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Around the Jewish World Synagogue Reopening in Istanbul After Bombing, but All is Not the Same

July 30, 2004
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The shattered front of Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue, some eight months after powerful suicide truck bombs struck it and another local synagogue, is still covered in a tall white tarp that flaps in the wind. Beside the synagogue is a deep pit, all that’s left of an adjacent building that had to be torn down because of the damage it sustained. Across the street from Neve Shalom, scattered among the small neighborhood shops that have reopened, are still-vacant buildings with windows shattered from the Nov. 15, 2003 blast.

Behind the tarp covering the synagogue’s front, though, workers are busy pouring concrete and putting metal reinforcing rods in place for a new entrance. Inside Neve Shalom’s main sanctuary, which suffered less damage from the bomb, workers on scaffolding are painting the synagogue’s stately dome and installing new electric wiring.

It’s a scene that, in many ways, symbolizes the current situation of Istanbul’! s Jewish community. While the damage and the scars of the November bombings are still easy to see, the community is busily working to move on. At the same time, community leaders say, the bombings have led to new security realizations and requirements, which may make it very difficult — if not impossible — to return to life as it was before.

“We are in an ongoing trauma situation,” says Lina Filiba, the Turkish Jewish community’s executive vice president. “The whole community right now is a construction pit — it’s a continuation of the crisis that started Nov. 15.”

“The change of lifestyle, the security consciousness, the restriction on the use of facilities is something that people are still getting used to.”

The closing of Neve Shalom, the city’s central synagogue and the spiritual heart of the community, has meant Istanbul’s Jews have been without a place large enough to hold weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other events. Community leaders say its reopening will! be an important symbol of the community’s rebuilding effort.

The synagogue was temporarily reopened this week, but the building’s formal reopening is not slated until October.

But for Istanbul’s Jews there is much else to get used to. Most of the city’s 15 synagogues still remain closed, while the community re-evaluates the security situation at each building to determine what kind of changes are needed. Among the changes on the agenda are reinforcing walls to withstand bomb blasts and changing traffic patterns near Jewish institutions.

The city’s largest Jewish social club, where classes were held and youth groups and a theater club would meet, has been permanently shut down while a new club is being built in a more secure location. The entrance to the old club was on a busy thoroughfare; the new one is in a quiet neighborhood behind a high cement wall.

“What’s changed in our daily life is that in every Jewish institution there are now real security precautions. This is a transition period, until we take a look at the precaut! ions and figure out if everyone is in a safe place,” says Tilda Levi, editor of Shalom, Turkey’s weekly Jewish newspaper.

Although there have not been any further attacks against Jewish targets since the November bombings — which also included strikes against the British Consulate and a British-owned bank several days later — there have been several events that have engendered deep unease in the Jewish community. In March, two suicide bombers from a militant Turkish Islamist group attacked a masonic lodge on Istanbul’s Asian side, killing two and injuring six.

Masons are frequently accused by Islamists and nationalists in Turkey of being a front for Jewish and Israeli interests, and, according to Turkish press reports, one of the bombers shouted “Death to the Israeli lodge” as he was being taken injured to the hospital.

In the subsequent investigation, it turned out that a gun the bombers had been carrying had been the one used in the unsolved murder of Yasef ! Yahya, a Jewish dentist who was found killed execution style in his of fice the previous August. In a police re-creation of the murder, the suspects who had been arrested told investigators that they decided to kill Yahya after seeing his Jewish name on the sign outside his office.

In early May, meanwhile, Turkish police arrested a group of 16 men in connection with an alleged plot to bomb the NATO summit that recently took place in Istanbul. Although the plan vague, the group — which police said had links to Al-Qaida — apparently had a more developed plan to bomb one of the synagogues in Bursa, a city near Istanbul that has a small Jewish community of 70 people.

For many members of the Turkish Jewish community, the combination of events and the emergence of home-grown Turkish militant Islamist groups that see Jews as legitimate targets has had a chilling effect.

“People don’t want to go to synagogue. They are scared,” says Bensi Elmas, a dentist whose office is down the street from that of the murdered Yahya. “People think that an! attack could happen again. But the community leaders say we should go, otherwise the terrorists will win.”

Community members and leaders say their sense of discomfort has also been heightened by what they see as the increasingly vocal criticism of Israel in the country, criticism that they say is often turned towards them.

“When Israel does something against Muslims, you have protests here and then people here look at us and say, ‘Look what you did,’ ” says Sabbatai Iyigor, a cantor at one of Istanbul’s synagogues.

For example, a recent article in The New Yorker magazine that claimed that Israeli agents are training Iraqi Kurd commandos in the event that Iraq falls into chaos and the Kurdish north declares its autonomy, led to a flurry of criticism of Israel in the Turkish media.

Israel has denied the claims, but Turkey views any moves the Kurds make in Iraq with great suspicion and the possibility that Israel, an ally, was working with them was not well re! ceived. Some of what was written, though, was pointedly directed at Tu rkey’s Jewish community.

Writing in the mainstream liberal daily Aksam, columnist Sakir Suter said it was not only Israel, but also Turkish Jews, who had to disprove The New Yorker’s claims.

“We, personally, are waiting for a last chance in order not to declare openly and publicly that the Jews are the ‘enemy,’ ” Suter wrote.

Rifat Bali, a historian who writes about Turkey’s Jewish community, says this kind of language used to be used only in the Islamist media and in extremist circles, but has now found its way into mainstream debate.

“The atmosphere is really poisoned right now. Anti-Israelism, anti-Semitism is part of daily life, daily rhetoric in the press, and nobody seems concerned about it,” Bali says.

Community officials say that they have recently begun to hold meetings with editors from Turkey’s major newspapers, in an effort to help the journalists understand the Jewish community and to open up a line of communication.

But Filiba says the co! mmunity does not feel compelled by the criticism against Israel to change its own position regarding the Jewish state.

“We are the Jewish community of Turkey. Full stop. We are citizens of Turkey,” Filiba says.

“We don’t live in Israel. We live in Turkey,” she adds.

In the meantime, Filiba says the Turkish Jewish community is focusing on its rebuilding effort and struggling to raise the funds needed for that project. She estimates the community will need several million dollars for the one-time cost of rebuilding and strengthening its institutions. The ongoing security cost, already a large chunk of the community’s annual budget, will at least double, Filiba says.

The community was struggling financially before the bombings, mostly because of the after-effects of the economic crisis that hit Turkey a few years ago. Filiba says the community has received some assistance from outside, but could use more help from international Jewish organizations.

“Rebuild! ing is a major, major project and if we don’t rebuild our facilities I don’t think the members of our community will feel safe to come to our facilities, and then you don’t have community life,” she says.

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