After the Bombings: My Visit to Turkey and Istanbul’s Jewish Community

Carl Gershman, President
The National Endowment for Democracy

Rockville, Maryland

Remarks delivered by by Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy at B’nai Israel Congregation, Rockville, Maryland on December 27, 2003.

Six weeks ago, on Shabbat, suicide terrorists with ties to Al Qaeda detonated truck bombs in front of two synagogues in Istanbul, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds, most of them Turkish Muslims who happened to be in the vicinity of the attacks. Earlier this month I visited one of these synagogues, Neve Shalom, located on a narrow street down the block from the famous Galata Tower, which looks out over the entire city of Istanbul.

This was the second murderous attack on Neve Shalom. The first took place in 1986 when two foreign terrorists tied to Abu Nidal entered the temple firing machine guns and throwing hand grenades, killing 22 of the 30 worshipers present that Saturday morning. A large clock stands near the boarded entrance of Neve Shalom, its hands stopped forever at the time the attack occurred. Above it the name of each victim is carved into the wall.

A bar mitzvah was taking place in Neve Shalom the morning of the recent attack, and the synagogue was filled with more than 300 people. Because of security measures taken after 1986, the victims now were relatively few – a woman and her granddaughter who were near the entrance, and two guards. But the damage to the building is considerable, and the magnificent stained-glass windows that surround the main sanctuary and adorn its commanding dome have been shattered. It will be many months before Neve Shalom will re-open for worship. But re-open it surely will. I am grateful to Rabbi Schnitzer for letting the congregation know where contributions can be sent for the reconstruction of Neve Shalom and the other damaged synagogue.

The Jewish community of Turkey, some 25,000 people in all, was shaken by the recent attacks and is now more wary than ever. Yet it remains proud of its Turkish identity and of its unique place in Turkish culture and Jewish history. Two years ago the new Jewish Museum of Turkey was opened in a restored synagogue in downtown Istanbul. The only museum of its kind in the entire Muslim world, it recounts 700 years of Jewish life in Turkey, a country where Jews found refuge from persecution elsewhere, and produced such intellectual treasures as the Shulkhan Arukh, the standard legal code of Judaism, and Lecha Dodi, the liturgical poem with which Jews throughout the world welcome the Sabbath.

The museum’s founder, Naim Guleryuz, tells the story that Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492 from the unknown seaport of Palos because the shipping lanes of Cadiz and Seville were clogged with boats carrying Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain to their refuge in Turkey, where they were welcomed by edict of Sultan Bayazid II. (The commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Jews expelled from Spain, like all important Jewish communal events in Turkey, was held in Neve Shalom and attended by Israeli President Haim Herzog.) Later on, Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and revolution also found refuge in Turkey, as did Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany and Austria, who were invited by Kemal Ataturk himself. During World War II Turkish diplomats in Europe helped save some 2,000 Jews, and Turkey also offered safe passage to Jews fleeing Nazism. While the Jews in neighboring Greece were annihilated by the Nazis, in Turkey they survived the war.

All this, of course, is history. But what about today? Can the Jews find a life in Muslim Turkey at a time when anti-Zionism and Islamic radicalism have spread like a plague across much of the Middle East, even in parts of the non-Arab Muslim world, and Turkey has become a new front in the war on terrorism? The issue has been brought to a head in Turkey today not just by the recent bombings but by the victory in elections held late last year of a party that has its roots in a banned Islamist party, though it now explicitly rejects the Islamist label and has staked its future on bringing Turkey into the European Union.

The Jewish community of Turkey does not differ from the larger society in being uncertain about the democratic commitment of the new Turkish government, which has introduced the most sweeping democratic reforms in Turkey’s history but has also eased restrictions on teaching Koranic courses in the schools. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took the unprecedented step of visiting the Chief Rabbi the day after the bombings, a gesture that was lost on no one. But a journalist I met with in Ankara complained that the Prime Minister was slow to acknowledge that the terrorist acts had been carried out in the name of religion, adding that there was “such a thing as Coke Lite but not Islam Lite.”

I had told this journalist that I my next meeting was the Minister of Justice Cemil Cicek, a leading moderate in the government, so he suggested that I ask the Minister the following question: Did he plan to apply the article in the criminal code prohibiting advocacy of hate crimes against the son of a suicide bomber who gave a widely publicized interview in which he welcomed the deaths of the Jews killed in the attacks – he said he regretted that Muslims had been killed — on the grounds that the Koran instructed Muslims to be against the Jews?

I did pose the question, and the Minister’s response was unequivocal. Though he had only just returned from an international trip, he said that he had already ordered an investigation of the interview under the criminal code and that he would take action if the young man actually said what had been reported. He added that “for Turkey and for Islam,” it was necessary to fight those who instill hatred by misinforming young people about the teachings in the Koran. When I told him I was meeting with representatives of the Jewish community the following day in Istanbul, he said he had no objection to my informing them of his decision.

So this is what I did the next day when I met with Chief Rabbi Izak Haleva. His response was nuanced but fundamentally hopeful. We must honor the party in power, he said, but we must also be careful. The Koran says that Muslims can’t have friends among Jews, so it would be foolish for Jews to expect to be loved. But times have changed. Whereas once religion was the main source of conflict, today there are many reasons for fighting that have nothing to do with religion. It’s incumbent upon all religions to find special points of agreement, starting with an agreement not to kill and building out from there.

He then got to the news that I had brought him. What the Justice Minister told me was “a watershed,” if he really followed through on his pledge. It would deliver a strong message against anti-Semitism, not just to Turkey but to the entire world. He concluded by saying that one who starts to do a mitzvah [a meritorious act] has an obligation to continue it until it is finished.

The next day, my last in Turkey, I told this story to Ishak Alaton, a leading businessman who is both Jewish and highly independent. His own take was to blame the journalist whose paper had blown up the story of the young Islamist in order to hurt the government, something that many people tied to the opposition and the military would like to do. He believed that the Prime Minister, the Justice Minister, and other officials in the new government had outgrown their Islamist past and were now the true agents for accomplishing the historic task of bringing democracy to Turkey and Turkey into Europe.

In the end, this is my view, too. As we battle on against the scourge of Islamic terrorism, it is quite extraordinary to think that Turkey, a Muslim country allied with the United States and a friend of Israel, is being carried toward democracy and the West by a party that only recently broke with Islamism and is still not entirely trusted by the old Turkish establishment. If all this happens and Turkey becomes a real democracy and a member of the EU, it would be Al Qaeda’s worst nightmare. The important thing, as I heard time and again in Turkey, is to continue the process of reform and not to turn back. Like the mitzvah referred to by the Chief Rabbi, a good thing has been started that needs to be finished, and if it is, the Jews of Turkey will be more secure, and so will we all.