Turkish Jews stay calm in face of synagogue attacks

Istanbul shul was surrounded by rock-throwers during Temple Mount crisis


On a warm Istanbul night in late July, the silence outside the city’s Neve Shalom synagogue was broken by chants of “Allahu akbar”.

A group from the Alperen Ocaklari, an ultranationalist network, had gathered outside the building in the city’s Beyoglu district to protest Israel’s latest security measures around the al-Aqsa mosque.

“Zionists shouldn’t prevent our brothers from the freedom to worship,” group spokesman Kursat Mican said. “We will prevent your freedom to worship here just like you are preventing ours there.”

Video from the scene published online showed the demonstrators kicking and hurling stones at the Neve Shalom’s metal gates. One youth climbed the building’s façade to leave a placard hanging above the entrance.

Violent incidents like these are infrequent because synagogues receive police protection, particularly at the weekend, and the Turkish Jewish community keeps a very low profile.

But the Alperen protest – and the Turkish media’s coverage of it – showed Turkey is still a place where the terms “Israel” and “Jews” are all too often used interchangeably.

Part of this is driven by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who frequently voices his disdain for Israel’s government. In the past year this challenge has been coupled with a transformed political climate in the country, which Turkish Jews have been trying to weather.

Last year Turkey was rocked by an attempted military coup that the government blames on an organisation led by exiled Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen.

It triggered a widespread crackdown on civil liberties: the government launched a purge of civil servants, officers and judges loyal to Gulen. Tens of thousands were fired and imprisoned, including more journalists than any other country.

The Jewish community’s response has been to use every opportunity to demonstrate its steadfast loyalty to Turkey. Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva quickly signed an interfaith declaration condemning it. Ahead of the coup’s first anniversary, the rabbinate announced special Shabbat prayers to remember its victims.

When the Alperen protest occurred barely a week later, the response was tempered: no angry rhetoric about lax security; only a polite, firm lobbying campaign to prevent a repeat.

It worked. Erdogan told reporters that the situation in Jerusalem “can never be a justification to infringe the rights of others”.

Far-right nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli went even further: “As we criticise Israel, we cannot be like Israel.

“The smallest attack on a synagogue in Turkey will not just weaken our hand, but will be an attack on freedom of religion and conscience.”

It was a small victory, but the wider issue of Turkish antisemitism rumbles on. This week, A Haber, a government-friendly news channel, reported Gulen supporters were using “Jewish tactics” to covertly raise money for their imprisoned associates. “Jews collect money under the guise of ‘funds for a widow’ when one of their number becomes bankrupt,” it said.

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