ISTANBUL – "We do not fear the Islamization of Turkey. Even during the Ottoman Empire the Sultan was very congenial to the Jews, so we do not fear for Jewish life here," said Silvio Ovadia, president of Turkey’s Jewish community, to Ynet on Tuesday.
In a special interview following the general elections in Turkey, Ovadia said he was not overly concerned about the country's immediate future: "Turkey is not Iran; we do not have Mullahs here. There are indeed religious communities, but that it not the same. They are far more modern than Iran, and as opposed to the situation in Iran, the secular sector in Turkey is very strong."
"Besides," said Ovadia, "(Prime Minister Recep) Erdoğan's ruling party, AKP, doesn't think it is so strong that it can change the day-to-day agenda in Turkey. Unlike Iran, we don't have oil or gas, so we depend on other nations and that makes us much more vulnerable. It should be noted that the Turkish people are first and foremost Turkish, unlike the Iranian, who is first and foremost a Muslim and only then Iranian.
"Here for example women with headscarves voted for CHP, the secular party. So religion here is mostly between the people themselves and not so much between the people and the State."
The day after the elections the support in the street for Erdoğan's party is increasingly evident, and not only amongst the lower classes. Everyone, including Ovadia, can explain Erdoğan's landslide easily.
"There's no doubt that in their years in power they have done a lot for the people. There is no inflation, the currency is strong and the market is on the rise. We've increased exports and imports and the government privatized many companies and sold them to foreigners – bringing in billions to the Turkish economy.
Veiled women in Istanbul (Photo: Roee Nahmias)
"This isn't the only reason he got so many votes, you have to remember that the other parties just didn't look any better and it was their failure that became his victory."
Though the polls predicted Erdoğan would win – Ovadia admits he was surprised by the sweeping victory. But there is a positive aspect to the landslide win, he says: "No one expected the ruling party to get that much support. In the lead up to these elections the party tried to change its face, it brought in dozens of educated women as parliamentary candidates, so they gained the votes of many educated women. Erdoğan is charismatic, he has a good platform and that's why he got the votes.
"But the fact that he got those votes, half of them, will obligate him to break towards the center. He will have not choice but to become a moderate – and that was very evident in his victory speech."
'Necessary degree of caution'It isn't easy getting to Ovadia's private office. Located on a side street in one of Istanbul's neighborhoods, it bears no sign on its door and the building is constantly monitored by CCTV. There's good reason for this level of caution after the 2003 bombing of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.
When asked if there is fear prevalent in the community of additional attacks by al-Qaeda or other extremists, Ovadia says: "We are not worried, but we are taking every precaution in community centers and spending much more on security."
The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul's most famous mosque (Photo: Roee Nahmias)
Not only that, should you happen to be in Istanbul and wish to visit the city's synagogue, you would not be able to enter freely. Anyone wishing to visit must first send in his personal details so that the community can verify their identity before granting them access.
Some 23,000 Jews live in Turkey today, of those an estimated 20,000 reside in Istanbul. "We have excellent relations with the government and State officers and we also have close ties with the Israeli embassy and consul and they celebrate the Jewish holidays with us. We also send youths to study in Israeli universities and yeshivas," he said.
Of anti-Semitism in Turkey Ovadia admits that there are anti-Semitic editorials in radical newspapers. "But I separate these editorials from my day-to-day life," he says, "These are media outlets that are trying
to camouflage their anti-Semitism and make it appear as legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies against the Palestinians. But when the title is 'Bloodthirsty Jew,' it's of course obvious to me that this is anti-Semitic. In any case, the situation is different than in Europe.
"If there is peace in Israel, and we want there to be, that will lessen the anti-Semitism and also affect the entire Middle East."