Dozens of protesters gathered in front of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul on Thursday night to rally against Israel’s decision to install metal detectors at the entries to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The protesters, who were seen kicking the synagogue’s gates and throwing stones, chanted, “if you don’t let us into our places of worship, we won’t let you into yours.”
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The protest was organised by Alperen Ocaklari, a far-right nationalist and Islamist movement linked to the Great Unity Party, an extremist offshoot of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has supported Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his successful bid to turn the country into a presidential democracy.
Speaking in front of the synagogue, the local president of Alperen Ocaklari, Kürşat Mican, accused Israel of “harassing our Palestinian brothers and hindering their freedom of worship” with the placement of metal detectors at the Temple Mount. Before putting an end to the protest, Mican asserted that “either the Zionists pull themselves together, or we will come again.”
Israel installed the metal detectors at the compound last Sunday after assailants opened fire there, killing two Israeli police officers. The Waqf – the Muslim religious body that has authority over the site – announced that the metal detectors are an attempt to change the status quo and called on worshipers not to enter the site. Over the past week, violent clashes have erupted at the compound.
Members of the Jewish community of Istanbul told Haaretz that the protests in front of Neve Shalom synagogue are reminiscent of demonstrations that took place during the Gaza operation in 2014. “It was a massive shock for us because it was the first time that synagogues were deliberately targeted to protest Israeli policies,” a young community member said, referring to the 2014 protests.
While only small numbers of Turkish Jews have immigrated to Israel in the past few years, some members of the community fear that greater tensions between the two countries could induce more departures. “After the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) organised the Mavi Marmara operation in 2010, which aimed to try break the embargo of Gaza, we all felt less safe,” a member of the community said, recalling the episode which led to a decade-long freeze in Israeli-Turkish relations.
“Members of the NGO invented that the Israeli soldiers who fought and killed some of the activists were Turkish Jews who had recently emigrated to Israel, only to stir up domestic anti-Semitism. We fear that if the Temple Mount crisis slips out of hand, protests here could increase, and maybe even lead to more departures.”
Almost all Turkish Jews, a community of about 18.000, live in Istanbul. Many members of the community left Turkey after the imposition of the Varlk Vergisi in 1942, a so-called tax on wealth, which was deliberately tailored to target and impoverish minorities. Many others left following the 1955 Istanbul pogroms, which started with the spreading of rumors that Greeks had put a bomb at the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Thessaloniki. Although street violence mainly targeted Greek and Armenian Christians, many Jews took it as a warning sign for all minorities and decided to leave the country.