Jews May Live in Turkish Hinterland, but Keep Secret in Order to Stay Safe

It seemed like anti-Semitism masquerading as history.

Baki Ozmen, a self-described historian of the Jews of the remote Turkish city of Sanliurfa, pulled down the neck of his brown turtleneck sweater with one hand and made karate-like chops at his tan-colored flesh with the other.

“The Jews used sharp metal objects to cut the neck of their brethren. Only the Jews kill that way,” he told JTA. “They were the city’s best smiths; that’s how we know it was the Jews who killed that Jewish family in 1945. This is what our elders tell us.”

To create a pretext that would enable them to immigrate to Palestine, the Jews of Sanliurfa, an ancient city known in the Bible as Ur, hatched a plan to hack to death a local Jewish family and then blame it on their Muslim neighbors. Or so goes local lore.

Since then, said Ozmen, a bear-like man with a jowly, bearded face, there have been no Jews in the stalls that once belonged to Jewish artisans pounding out copper pots or finjans deep in the city’s labyrinthine bazaar — or anywhere else in the city, for that matter.

But Ozmen’s information isn’t quite accurate: About 10 Jewish families still live in Sanliurfa, clandestinely celebrating certain Jewish holidays in the privacy of their homes.

To stay alive, the Jews of Sanliurfa — the ancient town where Abraham stopped to water his camel train, according to the Bible — conceal their yarmulkes and Jewish books in hidden corners of their homes, according to several sources, including Kadir Celikcan, the director of Sanliurfa TV.

Like their neighbors, they dutifully head to the city’s ancient mosques to pray, finger worry beads, and wear the traditional baggy pants and red-checkered Kaffiyeh of the Kurds — yet they remain Jews.

“If residents here find out that there are Jews living in this city, there could be hell to pay,” Celikcan said.

At best, he said, locals would boycott the Jews’ shops and business, impoverishing them. At worst, they could be killed.

That’s why, despite a four-hour discussion, Celikcan refused to let JTA meet with any of the families.

“The publication of their names or descriptions,” he said, “could cause them much more harm than good.”

In fact, no Jewish organization has met with members of the tiny community in recent decades, despite several attempts.

Sanliurfa is one of the fastest-growing cities in Turkey. The massive $32 billion Southeastern Anatolia Project, which aims to irrigate huge tracks of Turkey’s impoverished southeast, is anchored by the Ataturk Dam, the fifth- largest in the world.

The dam sits just 30 miles from Sanliurfa and draws tens of thousands of job-seeking peasants to the city each year.

This massive influx of poor — municipal data indicates that over 50 percent of the city lives below the poverty line, earning less than $100 per family per month — has made Sanliurfa a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, the chain-smoking Celikcan said. He believes that as much as 25 percent of the city’s population belongs to “radical” groups.

“Sanliurfa is 100 percent Muslim,” said Sanliurfa’ mayor, Ahmet Bahcivan, in curt, enunciated English.

“There are simply no Christians or Jews living here,” he added with a smile that was more grimace than gracious.

Bahcivan’s feet dangled in the air on one of the couches in his reception room. Rotund and short, Bahcivan is backed by the Islamic Sa’adet Party.

An electrical engineer by trade, Bahcivan was eager to speak about the woes of poverty in his city as he sipped tea from traditional hourglass-shaped glasses on ornate silver saucers. He was less interested in talking about ethnicity and religion.

Bahcivan recently rejected a proposal for a huge inner-city park because it would include small areas for a synagogue and a Christian church, saying there is no need in Sanliurfa for such shrines to other religions.

However, the mayor denies any association with radical Islam: “Turkey is a democracy for all its people. But the simple fact is there are no Jews or Christians living in this city, not one.”

“We would welcome any minority,” said the mayor, who added that Islamic fundamentalism poses no problem in Sanliurfa.

Nevertheless, Sanliurfa is considered one of the most devoutly religious cities in Turkey, a state that prides itself on its openness and secularism, as compared with the world’s other Muslim states.

But there is little religious freedom in this city of 600,000 nestled between stunted mountains with scrubby vegetation. Here, Islam — not a Western sense of multiculturalism — rules.

The city, about 30 miles north of the Syrian border, is in the tip of a crescent-shaped region that was ancient Mesopotamia.

Bahcivan explains that the population consists of Kurds, Syrians, Turks and a remnant of the Armenians slaughtered in the 1915 Armenian genocide. The Turks massacred or drove an estimated 2 million Armenians from Anatolia; only those few able to quickly assimilate remained.

Few traces remain of the 1,000 Jewish families that once lived in Sanliurfa, though the ancient Pool of Abraham — the Koran says Abraham was born in the town — which is packed almost solid with carp, continues to serve as a main gathering spot.

A few steps off the main bazaar in the heart of the Old City is a crumbling courtyard called Yahudi Khan, or Jews’ domain. It still serves as a metal crafts center, though the Star of David and other Jewish insignia were stripped long ago from the crumbling plaster molding.

Across the carpenter’s alley and over a section where rug merchants hawk moldy carpets lies the textile courtyard where Muslim Dag — known in certain quarters as Moshe Dayan — mends and designs clothes for locals.

With a head of gray hair, a short nose, and wide-open eyes, Dag’s face bespeaks an aged innocence.

He got his nickname because some locals believe Israel’s famed one-eyed general, who never got closer to Sanliurfa than his 1941 campaign against Vichy-controlled Syria, once worked in the shop.

Nestled into one corner of a shady courtyard so old it appears to have grown organically from the basalt stone foundations, Dag’s shop is stuffed with Sufi symbols.

Hamsas with eyes embedded in their palms, scraps of text from the Koran and mystical scripts line the walls, as do scrolls of ancient Persian.

Dag’s employees looked on in surprise during his interview, as many were unaware that Jews ever had lived in the city.

On three separate occasions, Dag was visited by members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who wanted to know about the local Jewish community. After the last visit, in 2001, Dag was questioned and beaten by police.

Talking to a JTA reporter in his shop, he seemed nervous. Two fingers of his left hand were kept clasped over his mouth during the interview, as if to keep in any information he may possess.

According to Celikcan, Dag and two other men hold the secret of Sanliurfa’s remaining Jews — but they have promised to spare the Jewish families and have never revealed their secret.

According to historian Ozmen and other semiofficial sources, about 150 Jewish families stayed after the mass migration to Israel in 1945. Most intermarried and assimilated fully into Islam.

Ami Bergman, the JDC’s point man for Turkey, said that for a decade he has been trying to contact the Sanliurfa community, but they have refused contact with Israel or any overt connection to Judaism.

“They simply don’t want the connection, and it is our duty to respect that,” he said.

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