With Police at Our Schools and Road Blocks at Our Shuls, We Turkish Jews Soldier On

I've been asked a lot lately how we Jews cope in Turkey with the recent surge in terrorism. The answer isn't clear cut.

Turkish police officers stand guard in front of Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, March 29, 2016.
Ozan Kose, AFP

As a Turkish Jew, a woman, and a journalist covering the Middle East, I am often asked about anti-Semitism, freedom of the press and the difficulties facing women in Turkey. Recently, a new question has been added to the list: “How do you cope with the terror attacks?”

The recent surge in terrorism has been shocking by all means. Especially when foreign missions – like Israel – issue travel warnings about imminent attacks, and when reports surface that the Islamic State seeks to target Israelis and Jews.

Remembering the recent attacks on Jews in Europe – the kosher market in Paris, the Jewish museum in Belgium, the Grand Synagogue in Denmark and the Jewish school in Toulouse – makes us even more wary. And when three Israelis were killed along with one Iranian in Istanbul last month, the terror felt ever closer to home.

When Sky News reported that Islamic State is planning an attack on Jewish schools in Turkey, it sent shivers through our community. Most parents at my children's school preferred to keep their kids at home for several days, even though the school has had extensive protection for years. Some parents in the Greek community chose not to send their children to school, too, fearing ISIS might be a threat to all minorities, and the German school closed for a week, after receiving a warning.

We try to continue with our daily lives and adapt ourselves to this new situation. Yet, although the children are now back at school, the buses of armed policemen outside the school and the road blocks near our cultural institutions and synagogues, checking suspicious pedestrians and vehicles, remind us that these are difficult times. 

While we, the parents, try to keep calm and rationalize the situation, our children are not so skilled. Last week, my 11-year-old son said, “I know that our school is secure, but what I don’t understand is that the terrorists don’t want to kill the police; they want to kill us."

"Why?" he asked. "What did we do to them? What did I do to them?”

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

I found myself explaining to him, and his seven-year-old brother, that some people prefer to attack civilians to send a message to the world.

Being Jewish in a Muslim-majority country can appear difficult to those who read the results of anti-Semitism surveys and hear the hateful remarks by public figures published in the press. But at present, physical attacks on minorities are relatively low in Turkey, especially compared to Europe.

On the other hand, Turkish Jews have developed a protective shield to guarantee our tranquil life. We avoid wearing religious symbols on the street and practice our customs privately. Our shrinking community of 18,000 tries to keep a low profile.

For those of us who would like to see the relations between Turkey and Israel return to the golden days – when they worked to build peace in the region – the normalization negotiations that have reportedly been nearing a deal of late are a source of hope for us all. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meeting with American Jewish groups in an effort to push this process of normalization forward is a positive step in this climate.

Karel Valansi is a political columnist and former World News editor for Shalom Newspaper, Turkey. She is currently working on her thesis on Turkish-Israeli relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul. She tweets at @karelvalansi and blogs at www.karelvalansi.com.