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Growing anti-Semitism in Turkey

Senada Sokollu, Istanbul / cmkJanuary 23, 2015

Jews in Turkey are often blamed for Israel's policies and are increasingly targets of anti-Semitic attacks. Many are concerned about the future, even thinking of leaving. Senada Sokollu reports from Istanbul.

Neve Salom Synagoge Istanbul
Image: picture-alliance/Rainer Hackenberg

When Jeff Besken's family gets together, there are often communication problems. His grandparents, both over 90, speak to each other in Ladino, a dying Judeo-Spanish language with roots in the Middle Ages. Besken's parents speak the language only occasionally. As for the 39-year-old, he still understands almost everything. His younger sister, however, not a word.

It's a problem faced by many Sephardic Jews in Turkey. There are around 25,000 living in the country, most of them in Istanbul. After their ancestors were expelled from Catholic Spain in the 15th century, they found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, the forerunner of modern Turkey.

Today, the Spanish government wants to make amends for its past misdeeds. Last February, it introduced a bill that would allow descendants of Sephardic Jews around the world to qualify for a Spanish passport. If passed, the law would affect about 3.5 million people. Though Parliament has yet to make a final decision, the bill is almost certain to pass.

Growing fear of attacks

"I made an immediate request for a Spanish passport. The same goes for my entire family, and actually all the Sephardic Jews in Turkey that I know," said Besken, speaking with DW. He calls the passport a guarantee, just in case something "happens."

"Then we can easily pack up our stuff and go," he said. "It's a great advantage for us."

Jeff Besken ist sephardischer Jude
Besken: "I have a good life. I don't really want to leave Turkey"Image: privat

Besken's family is well-off. He lives in Bodrum, a chic holiday resort on the Aegean Sea, and works as a civil engineer for the family firm. "I have a good life. I don't really want to leave Turkey," he said. "But in recent years, Jews in Turkey have been facing more and more anti-Semitism. We've even felt it in our everyday business life. For example, a Muslim Turk owed my Jewish friend money. He said: 'I'll give you part of it back. The rest, I'll send to Gaza in your name."

Besken explains that over the past five centuries, life for Jews in Turkey was peaceful, first under the Ottomans and later under the Turkish government. But since 2010, diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel have cooled - a reaction to Israel's blockade of Gaza and the raid by Israeli troops on a flotilla delivering humanitarian goods, which resulted in the death of nine Turkish activists.

"Many Turkish people see us as representatives of the Israeli government and the war in Gaza, but we have absolutely nothing to do with that," said Besken. Since that time, he has increasingly denied his Jewish identity.

"If I'm asked the origin of my name, I often say that my father is originally from the US," he said. And he knows many Jews who have started to sell off their properties. "Many are scared of the uncertainty, of how the political scene will develop."

Jewish emigrants on the rise

Many Jews have already left the country in recent years, explained Mois Gabay, an active member of Istanbul's Jewish community and a journalist with Salom, a Jewish newspaper. "It's especially been the case with young high school graduates.

Mois Gabay Porträt Istanbul
Gabay predicts that more and more Jews will leave TurkeyImage: DW/S.Sokollu

In 2014, 40 percent of Jewish graduates chose to seek higher education abroad. A year earlier, it was half that number," said the 30-year-old, referring to the official numbers from the Jewish community. He expects that the number will continue to rise - and he wouldn't be surprised if it did.

Anti-Semitism has been especially prominent in social media, said Gabay. "The digital threats and hate speech against Jews in Turkey are a considerable problem. Since last summer, since the recent Gaza war, threats against Jews have increased considerably," he said. As an example, Gabay points to a certain tweet by Turkish singer Yildiz Tilbe, where she wrote "God bless Hitler. The end of the Jews is near." And she wasn't the only one.

The Turkish government has distanced itself from such messages, and has always emphasized that Jews are part of Turkish culture. "But such anti-Semitic speech should be prosecuted. No one is doing anything about it," said Gabay.

Police protection for synagogues

Gabay points out the heightened security around synagogues. "There are more and more police officers and civilian police on duty.

A few weeks ago, a large banner was set up at the well-known Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul's old town, with the threat: 'This building will be destroyed.'"

Neve Shalom Synagoge Istanbul Innenansicht
The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks

The Neve Salom Synagogue is Turkey's largest, and in 1986 it was the center of an attack by Palestinian terrorists during Sabbath prayer that killed 22 people. Turkey's Jewish community has never fully recovered from the traumatic event.

The increased protection hasn't always helped keep things calm. In fact, said Gabay, the more police there are on duty, the more insecure he feels. "This is all new to us. Previously, there was no such thing. The protests last summer in Istanbul were directed specifically against us Jews. The protesters were always marching in front of our synagogues to protest against the Israeli government. Why didn't they just go to the Israeli consulate?" he asked.

A Spanish passport, therefore, is quite important for Jews in Turkey as it will give them new prospects. "Not all Jews will immediately leave Turkey and emigrate to the EU," said Gabay. "But we expect that the number of emigrants will increase."