Turkish Jews feeling heat over Turkey-Israel row

Demographic, economic and political factors contribute to a decline in the population of Turkish Jews.

By Alina Lehtinen for the SES Türkiye -- 04/10/11

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As Turkey's relations with Israel have reached an all-time low, many Turkish Jews are feeling the heat of the country's hostile policy towards Israel.

  • Wedding photos on display at the Jewish Museum of Turkey in Istanbul. [Alina Lehtinen/SES Turkiye]

    Wedding photos on display at the Jewish Museum of Turkey in Istanbul. [Alina Lehtinen/SES Turkiye]

Currently around 23,000 Jews live in Turkey, most descendents of those who found refuge in the Ottoman Empire during the Spanish Inquisition over 500 years ago. The government has traditionally pointed to Turkey's historical ties with the Jews as an element of tolerance and multiculturalism.

However, there has been rise in migration among the Turkish Jews.

Nisya Isman Allovi, a manager at the Jewish Museum of Turkey in Istanbul, says the main reason for migration is economic rather than political. "People who can't get good jobs here want to move out," she explained.

The rise in hostile attitudes toward the Jewish population is another driving force, say others.

"My uncle is afraid. He will see what happens and if the situation [for Jews living in Turkey] gets worse, then he will move out of the country," said Sinan Saul, whose Jewish family came to Turkey following the Spanish Inquisition.

Turkey-Israel diplomatic ties have worsened ever since the Gaza flotilla incident last May, when Israeli commandos raided an aid flotilla organised by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), killing eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American.

According to Bella, a Jewish woman living in Istanbul who asked not to be identified, the Mavi Marmara incident made the situation worse for the Jews living in the country.

"I don't look Jewish and people would make racist comments about Jews to me. I tell them I am Jewish and they are shocked," she said.

Migration is not the only factor reducing the size of the Turkish Jewish community. The Jewish population has been struggling with low birthrates and high death rates.

"The community is getting older and many young people are leaving the country," she said. "The main destinations are Israel, Europe and the US."

The Turkish government has made clear it is not against Jewish people, but has a problem with the Israeli government. However, from the point of view of Turkish Jews there is a fear that the distinction is blurred as society has been riled up against Israel.

However, according to Allovi, Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who threatened to send Turkish warships to escort Gaza aid vessels last month, has been doing his job well.

"He said after the Mavi Marmara incident that Turkish Muslims should make a distinction between Jews living in Turkey and Israel," she said. "That was very good of him."

Not all Jews living in Turkey agree with her. "Erdogan is a cynical political manipulator - and how many Palestinian refugees has Turkey taken in, ever? None, I think," said Bella.


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