In Turkish Charm Offensive, Jewish Life Is the New Selling Point

Turkey’s Jewish community is shrinking as its younger members seek opportunities abroad. But amid the state’s scramble for foreign investment, the community’s memorialization has become entangled in Erdogan’s push for closer ties with Israel

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A Jewish worshipper wearing a kippa marking Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the Neve Shalom synagogue, Istanbul, in March 2022.
A Jewish worshipper wearing a kippa marking Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the Neve Shalom synagogue, Istanbul, in March 2022.
Linda Dayan
Istanbul
Linda Dayan
Istanbul

ISTANBUL – After walking through its great iron gates and bright yellow façade, visitors at the Grand Synagogue of Edirne are greeted with images of the structure pre-restoration.

The poster shows the building’s once collapsed roof, decaying walls and ruined sanctuary. Surrounding them are the results of a stunning transformation: high, blue starry ceilings hoisted by ornate yellow columns, intricate reliefs and a marble-and-wood ark to rival New York’s finest.

We are visiting the synagogue as part of a delegation of Israeli journalists, invited by the Turkish government as the two countries tentatively resume ties after many years of diplomatic enmity during the Netanyahu years.

The renovated Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Turkey.

On a three-day tour in April, we are shuttled from Istanbul to Edirne and onto Ankara, visiting local landmarks, seeing synagogues and meeting government officials to talk trade and foreign policy. In Istanbul, we roam relatively freely. In more conservative Edirne, a security detail joins us.

Although the Israeli delegation seems chiefly interested in the possibility of a Turkish-Israeli oil pipeline, warming relations between the two countries – quotes about which had to be approved before publication – and Turkey’s harboring of Hamas officials (on which absolutely no one would speak on record), there seems to be a subject the hosts want to emphasize as well.

“Our government respects all the religions and all the beliefs. God is the same, our approach is just slightly different,” says Resul Anac of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. He is leading our tour of the Grand Synagogue of Edirne, and stresses that the Turkish government restored the building.

“Jews are our friends,” he says. “We lived with them for 500 years, and never had a problem.”

Turkish Ambassador to the United States Hasan Murat Mercan expresses his optimistic view of Israeli-Turkish normalization in the Tel Aviv-based Moshe Dayan Center’s Turkeyscope publication in April. He dedicated nearly half of the article to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s coexistence with and aid to the Jewish people. In a meeting between the Israeli delegation and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, he opened by touching upon this history as well.

Congregants praying at the inauguration of the Grand Synagogue of Edirne following its restoration in 2015.

That it is romanticized and rose-tinted is irrelevant. The additional taxes levied on Jews and inferior status that the community historically carried with it is a bygone when rapprochement is on the horizon.

Edirne, which is about a three-hour drive northwest from Istanbul, once had a 20,000-strong Sephardi population, Anac explains, with 13 large synagogues. The Grand Synagogue was built with communal funds and aid from the Sultan in 1907. The structure was destroyed by a fire, and the community itself began to leave around 1960, he says.

Scant Jews remain there, including the family that owns the local supermarket. The synagogue was restored in 2015 as part of a larger wave of historic renovations, but it does not host services. Transformed into an arts and culture center, the former Jewish school behind it hosts exhibitions by local artists.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog attending a service at Istanbul's Neve Shalom synagogue in March.

Living exhibitions

While other countries in the region such as Egypt and Lebanon have also recently restored historic synagogues with government funds, Turkey still has a Jewish population who can visit, numbered at about 15,000. During the Ottoman Empire, an estimated 250,000 Jews lived within the borders of today’s Republic of Turkey.

A day earlier, we visited another – this time active – synagogue: Neve Shalom in Istanbul. We waited to be escorted in and passed through an antechamber with metal detectors before entering. Neve Shalom, which also hosts the Museum of Turkish Jews, is home to a congregation, but it is dwindling as its worshippers age.

The delegation of Israeli journalists visiting a museum while on tour in Turkey last month.

There are various reasons for the decline in Turkey’s Jewish population, and Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security lists a number of them: rising antisemitism; the younger generation seeking to obtain their university education abroad.

Another factor is “decreasing interest rates – the rich cannot become richer and the standard of living decreased dramatically” – and the increasing devaluation of the Turkish lira. Not to mention political instability, with “extraordinary incidents like the failed coup attempt” against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016 playing a role as well, he says.

Neve Shalom attests to the Jewish community’s concerns. It has been the target of three terror attacks, which are briefly mentioned in the museum’s recent history section. There is still a deep bullet hole in one of the sanctuary’s pews from a 1986 shooting that killed 22 people during Shabbat services, attributed to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal. The most recent bombing attack, in November 2003, killed 18 people in the vicinity, though the synagogue itself did not suffer much damage.

At Neve Shalom’s museum, Director-Curator Nisya Isman Allovi guides the Israeli delegation. The exhibits emphasize the ancient character of Turkey’s Jewish community, displaying an oil lamp decorated with a Star of David unearthed in Izmir, dating from the fifth century. It also shows the Jewish community’s contributions to Turkish culture and society – “not just business,” Allovi notes. It lists Jewish members of the Turkish parliament through history, and displays a uniform worn by a Jewish soldier in the military.

Director-Curator Nisya Isman Allovi guiding the Israeli delegation at Neve Shalom's museum in Istanbul.

It also mentions Turkey’s aid to Jews during the Holocaust – a contentious point considering the Turkish Republic was neutral in World War II and maintained relations with Nazi Germany. A section of recent history details the attacks on the country’s Jewish population alongside its victories.

The museum, whose displays are written in Turkish and English, seems to be geared toward non-Jewish Turks as much as it is to Jewish tourists. Part of the museum’s walkway peeks into the synagogue sanctuary from above, turning services into living exhibitions.

What does Allovi tell Turkish, primarily Muslim, tour groups who come through here? “That we cannot be eliminated, we are essential here,” she says. “And we are similar. They say, ‘Oh, you have circumcision too?’ And I tell them, ‘No, you have circumcision too,’” she smiles.

Bridge between the states

Dr. Galia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who specializes in Turkish foreign policy, says Turkey is now seeking to improve its standing in the Middle East, Israel included.

“Since the economic situation in Turkey is worsening, Ankara also hopes that moderation on the international level will attract foreign investments in the country,” she says.

The Israeli delegation posing during their tour of Istanbul, Edirne and Ankara last month.

Turkey does not seem to be obscuring this. The first stop for the Israeli delegation on the first day in Istanbul was the Investment Office of the Presidency, which included a presentation on why the international community should turn its eyes and wallets toward Turkey.

“While the Jewish community in Turkey, mainly because of its dwindling numbers, has to act cautiously, its members, as well as Jews in Israel of Turkish origin, do serve as an important bridge between the states,” Lindenstrauss says. This is apparent on the political level, but also regarding Turkish-Israeli trade, which Lindenstrauss notes has now reached nearly $7 billion.

Cohen Yanarocak says recent attempts to thaw ties between the two countries have had a palpable effect on the discourse regarding Jews and Israel in Turkey.

“Following normalization, the demonization against Israel minimized. Also, the Jewish community felt the difference,” he says. “The difference in the attitude is very visible – for the better.”

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