Why Jews in Terror-stricken Turkey Aren’t Fleeing to Israel – Yet

Turkey has become the main crossroads in a burgeoning refugee crisis while Kurdish militants fight government forces and tourists are targets for ISIS attackers from neighboring Syria. So what drives local Jews to stay put?

A Turkish police officer stands guard in front of Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, March 29, 2016.
Osman Orsal, Reuters

Despite heightened security threats, most Jews in Turkey are not inclined to pick up and move to Israel in the near future, according to sources with knowledge of such trends.

In Jerusalem, officials who monitor immigration developments report very little, if any, interest among Turkish Jews in relocating to Israel, where under the Law of Return they would be granted automatic citizenship upon arrival. Jewish sources in Istanbul, most of whom asked that they not be named because of the politically sensitive nature of the issue, confirmed that the overriding sentiment in the community was to sit tight and not move anywhere, Israel included.

The Jewish community of Turkey is estimated at close to 18,000 and based overwhelmingly in Istanbul. 

“We are born here, and we were raised here, and leaving would only be a last resort,” said Selin Nasi, who works as a columnist for both Salom, the Turkish Jewish newspaper, and the English-language Hurriyet Daily News.

Noting that emigration was not an easy decision, Nasi conceded that “if things become worse, people are likely to reassess their plans."

Jewish community members attend the re-opening ceremony of Great Synagogue in Edirne, western Turkey March 26, 2015.
Murad Sezer, Reuters

She noted that following the recent attacks and threats, the authorities had stepped up security dramatically around Jewish institutions. “Security outside the synagogue is almost like outside the Pentagon,” she said.

Emphasizing that these were her own personal views, Nasi said she did not feel Jews were under any greater threat than others in the country. “It is true that the Jewish community is concerned about recent development, but not any more concerned that the rest of society," she noted. “Everybody understands that there is no quick fix for terrorism and that it can happen anywhere.”

Quoting intelligence sources, Britain’s Sky News reported two weeks ago that the Islamic State had “advanced plans” to attack Jewish schools and kindergartens in Turkey. Last month, three Israelis were killed in a terror attack in central Istanbul, and in recent weeks, Israel has issued several travel advisories strongly urging its citizens to avoid Turkey because of imminent threats.

Last year, 105 Turkish Jews immigrated to Israel, according to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. That compared with 61 the previous year. The numbers for the first three months of 2016 were so negligible that they do not even appear in the official records.

The head of an organization representing Israel’s roughly 90,000-strong Turkish Jewish community was equally skeptical about the prospects of a new immigration wave in wake of recent developments. “Most of the Jews left in Turkey are either quite affluent or would have a very difficult time making a move,” said Eyal Peretz, chairman of Arkadash – the Turkish Community in Israel.

Previous waves of immigration from Turkey, he noted, had been associated with government-sanctioned anti-Semitism. “Today that isn’t the case,” he said. “Today, the threat comes from outside groups, and today the government is helping guard Jewish institutions.”

Another Jewish writer based in Istanbul, who requested anonymity, said she refused to succumb to panic. “I am a Jew living in a Muslim country, and I am happy,” she said in an email. “I have my friends, family and my life here.” Her Muslim friends, she noted, had asked her if they could attend upcoming Jewish weddings “so that we can come and support you.”

Asked whether Jews were considering leaving Turkey, she said, “Migration from one country to another is in our history. However, we have been here for more than 500 years. I have my roots here, so it not easy to just pack up and go, and neither do I want to.”

In recent years, Turkish Jews have been among those taking advantage of new laws that allow descendants of Jews forced out of Spain and Portugal 500 years ago to take up dual citizenship.

But Jose Karp, the head of the Jewish community in Lisbon, said he was unaware of any families from Turkey who had resettled there recently, though it was possible that some were on their way.

The Istanbul-based Jewish writer said that while the new laws offered many Turkish Jews of Sephardic origins a good opportunity to obtain European citizenship, the application costs were high. “I don’t think there is a major increase,” she said, referring to the number of Turkish Jews seeking dual Spanish or Portuguese citizenship.

To the best of her knowledge, said Nasi, those applying for dual citizenship in Spain and Portugal had no intention of leaving Turkey immediately. “This is their Plan B,” she said.

Although she had no current plans to leave Turkey, Nasi said that mounting security threats had required various adjustments to her daily routine. “We try not to go to shopping malls or other crowded places, and we avoid public transportation, so I end up using my car more,” she said.