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Tight security measures. Synagogue in Istanbul (archives)
Photo: Telem Yahav
Turkey's Jews worship quietly
In country of 68 million Muslims, Istanbul's shrinking community of 25,000 Jews shuns attention and often keeps low-profile
ISTANBUL – As visitors heave open the thick, vault-like metal door to the Neve Shalom Synagogue on a discreet side street in the Galata neighborhood of European Istanbul, a skittish guard confronts them.

 

Guests are shuttled through secure, windowless rooms to an X-ray machine and metal detector. Pockets are emptied and passports surrendered. The guard questions the reason for the visit and the guests' ethnicity. He then determines whether they can be allowed through.

 

It's hardly a welcoming experience, even as the city's largest and most symbolic synagogue says it is open to tourists and foreign Jews during a several-hour period most days.

 

But visitors who actually make it to the synagogues’ inner-sanctum will see why the temple is so heavily guarded.

 

Bullet holes pierce a wooden chair inside, just steps from the sacred Torah scrolls. They mark the site of a terrorist attack in 1986 where Palestinian gunmen opened fire on worshipers, killing 22.

 

The temple was the scene of other attacks as well, including a car bombing in November 2003 targeting several Istanbul synagogues during weekly Sabbath prayers. The attack claimed 30 lives and 146 people were wounded. Authorities suspected al-Qaeda was behind the attacks.

 

Just last month, it was revealed that an Istanbul synagogue, along with the US embassy in Ankara, were included on an al-Qaeda-linked hit list uncovered in computer files found in a raid on two Turkish homes. The raid netted 12 suspects in the foiled plot, according to Turkish news reports.

 

"That's the burden we have to go through because we're Jewish," said Sami Magriso, who leads foreigners on historical tours here.

 

In this country of 68 million Muslims, Istanbul's shrinking community of 25,000 Jews shuns attention and often keeps a low-profile.

 

“As our synagogues unfortunately had been attacked in the past there are always tight security measures,” Deniz Saporta, spokesperson for Turkey’s Chief Rabbinate told The Media Line.

 

“Of course it's not fair," tour guide Magriso said. "There was a time when synagogues were open like mosques. Of course I miss those times."

 

Magriso is a proud Turk with a large red Turkish flag tattooed on his left forearm.

 

He is not afraid to talk about his religion, but acknowledges many other Jews here are fearful.

 

Uncertain future

The irony is that for centuries the Ottoman Empire was a safe haven for Jews, inviting thousands to settle here when they were expelled from Spain in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

 

Jews established the first printing presses in Turkey and were deeply involved with commerce and international trade. Their communities were left to govern themselves under the Empire.

 

Ataturk – the father of modern Turkey – granted Jewish scientists and teachers refuge from Nazi Germany.

 

Even today kosher varieties of the traditional dessert called Turkish delight and coffee can be found here, and the Jewish community works to protect their culture, provide quality education for their children, and remember their history as modernization rapidly sweeps through the country.

 

Istanbul’s museum of Jewish history continues to sing the praises of Turkey’s tolerance and religious freedom. But recent terror threats to Turkey’s small Jewish community signal an ongoing struggle and an uncertain future.

 

“This is a country which is secular, democratic, and modernizing, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Magriso said.

 

Turkish Jews have also been affected by the tensions in relations between Israel and Turkey after the deadly 2010 raid by Israeli troops on the Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound aid flotilla from Turkey, trying to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed. Dozens of others were injured.

 

At one point, Turkey even expelled the Israeli ambassador in Ankara. Recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Zionism a “crime against humanity.”

 

Many here heralded news of a US-brokered apology from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Turkey. Israel has now promised compensation to the victims’ families.

 

Turkish leaders hailed the apology as a diplomatic victory. International observers praised the move as a positive step in helping to stabilize a fractured region, even as Turkey continues to build its own relationship with the emerging Palestinian state.

 

Soon after the apology was issued, the Turkish prime minister's office released a statement promising to use the repaired relationship to help solve the Israel-Palestine conflict:

 

In the statement Erdoğan “reiterated Turkey's support for all international and regional efforts to find a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of the two-state vision.”

 

Beyond rebuilding diplomatic ties between the two countries, Turks hoped the apology will restore lucrative Israeli tourism to the country.

 

One Israeli analyst based in Turkey told the semi-official news agency here he expects the move to draw more visitors from the holy land as soon as this summer.

 

'Relationship is between governments'

Some here, like Jewish-Turkish tour guide Sami Magriso, said they have seen little impact from the normalization of relations and no increase in Israeli tourists.

 

Israelis “don’t know this country, they don’t know the people in the country,” and they are afraid to travel here, he said.

 

Unlike many tourism industry leaders, Magriso does not expect a wave of Israeli visitors soon, which he blamed partly on the safety concerns for Jews here, which resonate with security-conscious Israelis.

 

“Can you imagine, going to pray and we have an army protecting us?” he said, referring to the usual sight of guards stationed outside Turkish synagogues, bomb-blast doors, and temple checkpoints unfamiliar to Jews in many other parts of the world.

 

At this moment, it seems as if the only immediate effect Israel’s apology has been diplomatic.

 

“The relationship is between governments,” Simehtof El, a Jewish Turk who runs an antique store in Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar, told The Media Line.

 

Hidden in his collection are two metal menorahs for the holiday of Hanukkah and a hand-drawn Hebrew wall piece in a dark corner – the extent of the Judaica in his shop named after his daughter Ziva. He said his store is one of the few with authentic – yet limited – Jewish art pieces, in a market crowded with Islamic and even Christian artwork.

 

El said his family has been here for 500 years. Despite the improved relationship between Turkey and Israel, like Magriso, he does not expect a flood of Israeli visitors.

 

Yet even in this country that values its renewed friendship with Israel, as the Islamic call-to-prayer trumpets through the ancient markets in one of the world’s largest former empires, it is as if the Torah is read with a whisper.

 

Article written by Steve Dorsey

 

Reprinted with permission from The Media Line

 

 

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