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With my comments... Turkish Jews open doors to confront antisemitism

Turkey’s small Jewish community got a rare chance to showcase its culture in Istanbul on Sunday during the European Days of Jewish Culture event. “Our target is non-Jews who want to know more about us,” said Nisya Isman Allovi, director of the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews that organised the event, which was attended by about 1,300 people.

Hatice Yilmaz and Halime Niyaz, 26-year-old divinity graduate students studying Jewish culture, were impressed with the professionalism of the events, which included a theatrical representation of a traditional Ashkenazi wedding, a living library and musical performances. “For me, the best part is that there’s no prejudice here. Everyone is behaving really well. We have different religions, but we clapped for the same things during the concert,” Ms Niyaz said. Both women said that such events can reduce antisemitism in Turkey. “There can be prejudice sometimes, but that’s only because of a lack of knowledge and because the cultures have been kept apart,” Ms Yilmaz said.
Turkey’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community of approximately 17,000 has long been targeted with antisemitic stereotypes and hate speech from media outlets and politicians. According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Defamation League, 71 per cent of Turks agree with a majority of common antisemitic stereotypes.
The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, which is part of the heavily guarded complex that hosted the events, was hit by devastating attacks in 1986 and 2003. On July 20, the synagogue was pelted with stones by Turkish ultranationalists protesting against new security restrictions in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. “We will prevent your freedom to worship here just like you are preventing ours there,” Kursat Mican, district leader of the ultranationalist Alperen Hearths, said at the time.
“Unfortunately, there is no difference between a Jew and Israel in the eyes of some people, so whenever there is a problem between Turkey and Israel, it affects the Jews of Turkey,” said Karel Valansi, a columnist with Turkey’s Jewish-focused Şalom newspaper and participant in the living library exhibit.
Ms Valansi explained that Jews in Turkey were generally very low-key about their identity for fear of discrimination, but that this was beginning to change. “We are more vocal for sure,” she said.
Antisemitic statements from prominent politicians have not helped, such as when ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party MP Samil Tayyar tweeted “May your race vanish and may you always have your Hitler,” during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge operation in the Gaza Strip in 2014. Even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was heard calling a protester in 2014 the “spawn of Israel”.
However, Rifat Bali, historian and expert in Turkey’s Jewish community, said there had always been antisemitism in the country, but that it had become easier to see now with social media. He added that the AK Party had made important overtures to religious minorities like the Jews. “In general, the AKP has been positive, trying to solve problems, which they have,” he said.
In 2011, Mr Erdogan announced that hundreds of properties seized from minorities after a 1936 proclamation would be returned or compensation provided. This has been happening gradually, when ownership can be proved in a court.
In 2015, there were several positive initiatives, including the first publicly celebrated Chanukah, and the restoration and inauguration of the Edirne Great Synagogue in the country’s north-west.
Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former opposition member of the Turkish parliament, said the AKP’s mixed record on religious minorities was the result of self-serving policies. “Erdogan understands well the electoral benefits of scapegoating and smearing Jews and Christians in Turkish domestic politics,” he wrote in an email. “At the same time, Erdogan also has a keen awareness that symbolic benevolent acts toward Jews and Christians help improve his tarnished global image. So, there have been well-choreographed positive steps.”
Ms Valansi said that hate speech in the Turkish press, particularly in Islamist newspapers, still runs rampant, despite the re-establishment of formal relations between Turkey and Israel. “I can easily find three or four articles containing antisemitism on a daily basis,” she said. “The lack of anti-hate-speech legislation shows indifference toward antisemitism.”
Mr Bali argued that the AKP, like governments before, has failed to stem the tide of antisemitism in Turkey because its political base largely believes the negative stereotypes and will always come before the tiny Jewish minority. “I don’t think any government… will step in and tell them [their grassroots] are wrong, because they will risk losing votes,” he said.
Mr Erdemir added that ultimately it was the minorities themselves who would be most effective in fostering better relations with the rest of Turkish society. “The most important change in the prospects of Jews and Christians in Turkey will not result from government hand-outs but from religious minorities’ growing willingness and courage to engage the country’s Muslim majority,” he said.“Public outreach events and civic engagement are the best antidote to government-sponsored hate and bigotry in Turkey.”

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