My recent visit to the Chief Rabbis office in the heart of Istanbul was one of the highlights of what makes Istanbul unique and so special to me. The Aya Sofia, the history of the Ottomans, the Bosphorus and the influence of Turkish culture in the Middle East all make up the fabric of a country which inspires and lifts the soul for any visitor to this magical location. Allied to this is the kindness of the Turkish people who have been accepting of other faiths and cultures and more recently, by taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the obscenities of war in Syria. In fact, one of the most striking things which I found in Istanbul, was the number of traders and workers who are Syrian and where Arabic can regularly be heard on street corners as the capital once again becomes a melting point of cultures.
In all of this, the place of the Turkish Jewish community is one which is protected by the State and where representatives that I met with, said that they have good relations with the Turkish government. Whilst the relationship between Turkey and Israel has been strained by events such as Gaza and the Mavi Marmara, it seems that the Government of Turkey and in particular, the President and the Prime Minister, have taken a strong and much welcomed position of being vocal on the importance of protecting local Jewish communities and distinguishing them from the foreign policy of Israel, over which they have no influence whatsoever. These channels through which the Turkish Jewish community can engage with those in power also means that it provides a small but much needed sense of security to members of the community.
Totalling about 18,000 people, the Turkish Jewish community has shrunk slowly over time. It is the second largest Jewish community in a Muslim majority country and comes second to Iran. When the Republic of Turkey was formed, the community totalled about 82,000 residents and some have left for other European countries, the United States and Israel. Yet, it is when events such as Gaza take place, that the local Turkish Jewish community feel that they are regarded as being ‘outsiders’ by some press journalists and by members of the public. Antisemitic discourse during attacks on Gaza have also become louder and have been heard above the background noise of news reporting on events in the Middle East.
Representatives whom I met with, told me that some people using social media were involved in promoting anti-Semitic discourse, though most of the street based and on-line anti-Semitism which the community felt, came from members of the public. Even though there was no wave of physical attacks, it nonetheless made the community feel threatened.
This, representatives said, can only be changed through general education work to promote a better understanding and ongoing respect for each other as equal citizens, and whilst Turkey in general is a welcoming place, they believed that each Gaza crisis had created a small barrier to relations between them, as Turkish Jews, and their fellow citizens.
As the Director of the TELL MAMA project in the UK, (which counters anti-Muslim bigotry), it is clear to me that community education work allied to the development and implementation of laws that tackle hate, intolerance and bigotry are key to challenging such behaviour. Also, the recording and monitoring of cases on anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate are essential in providing facts and figures that can shape policies and ensure that the voices of victims are heard. Which is one of the reasons that the Turkish Jewish community are investing in the recording of anti-Semitic incidents in Istanbul. As I sat with representatives, it was clear that documenting such cases is one of the most powerful ways of highlighting the depth and level of the problem, though it should be noted, that much like in the UK, most cases involved abuse and not extreme physical violence.
Moreover, it was clear that in areas beyond the heart of Istanbul, where there was less chance of mixing and engagement with members of the Turkish Jewish community, anti-Semitic discourse and street based abuse can be found. Yet, according to community representatives, one of the areas that was mentioned which needs tightening up are the country’s laws against hate crimes and intolerance and bigotry. The development and implementation of such laws, representatives believed, could create some resilience against anti-Semitism though they were again keen to stress the strong communication channels that they have with Government officials at various levels.
Lastly, just before I left, a member of the community said something that struck me and which I have reflected on quite a few times. He said, “We as Jews were hated in Europe because of the perception that we killed Christ, that we were Christ’s murderers. That hatred was turned against us again and again. Today, in Europe, Muslims are also suffering bigotry, attacks and intolerance and this is probably because they fear Muslims and Islam. In both cases, he said, Europe needs education in order to protect its minority communities.”
As I left, I could not help feeling that in that room, there was a part of Turkey that should always be preserved and protected. Turkey is a social, financial and cultural powerhouse in the Levant. Let’s hope that it can show other countries in the region how important minority communities are by retaining its Jewish community. Success on this score is measurable by seeing whether the population increases.