As Turkey welcomes Syrians fleeing violence, the anniversary Friday of the deaths of more than 750 Jewish refugees who were denied shelter by Turkey in World War II was a reminder of perennial tension between pragmatic and humanitarian impulses.
The SS Struma, whose passengers fled Romania and docked in Istanbul, was denied entry to Palestinian territory by colonial power Britain. On Feb. 23, 1942, Turkey towed the vessel to the Black Sea and set it adrift. A Soviet torpedo sank it the next morning, and only one person survived.
The episode is a stain on an upbeat narrative of the Jewish experience in the mostly Muslim country, even if Jews are treated with far more tolerance than elsewhere in the region. Turkey dwells on the legacy of Ottoman rulers who welcomed Jews fleeing Christian persecution in Spain in the 15th century.
Tension over the past shadows Turkey as it seeks to lead in the region, advocating democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey, which had sought closer ties with Syria's authoritarian regime, now demands that its president stop a bloody crackdown on opponents and quit, and it shelters some 10,000 refugees from Syria.
Signs of Turkish inclusiveness are many. Singer Can Bonomo, of Sephardic Jewish descent, will represent Turkey at the Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan this year. Last month, Turkey showed a French film about the Nazi genocide, the first time it was aired on public television in a mostly Muslim nation.
Huseyin Avni Mutlu, Istanbul's governor, attended a ceremony to commemorate Holocaust victims.
"We have strived to serve the world as a center of tolerance," read his prepared remarks. "Never was any nationality, religion or belief group oppressed in these lands. On the contrary, they were treated as equals, with respect, and their cultural heritages were conserved."
But the way Turkey — neutral in World War II — handled the Struma undercuts claims of favorable treatment that Jews and other minorities purportedly received in that era. Even today, deficits in equal rights and religious freedoms mar democratic advances in Turkey.
"This is a tragedy which is treated as something that has nothing to do with Turkey," said author Rifat Bali, who has written about non-Muslim minorities in Turkey. He said blame is assigned to Britain or the Soviet Union, with some justification, but described the refugee deaths as a "black spot" on Turkey's "rosy rhetoric" about benevolent policies.
A rare commemoration was held at Sarayburnu, a promontory near the Golden Horn inlet in Istanbul. Organizer Cem Murat Sofuoglu said the Turkish establishment was not interested.
"They don't want to shake the cage," said Sofuoglu, a lawyer who wants Turkey and Britain to apologize.
Turkey's Jewish community of just over 20,000 has traditionally kept a low profile to avoid controversy or worse, especially at a time when political ties between Turkey and Israel, a former ally, are frozen. The low point came in 2010 when nine people died during an Israeli raid on a Turkish ship intending to deliver aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In 2003, two Istanbul synagogues were targeted in deadly bombings by militants tied to al-Qaida, and Turkey cracked down on radical Islamists.
Many Turkish Jews had to speak Turkish and drop Ladino, a language that mixes Hebrew and Spanish and is dying out, in the early years of the modern republic. During World War II, Jews, as well as ethnic Armenians and Greeks, were subject to an arbitrary lump-sum tax, and mobs attacked non-Muslim properties in Istanbul in 1955.
Anti-Semitism has risen in Turkey's ultraconservative media over the past five years, said Murat Onur, an Istanbul-based commentator who has studied the issue. Activists want the government to incorporate "hate speech" legislation in plans for a new constitution.
Baki Tezcan, an associate professor of history and religious studies at the University of California, Davis, said the only place to buy a menorah in Istanbul is at the offices of Shalom, a Jewish newspaper. In December, he went there to get one because his father-in-law is Jewish, saw no sign outside, and encountered a strict screening procedure.
"This experience made me realize how difficult it must be to live as a Jew in Turkey, feeling so threatened that they have to hide their community newspaper's offices and apply such high security measures," he wrote in an email.
After the Ottoman Empire collapsed and foreign powers carved up its spoils, Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, hauled Turkey onto a secular path, though religious belief remained entrenched. Today, the government is run by pious Muslims who describe themselves as conservative democrats.
One constant over the decades is the fact that Turkish identity cards state the religion of their carriers.
The majority Sunni Muslims stand "at the center of the circle" of Turkish citizenship, according to Tezcan.
"This might go back to the original meaning of the word 'millet,' which is used to refer to 'nation' today," he wrote. "It actually meant a 'religious community.' So we are dealing with the repercussions of late Ottoman history, and the complex dynamics of growing local nationalisms, on the one hand, and European imperialism, on the other."
Eyal Peretz is the Israel-born chairman of Arkadas, a community of ethnic Turkish Jews in Israel. He said the Ottoman welcome to Jews was something "we cannot forget" and an "exceptional story" in a dire catalogue of persecution over the centuries.
However, he criticized Turkey for downgrading relations with Israel, alleging it seeks to curry favor with Muslims worldwide. Turkey is incensed over the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel, which has refused Turkish demands for an apology and compensation in the 2010 raid.
Some historians speculate the Soviets mistook the Struma for a troop ship from Romania, a Nazi ally, and thought they were firing on an enemy. A book, "Death on the Black Sea," cites Refik Saydam, Turkey's prime minister at the time, as saying Turkey was not responsible.
"Turkey cannot serve as a homeland for people not welcomed by others," Saydam said. "That's the way we choose. This is the reason we could not keep them in Istanbul. It is unfortunate that they were victims of an accident."
Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in the United States, said studying the past helped to provide a compass for future conduct. She said Turkey's wartime refugee policy was similar to that of other nations in that it welcomed only those Jews likely to make financial or cultural contributions. German Jews had a prominent role in archaeological excavations in Turkey in the 1930s.
"They were going to cherrypick precisely those Jews who would enrich Turkey one way or another," Dwork said. She noted that Turkish authorities waited 24 hours before sending lifeboats to the area where the Struma was struck.
"As far as I'm concerned, that is both compliance and complicity with mass murder," she said.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now