invited Jewish academicians from Nazi Germany to settle in Turkey in the 1930s. In 1942, the government successfully resisted Hitler’s demands that the refugee professors be returned to Germany.

In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel.

In response, Jews have always been among the most loyal and patriotic of Turkish subjects. In the 15th century, an all-Jewish regiment, The Sons of Moses, fought for its Muslim ruler in Transylvania and Bohemia. In succeeding generations, Jewish doctors, diplomats, scholars and generals served the courts of the sultans.

However, during the early years of World War II, the Jews’ loyalty was sorely taxed. Although Turkey sat out the conflict as a neutral party, anti-Semitic propaganda was widely spread by the pro-Axis media. Exorbitant taxes and confiscations imposed by the government his Jewish artisans and businessmen hard.

Of the country’s 80,000 Jews in 1945, the poorer half emigrated to Israel in the first years after independence in 1948. Another quarter, generally more affluent, settled in France, Canada and the United States, forming small communities in such cities as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

More than 20,000 of the remaining 24,000 Jews are concentrated in Istanbul. Another 2,300 live in Izmir. Smaller enclaves, numbering a few hundred families or less, are found in the capital, Ankara, and other cities.

The community is generally affluent, with most breadwinners in business or in the legal, medical and other professions. However, there are no professionals to help administer the community itself. Volunteers shoulder much of the work.

The government-approved head of the Jewish community is Chief Rabbi David Asseo, who, at 81, has held the office since 1961. He is assisted in religious matters by a Beit Din of four rabbis, and in secular affairs by a 35-member council and a 14-member executive committee.

In Istanbul, the Jewish community operates a primary and secondary school for 600 students, a kindergarten, a hospital, two homes for the elderly and five sports and social youth clubs. The community also supervises eight kosher butchers.

There are 16 synagogues, of which three operate only during the summer in nearby resort areas. With a shortage of rabbis, cantors frequently lead the services. One synagogue is Ashkenazi, the other are Sephardi. Although all are nominally Orthodox, congregational practice leans more toward the Conservative and Reform.

The oldest, dating back to the early 15th century, is the Ahrida Synagogue, with its distinctive bimah in the shape of a ship’s prow. The largest is the Neve Shalom Synagogue, where, in the most traumatic event in the annals of Turkish Jewry, two Arab terrorists killed 22 worshipers in 1986.

In an interview, the chief rabbi deplored his community’s growing assimilation and intermarriage rate of more than 20 percent, fueled mainly by Jewish men marrying Muslim women.

Still, the community remains relatively isolated and maintains a low profile. The isolation from world Jewry stems in part from a 1936 law that forbids Turkish citizens from belonging to international organizations or from attending their meetings.

Although originally aimed at Socialist and Communist groups, the law still stands and hinders contact between Turkish Jews and their brothers and sisters abroad.

Still, official restrictions are interpreted in different ways by different Jews. Some hew strictly to the letter of the law; others have attended international Jewish gatherings.

In a community that shuns political involvement, industrialist Jak Kamhi stands out. Kamhi is so well connected that he can reportedly pick up the phone and get though to the republic’s president or prime minister at any time.

Kamhi was behind the Quincentennial Foundation, established in the early 1990s to coordinate events marking the 500th anniversary of the welcome extended by the Ottoman Empire in 1492 to Jews expelled from Spain.

Kamhi unabashedly recalls the quincentennial as an effort “to promote the image of Turkey throughout the world.”

He worries about foreign criticism of his country’s human rights violations, particularly in its wars with Kurdish militants, as well as prospects for the economy, which is plagued by rampant inflation, high unemployment, currency devaluation and growing debt.

“We need better understanding abroad and confidence in us, then private investments will follow,” he said.

One bright blip on the economic screen is the massive influx of Israeli tourists, which runs at between 350,000 to 500,000 a year.

The harsh economic conditions, however, are feeding the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalists, whose Welfare Party could become the country’s largest. It already controls the city halls in Istanbul and Ankara.

Its leadership is openly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, and its sentiments are often echoed in the rapidly growing fundamentalist media.

When Israel took in 89 orphans from the war-torn Bosnia last year, one newspaper claimed that Israeli doctors were planning to extract the children’s organs for transplants.

Sami Kohen, one of the country’s leading journalists, said Jews, particularly the wealthier ones, stand to lose a great deal if the Welfare Party comes to power.

But “the fundamentalists will be able to turn the whole system upside down,” Kohen added. “The strong secular tradition, established by Ataturk, enjoys widespread support and the army is sworn by the constitution to uphold Ataturk’s principles.”

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