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After Double Bombings, Jews in Turkey Dig out from the Rubble

November 17, 2003
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Turkish Jewish leaders are shocked by the force and sophistication of the bombings of two synagogues here during Shabbat services — but not surprised that the Jewish community was targeted.

“This was bound to happen,” said Lina Filiba, executive vice president of the Turkish Jewish community. “Something here is changing. The peaceful life here is different now.”

A pair of truck bombs exploded outside two of Istanbul’s largest synagogues Saturday morning, killing at least 23 people and injuring more than 300. At least six of the dead were known to be Jewish.

The first explosion occurred at 9:30 near the main entrance of the city’s central synagogue, Neve Shalom. The second took place a few minutes later at the back side of the Beit Israel synagogue, in Istanbul’s Sisli neighborhood, about three miles away.

The blasts were heard from miles away and left the streets surrounding the synagogues littered with shards of broken glass. It’s still not clear if the explosions were set off by suicide bombers driving by or if they were ignited by remote control, in trucks parked near the buildings. Turkish authorities have said they believe they were suicide attacks.

An usher working in Neve Shalom said it was filled with close to 400 people celebrating a Bar Mitzvah.

“We were in the middle of reading the Torah when we felt a big explosion. Everybody ran out,” said the usher, who asked not to be named.

Another congregant standing atop the rubble looked out on the scene of destruction, holding a handkerchief to his face to keep out the strong smell of ammonia that filled the air after the explosion. The bombs were made of ammonium sulfate and nitrate, a Turkish security officer told CNN.

“What kind of peaceful Sabbath is this?” the congregant asked.

Condemnations poured in from around the world, including from such unlikely sources as Iran and Malaysia, both Muslim nations.

Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, flew to Turkey on Sunday to visit the bombing sites and meet with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also toured the site Sunday afternoon, accompanied by Gul.

Turkish police arrested three people in connection with the bombings, but they already had been released a day later, according to news reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened the weekly Cabinet meeting with a statement of condolences for the victims.

“We saw yesterday yet again that terrorism knows no bounds,” Sharon said. “Terrorism doesn’t discriminate by religion or blood. The aim of terrorism is one, to sow fear and terror through the slaying of innocent people.”

International Jewish organizations also mobilized. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is raising funds to help Turkey’s Jewish and general community after Saturday’s attacks.

“This was an attack on Turkish society,” in which Jews have lived since the Spanish Inquisition, said Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the JDC. Schwager said the group hopes to raise a few million to rebuild the synaogues destroyed in the attack and restore local shops.

For its part, the Jewish Agency for Israel dispatched a mission of high-level staff to the region Saturday evening. The group included two psychologists who are terror specialists and two youth leaders who are familiar with the Istanbul Jewish community.

In addition, the Jewish Agency held an emergency conference call Saturday evening with members of world Jewish communities, including France, England, South America and the United States, to determine ways to combat anti- Semitism and anti-Zionism.

The group plans to meet again soon to address threats to Jews worldwide.

Overnight, religious Israeli forensic volunteers, still in their Sabbath clothes, donned fluorescent vests and scoured the bomb sites for body parts.

“We are, unfortunately, used to terror in Israel and feel we can help here, in accordance with Jewish law,” their spokesman told curious local journalists.

An Israeli diplomat noted that Turkey was ripe for violence by Islamic terrorists.

“As the world’s only Muslim democracy, with ties to Israel, Turkey is doubly likely to be hit by Islamist terrorism. That puts Turkish Jews all the more at risk,” the diplomat said, according to Reuters.

Such concerns were nothing new for Nessli Varol, a 23-year-old daughter of Turkish emigres who flew in from Israel for the funeral of an uncle killed in the Beit Israel attack.

“The Jews here have a prosperous life, but there is also fear. They stick together and avoid too much exposure,” she told Reuters. “When I used to visit my grandmother as a child, she would tell her Muslim friends I was from France, rather than Israel.”

Jewish community officials said they have been on high alert for the last three months regarding possible attacks and had notified the police about their concerns. Security at Istanbul’s synagogues had been increased in response, officials said.

“If we didn’t have security as good as it is, the tragedy could have been a lot worse. We wouldn’t have been as lucky,” community leader Filiba said.

In front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue, a deep crater marked the spot where Turkish officials said the small, explosives-packed truck blew up. A blackened axle was all that remained of the vehicle.

The stone and wrought-iron facade of the synagogue was completely destroyed, the synagogue’s foyer filled with a tangle of twisted metal and shattered glass.

The synagogue is located on a narrow street in one of Istanbul’s most historic districts, an area filled with small shops selling lamps and chandeliers. The explosion devastated the entire length of the street, shattering store windows and leaving some balconies on the verge of collapse.

“I heard the explosion. I thought it was an earthquake. From my front terrace I saw people coming out of the synagogue, some of them covered in blood,” said Gulen Guler, who lives in a building a few doors down from Neve Shalom. “We could see bodies lying in the street and windows smashed everywhere.”

Neve Shalom’s sanctuary is set off from the street, so the number of injured was relatively low and the damage was limited to the entrance.

Most of the day’s injured came from the Beit Israel synagogue, which was filled with an estimated 300 people, many of them there to celebrate the recent renovation of a smaller sanctuary in the back of the synagogue, close to where the car bomb exploded.

After the bombing, that sanctuary was littered with dust and shattered glass, prayer books and blood-stained prayer shawls covering the ground and the rows of wooden chairs.

The force of the explosion carried through the synagogue, completely blowing out a large window in the building’s front, leaving a large empty circle where a stained glass Star of David used to be.

Among those killed at Beit Israel were a woman in her 80s and her 8-year-old granddaughter. At Neve Shalom, the victims included a woman who was four months pregnant.

Turkey’s chief rabbi, Isak Haleva, and Ben Zion Pinto, president of the 20,000-member Turkish Jewish community, were at Beit Israel when the bombing occurred. Neither was injured.

“I was praying when suddenly there was an explosion under us and all the windows blew open and I was left standing there in shock in the middle of heavy smoke,” Haleva said.

Neve Shalom, which means “Oasis of Peace” in Hebrew, was the target of a terrorist attack in 1986, when gunmen believed to be Palestinians from the Abu Nidal terrorist group burst into the synagogue, killing 22.

Since then, security at Istanbul’s synagogues has been extremely tight, with 24-hour police protection augmented by a private security force hired by the Turkish Jewish community.

An outlawed Turkish radical group called the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders Front claimed responsibility for the attacks. Turkish officials dismissed the claim, however, saying the group did not have the resources to mount this kind of coordinated attack.

In a news conference, Turkey’s interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, said similar trucks were used in the two attack and that they contained similar explosives, according to initial police analysis.

“It is obvious that this terrorist attack has some international connections,” Gul, the foreign minister, said.

Gul’s claim was echoed by local Israeli diplomats, who compared the attack to an April 2002 Al-Qaida car bombing of a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. That attack killed 21 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Several other high-profile attacks on Jewish targets have been carried out in the past year. Last November, an Israeli-owned hotel was bombed in Kenya, and missiles fired at an Israeli passenger plane leaving a nearby airport narrowly missed.

Then, in May, Jewish institutions were targeted in a series of terrorist bombings in Casablanca, Morocco.

Israel had warned Turkey several times of the possibility of an attack on the country’s Jewish community, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

“I’m sure the Turkish government has done everything possible to prevent an attack like this,” said Pinchas Avivi, Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey. “To my great sorrow, the organization and sophistication of this attack indicate that it wasn’t a local organization.”

Turkey’s Jewish community traces its roots to 1492, when Jews expelled from Spain were welcomed to the Ottoman Empire. Despite living in a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey’s Jewish community prides itself on being an example of successful religious coexistence.

In addition, Turkey has strong economic and defense ties with Israel that have angered elements in the Muslim world.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing this kind of attack again,” said Moris Levi, a member of the Jewish community’s advisory board.

“After the Neve Shalom attack in 1986, our community was very united,” Levi said. “Today our synagogues will be open in the afternoon and I’m sure many people will go. All we can do is help the families who lost people.”

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