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In United States and Germany, Jews, Turks Mark Istanbul Bombs

November 26, 2003
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Turkish-American leader Ercument Kilic strode to the podium in a Washington synagogue, holding aloft a photo of Anet Rubinstein Talu.

“Whether Turkish or Jewish, it doesn’t matter,” Kilic said of the grinning 8-year-old girl, who was killed in the recent synagogue bombings in Istanbul. “She’s our child.”

Two Istanbul synagogues were bombed Nov. 15, killing 24 people, mostly non-Jews. Another 27 people were killed Nov. 20 when two more bombs targeting British institutions were detonated.

Jewish communities in Washington, New York and Philadelphia seeking Turkish participants for memorials were overwhelmed by the eagerness to join in the mourning.

“It was a very heartwarming response,” said Ron Halber, the Jewish Community Council executive director who organized the memorial service at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue.

The closeness is born partly of the circumstance of Turkey’s ambitions for acceptance in the West, and the perceived power of the U.S. Jewish community to enable access to power.

“The American Jewish community played a significant role in U.S. foreign policy, in their mind, and that helped create an affinity for Israel,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

JINSA helped bring Turks and U.S. Jews closer together in the early 1990s by lobbying to overcome Greek American opposition to Turkey’s purchase of frigates.

Since then, relations have grown closer. Turkey was the first Muslim nation to send an ambassador to Israel, and it now conducts war exercises with the Israeli and U.S. militaries. The United States has pressed hard to bring Turkey into the European Union, a goal long sought by Turks seeking economic stability.

But access isn’t the whole story, Neumann and others say. The Turkish affinity for Jews extends a tradition of tolerance dating back to the sultan’s embrace of Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition five centuries ago, and a mutual modern distrust for militant Islam.

“It was a sense not only of solidarity, of sharing the pain,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a New York rabbi with longstanding ties to the Turkish government who visited Istanbul after the blasts. “It was also a sense of we’re facing the barbarians.”

The hostility to militant Islam has its roots in Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey after World War I.

Ataturk borrowed from French and American notions of nationhood as a conscious choice, rather than something inherent in a bloodline. In that vision, Turkishness was as attainable by Jews and Christians as by Muslims.

“All of those who lost their lives in the synagogue attacks, Jewish or Muslim, were Turkish nationals,” said Naci Saribas, deputy chief of mission at the Turkish Embassy, who also addressed the Adas Israel memorial.

Turkey always has taken seriously notions of nationhood before religion. Schneier recalled a peace and tolerance conference the Turks convened in 1994, inviting the leaders of nascent post-Soviet states in the Balkans and throughout the Caucasus.

“The objective was to make sure the new central Asian republics do not use Iran but Turkey as their role model,” recalled Schneier, whose Appeal of Conscience Foundation helped organize the conference.

JINSA’s Neumann said that ethos has carried over even with an Islamist government, contrary to Jewish fears that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who comes from an Islamist party, would tilt Turkey toward radical Islam.

In fact, Neumann said, Erdogan’s standing as an Islamist gives new credibility to the fight against terror.

“Erdogan said they will be punished in both worlds,” Neumann said, referring to the bombers. “Al-Qaida promised rewards in the hereafter, but now there’s a new point of view in Muslim world: You’re going to get it in both worlds.”

It was a message underscored by the presence of Turkish imams at memorials at New York and Philadelphia synagogues.

“When you have a national tragedy, naturally people come together more,” said Birtan Collier of the Turkish American Friendship Society. He was among those attending the event at the Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia.

Notions of likeness were reinforced as well.

“We have a lot in common, don’t we?” Kilic, president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, said at the Washington memorial. “Jews don’t really have a lot of friends, do they? But when they find one, they embrace them.”

An embrace of Turkey certainly was the message from U.S. Jewish leaders, who have recoiled at the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and who recall the nativist, anti-Jewish sentiments in the wake of similar attacks in France in the early 1980s and Argentina in the 1990s.

“What has been most disturbing is the reaction — or should I say, the lack of it — from many of the democratic nations of the world,” Washington JCC president Sophie Hoffman said at the memorial service. “An oasis of hope has been the country of Turkey.”

Meanwhile, a similar interfaith ceremony was held in Berlin on Nov. 21 at the initiative of Jewish and Turkish groups.

Billed as an ecumenical memorial, the event quickly became a political platform against terrorism and in favor of democracy.

Representatives of the Israeli, American, British and Turkish embassies, as well as leaders of Germany’s Jewish and Turkish communities, called for courage and resolve against terrorism, and greater interfaith cooperation.

There also were calls for Turkey’s swift inclusion in the European Union and an end to the politics of appeasement with countries known to sponsor terrorism.

“We cannot allow inhuman acts to rob us of our humanity,” said Deidre Berger, head of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, one of the event’s co-organizers.

The ceremony originally was planned to memorialize the victims of the synagogue bombings, but the ceremony took on a broader international aspect after the subsequent bombings of the British diplomatic and business centers.

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