A valued and protected model minority during the Ottoman Empire and full citizens since the formation of a secular republic in 1923, the Jews of Turkey have enjoyed equality and respect, but have had to cope with periodic outbursts of xenophobia and racism.
Turkey, a pro-western state of 75 million inhabitants with the second-largest Jewish community in the Muslim world after that of Iran, treasures its centuries-long bond with Jews. As Turkish diplomat Ertan Tezgor said, “We have quite tight relations with the Jewish people.”
Judging by the historic record, Jews have fared far better in Turkey than Armenians or Greeks, whose grievances can fill a book.
The Jewish presence in Turkey can be traced back to antiquity, to the Roman and Byzantine empires, when Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews settled in Anatolia, Turkey’s heartland, and were eventually absorbed by Sephardi Jews, who reached Ottoman lands from Spain under duress in the 15th century.
Invited to the Ottoman Empire by the sultan, Mehmet II, Jews repaid the favour by being exceedingly loyal and productive citizens. Like all minorities, they lived within the framework of the millet system, which organized non-Muslim communities on the basis of religion.
With the breakup of the remaining segments of the Ottoman Empire, a cosmopolitan domain that reached deep into the Middle East and the Balkans, the number of Jews declined precipitously, from several hundred thousand in the 19th century to 80,000 by the conclusion of Turkey’s war of national independence, which resulted in a Muslim/Christian population exchange.
In modern Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered father of the nation, minorities, especially Greek and Armenian Christians, were subjected to assimilationist policies and discrimination until the 1950s, according to Istanbul historian Rifat Bali.
In Eastern Thrace, Turkey’s gateway to Europe, several thousand Jews in towns such as Edirne and Canakkale were forcibly expelled in 1934 in a campaign of physical violence, psychological intimidation and economic boycotts. The expulsions finally stopped when the central government intervened and allowed Jews to return to their homes.
“It’s not clear who was behind all this,” said Bali. But right-wing nationalists sympathetic to Nazi racial doctrines may have been among the perpetrators.
In 1942, the Turkish government imposed a crippling wealth tax (Varlik vergisi) on well-off citizens. Historians generally regard the punitive tax, most keenly felt by Jews and Christians, as an attempt by the government to stop war profiteering and to transfer wealth to the Sunni majority.
Bali describes the tax, revoked in 1944, as a discriminatory and arbitrary measure that blatantly violated the 1924 constitution. In his view, the tax sent an unmistakable signal to minorities that they had no future in Turkey.
In 1955, following reports that Ataturk’s ancestral home in Salonika had been destroyed, anti-Greek riots erupted in the centre of Istanbul, resulting in the destruction of numerous shops and homes. Jews and Armenians were caught in the backwash of this pogrom.
Five decades on, Turkey has matured and now has “a positive attitude to minorities,” said Bali. But due to the events of 1934, 1942 and 1955, the pull of Israel after 1948 and an outbreak of terrorism in the 1970s, Turkey’s Jewish community has declined numerically.
About 18,000 Jews, all but 400 of whom are Sephardi Jews, reside in Turkey today. Emigration is still a factor, with upwards of 150 Jews making aliyah every year. By one estimate, there are 100,000 Jews of Turkish origin in Israel.
By all accounts, the 1986 and 2003 bombings of Neve Shalom, the biggest synagogue in Istanbul, did not cause a significant exodus of Jews. The attacks, which were respectively perpetrated by Arab and Turkish terrorists, claimed the lives of more than 40 Jews and Muslims.
Turkish Jews are largely concentrated in Istanbul, with much smaller centres in Izmir, Bursa and Ankara. They possess an impressive range of institutions, synagogues and schools, but these facilities are increasingly difficult to maintain.
Demographic realities, notably an intermarriage rate ranging in the vicinity of 25 per cent and an ageing population in which deaths outnumber births, are key problems in the community, said Izak Kolman, an advisor to Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva.
He and others believe that Jewish population stability will be assured by Turkey’s vibrant economy and by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to bring in a new constitution enshrining human rights.
By local standards, Turkish Jews are fairly prosperous, being active in business (particularly in the textile trade) and the professions. Yet 200 families in Istanbul require food aid per month.
Traditionally, the civil service and the armed forces have been informally off-limits to Jews and Christians. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently declared that Jews should be members of the diplomatic corps. Whether the new policy is merely tokenism remains to be seen.
Jewish leaders here claim that antisemitism does not pose a problem in daily life. But since most Muslim Turks have never met a Jew, “you have fear and negative feelings,” noted Sami Herman, the community’s president.
Antisemitic material is published in the ultra-nationalist and Islamic press, Bali observed. “But the sentiments they express reflect opinion in the street, and are not held by Turkish elites.”
Although Jews are well integrated into Turkish society, ethnocentric Turks claim that only Muslims are real Turks, and that Jews are foreigners (yabancis).
The Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010, during which Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship trying to break Israel’s naval siege of the Gaza Strip, may have contributed to the erroneous belief that Jews are faux Turks. “Jews feared that their loyalty to Turkey would be questioned,” said Bali. “But no one questioned their loyalty.”
By way of response, the Jewish community immediately issued an official statement expressing sadness and sorrow over the loss of life. Much to its relief, Erdogan issued a warning that anti-Israel feelings should not be allowed to spill over into antisemitism.