This FP essay from a Libyan Jew about his desire to return home and rebuild the Libyan Jewish community, which is literally non-existent, has been making the rounds, and it got me thinking about the Turkish Jewish community, which has between 15,000 and 25,000 people depending on whom you ask. I got to spend some time with Istanbul’s Jews right after the Mavi Marmara incident when I was there doing research in 2010, and the community was understandably skittish and on edge. On the one hand, many Turkish politicians and editorialists took care to make a distinction between Israel and Jews and stress that Turkey’s Jews were not to blame for Israel’s action, but this is something that is easier said than done and Turkish Jews often felt that the distinction was lost on many people. The community had long taken extra precautions – synagogues, including the one on Büyükada, are surrounded by barriers, blast walls, and have armed checkpoints at the entrances – but everyone was on higher alert than usual that summer.
One of the things I found particularly interesting was the perception that Turkey was on its way to becoming like Iran and would soon be a theocratic state. As an impartial outside observer and particularly as one who studies Turkish politics and foreign policy for a living, this contention seemed absurd to me but to Turkey’s Jews it appeared as if the AKP was moving in that direction. Some of them spoke about the way in which Erdoğan initially embraced the Turkish Jewish community, going so far as to be the first Turkish PM to visit Turkey’s chief rabbi in his own office following the synagogue bombings in 2003, and how his actions and especially his rhetoric had dramatically changed following his 2007 reelection. They also talked of seeing many more veiled women in Istanbul and more open hostility toward Jews in the streets from random Turks. What was so fascinating though is that a number of them volunteered to me that they had voted for the AKP over the CHP and would do so again. The rationale was that things would be worse for the Jews with the CHP in power because they are secular nationalists who do not understand religion, and while the AKP is a Muslim party, it respects religion in general whereas the CHP does not. Some Jews were also wary of the CHP’s burgeoning ties to far-right parties such as the MHP.
Another observation is that Turkish Jews felt a strong connection to Turkey and were more ambivalent toward Israel than, for instance, American Jews. Many Jews are emigrating to Israel from Turkey, but they seem to feel that their hand is being forced since they don’t feel comfortable any longer and that their strong preference would be to stay. Some told me of their certainty that they will make aliyah at some point in the future, but they didn’t appear to be terribly excited at the prospect. This is understandable in light of the fact that Turkey’s Jews have been there since they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, and many can trace their roots all the way back to the 15th century. When your family has been in a place for centuries, uprooting to go anywhere else is traumatic. Hopefully, Turkish Jews will feel comfortable remaining where they are, as strong Diaspora communities are the historical backbone of Jewish survival, and those that choose to leave will do so because they genuinely want to rather than feeling as if they have to.