Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An enclave of Syrian Jews in Turkey

 The entrance to the synagogue in Antakya. A rabbi comes from Istanbul weekly to conduct Shabbat services

Interesting little piece in Haaretz about the tiny Jewish community of Antakya, a community that most Turkish Jews have not heard of. As Jewish Communists do, its leader, Harun Jamal, calls himself an 'Arab Jew' but finds no contradiction between faith and communism. What the article does not explain is that Jamal lives in the disputed border province of Hatay (Alexandretta), which Syria has not officially ceded to Turkey.    
In the old city of Antakya in Turkey, there is a synagogue where the town’s tiny Jewish community meets every Shabbat. Opposite the synagogue there is a mosque, as well as a Catholic church, where a worker volunteered to help me find the person in charge of the synagogue. "He lives here in this building, let's see if he's home." After she rang the old door bell for a long time and called out very loudly "Harun, Harun," could we hear the noise of steps coming near. The heavy door opened and behind it stood a 59-year-old man, large, impressive and eloquent, who was happy to receive a visitor from Israel. The conversation was conducted in Arabic, the common language - along with Turkish - in this region near Syria.

"I'm an Arab Jew," is how Harun Jamal, the leader of the town’s Jewish community, explained his fluent Arabic. "I never learned to read or write Arabic, but from people, from my family and the need to business I learned it," he said. Arab Jew? "Yes, Yes. We came from Aleppo in Syria 2,500 years ago and my ancestors settled here."

Jamal held in his hands the keys to the beautiful synagogue. "All told there are 10 Jewish families here. All the rest have left, some to Israel, some to Istanbul and the others overseas. Every Friday a rabbi from Istanbul comes to us on a flight to lead the prayers. We host him at our expense and on Saturday night he leaves, and then we close the gates of the synagogue until the next Friday." Jamal admits he has never visited Israel. "Israel is the holy land. I am ready to give my life for Israel, but its citizens are difficult. There is no love between them, so I never went to visit. Maybe next year I'll come."

The community, most of whose members have already retired, receives no aid or help from Israel. "We finance everything from our own money," concludes Jamal. But the Antakya Jewish community also does not receive any help from the Jewish communities in Istanbul or any other city in Turkey. "They don't like us, the Jews of Istanbul. They see us as Arab Jews; while they, who came from Spain, think they are better than us. In what way are they better? There in Istanbul they eat treif, pork, ham and all the other forbidden foods; while here by us everything is Kosher. They think that if they came from Spain and speak Ladino they are superior. They haven't seen what I've seen. That when a Jew like me travels to Berlin or London, to Paris or New York, the Jews there view all of us, the Jews of Turkey, as worse Jews since we aren't Ashkenazim."

Jamal lives in a three-story building that he owns. In his youth he did very well as a trader, something that didn't interfere with his being a Communist. "My father sent me to learn in a Talmud Torah [school] in Istanbul in the 1950s, but later I moved to Ankara, there all my friends were communists. I joined too." And how does he explain the combination of Communism and religion? "Religion is between God and me. It is my matter. Communism is a social ideology. There is no contradiction. Many Jews were communists and also went to synagogue."

Jamal, who uses his hands expressively to emphasize what he is saying, makes it clear that there were never interfaith problems in Antakya. "We celebrate their holidays with our Christian neighbors, and they bless us on our holidays. There are also Kurds, Alawites and Sunni Muslims here, and everyone is like brothers." But when the conversation turns to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the tone changes. "No, no, no, he doesn't like Jews. All his talk about protecting Jews and his love for Judaism is just politics, nothing more."(...)

A few days later, in Istanbul, a senior member of the Jewish community was surprised to hear there were still Jews left in Antakya. "Only 10 families? Why don't they move to Istanbul? After all, here they can feel safer," he said. "Here we have influence and the Turkish police guard the synagogues." When he heard Jamal was not interested at all in moving to Istanbul since its Jews see themselves as superior to the Jews in Antakya, and because the town’s multicultural character actually makes him feel safer, the man said: "Maybe he's right. Where there are fewer Jews they attract less attention. But we certainly do not view the Jews of Antakya as inferior. After all I didn't even know they existed. But what does he have to complain about? Also in Israel, the homeland of the Jews, there is a clear and correct distinction - there are 'pure Sephardim,' like us, and there are Jews who came from Arab countries, and is there discrimination between them?"

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