Shaken but steadfast
During the last year, the Jewish community was deeply shaken by manifestations of overt and covert anti-Semitism.
The recent unpleasant political rhetoric between Israel and Turkey, part of a worrying pattern that has been repeated during the past few years, made me think of the people who stand on the front line in Turkey when their government exchanges taunts with Israel: the country's Jews. I had the privilege to spend a weekend with a group of Turkish Jews in October, at the fifth annual Limmud Istanbul conference.
Addressing a broad range of topics relevant to contemporary Jewish life, the conference drew 1,200 participants of all ages - no less than 6 percent of the entire Turkish Jewish community, and the organizers had to turn away others for lack of space. In comparison, the 25-year-old British Limmud conference, on which the Istanbul one is modeled, draws an average of 2,000 people, from a community that is 10 times the size of Turkey's.
Although the event took place two months before the embarrassing confrontation between Israel's deputy foreign minister and Turkey's ambassador to Tel Aviv, and the angry response from Ankara, the toll that worsening bilateral relations is taking on Turkish Jewry was already palpable. At the same time, the well-organized gathering provided an impressive demonstration of the Turkish Jewish community's cohesiveness, as well as its continued creativity, energy, intellectual curiosity, and spirit of volunteerism. More than 150 speakers and artists took part in the program, which dealt with a wide range of subjects: education, Jewish history and sources, international relations, economics and finance, architecture, theater, music, dance, film and sport.
Not coincidentally, the conference was entitled "Selam/Shalom" (in Turkish and in Hebrew), a reference to Turkish Jewry's intense desire for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Indeed, since last year's Gaza war, Turkish Jewry has been pulled further, for better or worse, into the conflict. In essence, a Gordian knot has been tied between developments in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and the status, and even future, of Turkish Jewry, particularly regarding the attitudes of Turkish Muslim society toward it.
During the last year, the Jewish community was deeply shaken by manifestations of overt and covert anti-Semitism. Discussions during Limmud, both formal and informal, reflected a weakening of the community's long-standing sense of security and well-being, and a growing belief that it is at a crossroads. These feelings are widespread among all members of the community, of all generations. Young people related to me that their non-Jewish friends in public schools blamed them for what was taking place in Gaza, essentially identifying them with Israel.
Over the course of Operation Cast Lead, Jews witnessed daily demonstrations and burnings of Israeli flags in Istanbul's streets, and feared that the protesters would turn their anger toward them.
The businessmen who constitute the bulk of the Jewish community have experienced a slowdown in activity, among other reasons due to the fact that the authorities give preference for business licenses to Muslims. As a result, for example, the Jews of Izmir, who in the past were a prosperous community, are fast disappearing, heading either to Istanbul or abroad.
The message trickling down from the authorities, and primarily from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, does not add to local Jews' sense of security, to put it mildly. To be sure, his attacks are mainly focused on Israel itself, but from time to time, his speech also contains anti-Semitic hints: For example, in an appearance at Yildiz University in early October, Erdogan praised the Jews' commercial skills, but his comments had an unpleasant overtone.
While most of the Turkish Jewish community experiences a feeling of uneasiness and even threat, it has not agreed on how to respond. Some of Istanbul's young Jews believe that immigration to Israel is the best solution to their problem, some are looking to make their way to Europe and the United States, and still others insist on remaining in the city. The elderly view themselves as being firmly grounded in Turkish soil and unable to uproot themselves, particularly to Israel; most do not have a good command of the Hebrew language. It is the middle generation that is the most troubled. Some have concluded there is no future for Jews in the country and have begun searching for alternatives. Another important segment believes it is imperative to stay and to fight for their positions and views in order to change the larger society's attitudes about Jews and Israel. It must be remembered that among the Jews of Turkey, there are leading intellectuals who can speak their minds even on such sensitive issues as anti-Semitisim. Such a leading voice is Rifat Bali, a Turkish author and editor of long standing.
The Limmud conference was a most appropriate response to the challenges facing Turkish Jewry. Notwithstanding the community's apprehensions and doubts, one should certainly not view it as broken, or as having lost its way. In fact, Limmud's success testifies to the continuing vitality of Turkey's Jews, and their desire to take their fate in their own hands and even to seek to influence Turkey's overall future direction. Turkish Jewry is clearly deeply connected to the Turkish Republic, while also seeing itself as a bridge of good will between its country and Israel. The alternative to being a bridge is being caught between the hammer and the anvil.
Prof. Ofra Bengio is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, at Tel Aviv University. She is author of "The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders" (2nd edition, 2010).