Amid row with Israel, Turkish officials attend Istanbul Holocaust Day

January 31, 2011

Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva and Istanbul Governor Avni Mutlu light a candle at Neve Shalom Synagogue to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day/Murad Sezer

In a rare show of unity with Istanbul’s dwindling Jewish community, government officials attended the country’s first official commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Nazi concentration camps.

“For generations in Istanbul, we have lived together with love, tolerance, fraternity and without discrimination, and we are extremely determined to continue living this way,” Istanbul Governor Avni Mutlu said before lighting a candle with Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva at Neve Shalom Synagogue on January 27. Neve Shalom was one of two temples targeted in a 2003 bomb attack in Istanbul that was blamed on al Qaeda. Twenty-one Muslims and six Jews were killed, and hundreds more were wounded.

Turkish Jews, whose numbers have dwindled to about 18,000 in a country of almost 74 million Muslims, have in recent years again felt under threat as relations between Israel and Turkey, each other’s closest allies in the Middle East until recently, have deteriorated.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim, castigated the Israeli government in early 2009 for its incursion into the Gaza Strip. Relations hit a nadir on May 31, when nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists bringing aid to Gaza were killed by Israeli commandoes during a raid of their ship, the Mavi Marmara, in international waters.


Holocaust Remembrance Day in Neve Shalom Synagogue/Murad Sezer

Erdogan has condemned anti-Semitism and said he differentiates between Turkey’s Jews and Israeli policies. Still, both episodes kicked off popular anti-Israeli protests in Turkey that frightened Turkish Jews already fretful about their survival in a city that had served as a safe haven for centuries.

“At times of tension, as we saw with the Mavi Marmara incident, some Jews have concerns about their personal security, and in general many wonder what will happen in 20 years with the strain they feel just from their dwindling numbers,” said Louis Fishman, an expert on Turkish religious minorities at Brooklyn College in New York. Hundreds have quietly left for Israel in the last decade in an unofficial migration, he added.

Most Istanbul Jews are descendants of Sephardim who fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. During World War Two, when 6 million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust, Turkish diplomats helped rescue a few thousand expatriate Turkish Jews, and neutral Turkey offered safe passage to several thousand others.

“Even in these darkest days of history, there was still conduct in the name of humanity that made us proud and raised our spirits,” Sami Herman, president of the Turkish Jewish Community, said during the memorial ceremony. “There were real heroes who put their careers and the lives of their families and themselves at risk to save others … and among these real heroes were members of our country’s Foreign Service.”

Despite the history, efforts to reconcile Israel and Turkey since the Mavi Marmara incident have been largely fruitless. The Holocaust remembrance on Jan 27 coincided with an angry back-and-forth between the erstwhile allies after Israel published its findings in a probe of the raid that exonerated its soldiers’ use of force.


Mavi Marmara leaves Istanbul for Gaza May 22, 2010/Emrah Dalkaya

Turkey in turn released details of its own report that accused Israel of using excessive and disproportionate force against unarmed civilians.

Matters won’t be helped much by the release on Jan 28 of a new Turkish film, “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine.” The revenge fantasy is a spinoff of one of Turkey’s most popular television series and is about a Turkish commando team that goes to Israel to hunt down the commander responsible for the Mavi Marmara raid. For more on this, see my colleague Seda Sezer’s Turkish action film set to worsen ties with Israel.

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