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After Bombings, Turkish Jews Say Community’ S Openness Will Remain

November 18, 2003
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The recent bombings of two Istanbul synagogues won’t end the tradition of openness in Turkey’s Jewish community — and it could even make the community more cohesive, leaders say.

At the same time, the attacks are unlikely to force Turkey to retreat from its alliances with Israel and the United States, according to analysts. It could even push the secular state away from the Muslim world and further toward the West.

Standing Sunday near the entrance to the rubble-strewn street that leads to Istanbul’s bombed Neve Shalom synagogue, a leader of Turkey’s Jewish community looked out on the scene of destruction illuminated by the glow of police investigators’ emergency lights and television spotlights.

Only a few months before, the community had opened synagogue doors in Istanbul’s Galata district as part of an annual Europe-wide day celebrating Jewish culture. There were musical performances in Ladino and photo exhibits inside the different synagogues. Overflow crowds — mostly non-Jews — turned out for the events.

Despite the security concerns brought on by Saturday’s nearly simultaneous bombings of Neve Shalom and of the Beit Israel synagogue, located several miles away, the community will put on the same program next year, the leader said.

“We patch our wounds and go on,” said Lina Filiba, the community’s executive vice president. “We want life to continue like before. The synagogues have to stay open. Life has to go on.”

A group linked to Al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attacks. Given the sophistication of the bombings, Turkish and Israeli officials are inclined to believe the claim.

The bombings killed 24 and injured more than 300 people. At least six Jews were killed and some 60 Jews injured.

If Al-Qaida indeed is involved, it may be difficult for the Jewish community — and Turkey itself — to return to life as it was before.

“The big question mark is, who did it and who were their local collaborators?” said Rifat Bali, a Jewish historian who has written extensively about Turkeys’ Jews. “For sure there were local collaborators, and that makes it much worse. That means you have a nucleus of local terrorists who are targeting you and who are here permanently.”

In recent years, the normally insular community has started reaching out to the general public and making itself more accessible. The process began with the mostly Sephardi community’s gala celebrations in 1992 to mark the Jews’ arrival in Turkey from Spain 500 years before.

For many community leaders, the standing-room-only crowds at the recent Jewish cultural events were another sign that the new policy was having a positive impact on Jewish life in Turkey.

But the synagogue bombings may put a halt to the Jewish community’s openness, Bali said.

“Now the community’s worst fears have been realized, so there may be people who will ask why the community is opening up,” he said. “This will mean that on a community and individual level, people will close upon themselves.”

Some members also fear that the attacks will force the community to temporarily curtail its own internal activities. For example, some parents of students at Istanbul’s Jewish high school already have expressed fears about sending their children to the school, which is visibly Jewish.

Now “we will always worry about getting together, about having meetings, and community life will be much harder,” said Viktor Kuzu, 25, who works in an advertising agency and volunteers as an editor at Salom, the Turkish Jewish newspaper.

“We were expecting something like this, we just didn’t know when it would happen,” he said. “Now it happened, and we’re wondering what will happen next.”

While people are afraid, Kuzu said he doesn’t feel the attacks will cause Jews to pull away from the community.

“Maybe there’s an opposite effect,” he said. “Maybe it will make people understand what it is to be Jewish; they will understand what it is to be a community. I can tell you that this event will bring the Jewish youth much closer together.”

In the aftermath of the bombings, Turkey’s Jews are facing immediate questions about rehabilitating the injured and rebuilding the damaged synagogues.

Community psychologists are visiting hospitals and the homes of those who lost relatives in the attack.

“It’s a community and it’s our duty to help our people — not only our people, but anybody who was wounded,” Filiba said.

A team also is conducting surveys of the two attacked synagogues to assess the damage. According to a community official, Neve Shalom, Istanbul’s central synagogue, escaped major structural damage but will need to rebuild its eviscerated entrance.

The Beit Israel synagogue in the Sisli neighborhood was damaged more seriously and will require extensive rebuilding, the official said.

Meanwhile, Jewish groups from elsewhere around the globe have come to Turkey to help. A team from the Jewish Agency for Israel came with psychologists, and the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, which has set up a fund to help rebuild the damaged synagogues, is meeting with community leaders to assess the needs.

“In my opinion, the community has the ability to get over this. They have a strong leadership,” said Amir Bergman, the JDC official responsible for Turkey. “I’m sure this community is strong and is standing up nicely to this crisis, and will mange to organize during this tough time.”

“At this point we need to sit with the community and find out what they need and then come to their help, not to pile up on them with help they don’t need,” he added.

As the community contemplates the road ahead, the government is confronting what could be a stark new reality for Turkey.

Sami Kohen, a political analyst and veteran columnist with the Turkish daily Milliyet, said the attacks could push Turkey toward closer cooperation with the United States and Israel in the fight against terrorism.

“Turkey is now included in the war-on-terror front,” Kohen said. If the bombers wanted “to force Turkey to change course, to take a cooler attitude toward Israel or the West, that’s not going to happen.”

Israeli intelligence and explosives experts joined Turkish officials Sunday in investigating the bombings. Also on Sunday, Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, paid a visit to the two devastated synagogues, laying wreathes of chrysanthemums in the rubble.

Shalom later met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul.

The attacks show that “terror is at work everywhere, and not necessarily in one specific country or another,” Shalom said. “I think that the operation here shows both Turkey and other countries in the world that no place is immune to terrorism.”

While the probe continues, Turkish officials have begun to release more details about the attacks. Turkey’s interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, told The Associated Press that he is “more than 95 percent” sure that the attacks were the work of suicide bombers.

According to Turkish police officials, the attacks were carried out by an identical pair of Isuzu delivery trucks, each packed with some 880 pounds of explosives, a mix of ammonium sulfate, nitrate and compressed fuel. The explosives had been put into containers wrapped in sacks and hidden among containers of detergent.

Though directed at the synagogues, the attacks killed and injured mostly Muslims who were working near the buildings or passing by. Funerals were held Sunday for many of the Muslims killed.

The Jewish community will hold funerals for its members on Tuesday.

As investigators continue to sift through the rubble, Turkish analysts said the two bombings could have significant domestic implications for Turkey.

Turkey is ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, a new political party that traces its roots to Turkey’s political Islamic movement. Party leaders have distanced themselves from their Islamist past, but the country’s entrenched secular establishment has remained suspicious of them.

If Turkish Islamist groups are found to have participated in the attacks, it could heat up the simmering conflict between the AKP government and the secularists, political scientist Ali Carkoglu said.

“If the secularists can show that there has been a linkage with a domestic pro-Islamist group that hasn’t been properly followed or acted against, then the domestic implications could be very severe,” he said. “I have no expectations that” the AKP government “will try to protect these groups; that would be foolish, and I don’t think they have sympathy for them. But the way this country works, people will ask inflammatory questions and that will cause headaches.”

Milliyet’s Kohen said that if Turkey finds out that foreign terrorist groups had made inroads in the country and found local recruits, the reaction would be swift.

“The Turks are quite determined on one thing, and that is the fight against terrorism,” Kohen said. “The Turkish government, any Turkish government, is not going to yield to pressure when it comes to terrorism. If anything, it would strengthen its resolve.”

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