By Boaz Bismuth / Israel Hayom
Last month, at the height of Operation Protective Edge, the Jewish community in Turkey issued an angry letter, infused with unprecedented rage, to the American Jewish Congress. In the letter, the community condemned their American counterparts for demanding that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan return a Profile of Courage award he had received from the Congress in 2004.
The Turkish community urged American Jewish Congress President Jack Rosen rethink the demand.
“Erdogan’s criticism against Israel should not be interpreted as anti-Semitic in any way,” the letter said. “The prime minister even told the [Turkish paper] Daily Sabah that ‘Jews in Turkey are our citizens. We are responsible for their security of life and property.'”
In Jerusalem, officials were not pleased with this clash between the two Jewish communities. The last thing Israel needed this summer was a war between Jews. But this week, in Istanbul, a high-ranking source in the Jewish community told me, “That letter was dictated to us. We don’t want anyone in Israel thinking that we initiated it.”
The exchange between Washington and Istanbul only proves how delicate the situation facing Turkey’s Jews actually is. This veteran community, numbering 17,000 Jews, has managed to live with the dual loyalty, despite it being used by anti-Semitic groups for years. Turkey’s Jews care about Israel, but they love Turkey. When Turkey posits itself against Israel, it is not an easy test for them.
The Daily Sabah admitted that Erdogan had contacted the leaders of the Jewish community and recommended that they adopt a tough stance, to the point of coming out against the Israeli government. According to the paper, however, the Turkish leader made it clear that “whether you do it or not, we will never allow anyone to harm Turkey’s Jews.”
Over the past week, it has been especially difficult for Jews in Istanbul. Jak, 77, and Georgia, 69, Karako, an prominent, affluent Jewish couple, were found stabbed to death in their apartment in the upscale Ortakoy neighborhood.
Media outlets in Turkey covered the murders extensively. In light of recent violent demonstrations across Turkey, and Erdogan’s remarks that Israel was “worse than Hitler,” it was immediately assumed by some that the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism.
“We know that the murder was criminally motivated,” says Nadine (not her real name), a Jewish businesswoman and Istanbul native. “We can’t be certain, because we are hearing only what the police and the media are telling us, but the impression is that it was a disagreement with someone who worked in their household.”
We attended the couple’s funeral on Tuesday. Even though these are the summer months, when the wealthy Jews of Istanbul are traditionally on their annual vacations abroad, hundreds of people arrived at the Ulus Askenazi Musevi Mezarligi Jewish cemetery to pay their respects. Most of the people in attendance were well dressed and clearly affluent. Perhaps that is Erdogan’s secret: Ever since he took power in March 2003, he has helped the Turkish people, including the Jews, become rich. Those who had been financially disadvantaged until then, suddenly gained purchasing power. “Turks, perhaps more than other nations, love to buy,” they say around here.
Dozens of local reporters and television crews gathered at the entrance to the cemetery. The family asked for privacy during the burial. Turkish Jews prefer to maintain a low profile.
The slain couple’s children appeared to be in shock. Their daughter arrived from Geneva. Their agitated son, wearing a black suit, lit a cigarette immediately after the funeral procession ended. He had inherited the family’s well-known textile business Oren Bayan in the 1990s, and ran it together with the son of the co-founder, who was killed in an accident in the U.S. in 2009. Later, the company ran into financial trouble and was sold, but Karako’s son continued to oversee it.
“Jews from all over the country have been calling me,” says an elderly man standing beside me. “They said: ‘So, what will become of us now? We have to flee Turkey.’ I told them that there is no need to panic. This is a horrendous crime, no question, but it could have happened anywhere in the world — Paris, London, New York, even in Israel. It was a disagreement between an employee and his employers.”
The man’s wife adds, “I knew that worker. I never liked him. He was a handsome man, but he had a mean face. The day before the murder I spoke with Georgia and I asked her why she kept him on. She told me that it was because he is entertaining, and a good worker.”
The people who speak with me, almost without exception prefer to remain anonymous. They don’t want to get in trouble with the authorities, they say. “Publicity? What is it good for?” they wonder.
Several days after the incident, an Uzbek couple in their late 20s was arrested. They apparently had had a disagreement with the Karakos over wages. Sources in Turkey reported that only the man had stabbed the victims, and then the couple stuffed seven suitcases full of valuables and fled the scene. They were apprehended at the inn where they were hiding, and confessed shortly thereafter.
During my entire stay in Istanbul, I didn’t hear a single person say that the murder was motivated by anti-Semitic sentiments. The murder was purely criminal, it seems, and that is the most convenient scenario for everyone — the authorities as well as the Jews. No one needs an anti-Semitic murder on their hands right now.
“It is important to understand that this is our home,” says Nadine. “We are a veteran community. Almost everyone here is observant. It is important to us that things are good for Israel. Some of the people here have family in Israel. But just as we expect you to defend yourselves, without taking the displays of anti-Semitism against us into consideration, we need you to respect our wish to live our lives here and to refrain from making the atmosphere even more volatile.”
But anti-Semitism exists, doesn’t it? Look at what is happening not just in Turkey but in Belgium, France, England and Germany.
“Of course it exists. I believe that anyone who is not Jewish has the potential to be anti-Semitic. But the community here is less worried about anti-Semitism and more worried about the growing Islamic movement, since most of us are liberals who very much support the idea of a secular Turkey, as per Ataturk’s principles. The fact that we didn’t hear any criticism against Erdogan coming from Jerusalem during Operation Protective Edge really helped us.”
The violence against Turkey’s Jews was ignited on July 18, immediately after Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of demonstrators, including members of the Turkish parliament, went wild at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and at the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul. They threw rocks and tried to break into the Israeli compounds. Israeli flags were set on fire and even replaced with Palestinian flags. The mayor of Ankara was quoted as saying: “We will conquer the despicable murderers’ consulate.”
The Turkish police, which provides security to Istanbul’s Jewish institutions and the city’s 11 synagogues, fired tear gas at the demonstrators in efforts to disperse the crowd. Israeli tourists were advised to stay away from Turkey and tourism professionals reported a dramatic decline in Israeli reservations at popular vacation spots in Turkey.
“Since 1948 [when Israel was established], we have been witnessing an attempt at systematic genocide every day and every month, but above all we are witnessing this attempt at systematic genocide every Ramadan,” Erdogan declared at a meeting of Islamic scholars gathered in Istanbul for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. The Turkish masses viewed Erdogan’s remarks as a green light to take to the streets.
One of the papers ran an open letter written by Erdogan’s spokesman Faruk Kose, in which he addresses the Jewish community in Turkey and says: “You came here after you were expelled from Spain; you have lived comfortably among us for 500 years and gotten rich at our expense. Is this your gratitude — killing Muslims? Erdogan, demand that the community leader apologize!” It is no wonder, therefore, that the Jewish community sent that angry letter to Washington.
“The average Turk doesn’t really care about Gaza,” says Nadine. “But when they see countless children’s bodies on the news, it obviously has an effect. You remember the children who were killed in an Israeli bombing while playing soccer on the beach? That really affected people. In Turkey, as in Israel, children come first. No one can tolerate dead children. But I think that it is Israel’s right to defend itself, its citizens and its children.”
I haven’t seen any mention this week of Daniel Tregerman, the four-year-old boy from Nahal Oz who was killed in a mortar attack.
Nadine flashes an embarrassed smile. “I cried with you over the death of that charming boy. Don’t expect too much from the world, certainly not from Turkey, a Muslim country. And what about Paris? Did anyone protest there?”
I have to admit that Christian Europe hasn’t shown too much compassion toward Israeli victims this summer. To be honest, the Jewish community I encountered during my trips to France over the last two months seemed a lot more frightened.
Hours prior to the Karakos’ funeral, the Ashkenazi synagogue in Istanbul celebrated the bar mitzvah of Eliyahu Chitrik, the son of the chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Mendy Chitrik. It wasn’t easy to find the place. I first arrived at the Neve Shalom synagogue, where 24 people had been killed in an al-Qaida attack in 2003. A police officer manning the entrance kindly directed me toward the nearby Ashkenazi synagogue, but all the street vendors I asked for directions along the way directed me back to Neve Shalom. Only one man who was drinking a cup of tea at a cafe finally explained to me how to get there. I did not feel any hostility.
During my previous visit to Istanbul, four years ago, I was told that due to security concerns, any Jew who wants to visit the synagogue must first submit a request by fax to the congregation. I submitted a request, and my request was denied. They said they could not allow someone they didn’t know to enter the synagogue.
This time I came bearing an invitation extended by Rabbi Chitrik. It was easy to identify the grand, ancient building. Many guests poured in, and the entrance was heavily guarded. Following a thorough security check, I was allowed in. More than 100 people were already inside, praying the Shacharit morning prayer. Alongside the regular congregation there were members of Chabad, including Rabbi Chaim Azimov, the Chabad emissary in Cyprus, and Rabbi Eliezer Chitrik, the Chabad emissary in Nuremberg and the uncle of the bar mitzvah boy. The boy’s grandparents had come from France. Everyone was singing and dancing; it was a festive celebration.
The bar mitzvah boy’s father, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Istanbul, has no complaints against the Turkish leadership. “I have lived here for 13 years, and my congregation and I have never run into any problems,” he says in Hebrew. “Erdogan sends us a greeting every Rosh Hashanah. I assume that he will do so again this year.” He then gives his sermon in Turkish.
At the end of the prayer, the worshippers have a meal in the adjacent building, accompanied by guards. It is quite surrealistic: In an ancient Istanbul neighborhood, a kilometer from Taksim Square where the anti-Semitic riots transpired, dozens of religious Jews are seen among Turkish citizens and Muslim women wearing head coverings. Tourists look on in wonder at this unusual image. There is no hostility, no cursing or slurs. On the contrary: For a moment, everything looks normal and natural. A moment of joy in an otherwise difficult summer.
Rabbi Azimov says he has not encountered any hostility in Turkish Cyprus. He says that many of the children to Jewish families in Turkey attend the Chabad schools.
Among the guests, I see Haim Hasson, whom I met four years ago on my last visit. Hasson is responsible for informal education within the Jewish community. I asked him how he felt when he heard Erdogan’s remarks suggesting that Israel was worse than Hitler. “We’re used to it by now. He says terrible things when he’s angry,” says Hasson. “I don’t worry about it.”
Taksim Square looks like Tahrir Square in Cairo. Once it was full of Westerners and secular Turks. Today, it is occupied mainly by tourists and Arab immigrants from the Gulf, North African states, Syria and Iraq. Some are here alone, others with their families. All the women have head coverings. Many of them are dressed all in black, completely covered from head to toe. Some of them hold babies and panhandle for change. Ancho, my photographer, has been in Turkey 23 times since 2006. He tells me that he no longer recognizes Istanbul.
And still, in the evening hours, club music can be heard coming from the discotheques around Taksim Square. Now young secular women are mixing in with the crowd. This is a country that is having trouble defining itself, vacillating between religious fanaticism and secular modernity. Maybe it doesn’t want to be defined, only to adapt to the changing reality.
And what about Turkey’s Jews? They view Turkey as their home. Many of them were born here, studied here, and even gained wealth and property here. Their financial standing is rather good. They don’t know any other reality, and their connection with Israel isn’t great. Their connection with the Jewish faith, however, is very strong. Istanbul’s synagogues are filled to the brim every Shabbat and every holiday with men, women and children seeking to pray. One of them told me this week: “With all due respect to Turkey and Israel, we are first and foremost Jews.”