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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that criticism of Israel's offensive in Gaza should not be regarded as anti-Semitism, even as his country's small Jewish community looked to police and lawmakers for protection.
Last week, Erdogan publicly scolded President Shimon Peres over casualties among Palestinian civilians and walked off a stage during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Many Turks hailed him as a hero. But the Turkish government, which has been an important Israeli ally in the Muslim world, is campaigning hard to reassure its Jewish citizens that they are safe.
"There has been no anti-Semitism in the history of this country," Erdogan told ruling party lawmakers. "As a minority, they're our citizens. Both their security and the right to observe their faith are under our guarantee."
There are 23,000 Jews in the predominantly Muslim country of more than 70 million. Most live in Istanbul, and many have prominent roles in banking and education. Their ancestors arrived five centuries ago, and a recent comment by the prime minister that the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews bothers some today who feel they are viewed as guests, not citizens.
In a statement, the Jewish community welcomed statements by Erdogan and other Turkish officials that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated, and noted a decrease since the January 18 Gaza cease-fire of what it called "anti-Semitic manifestations" during protests against Israel.
"Numerous sensible and impartial journalists and intellectuals have accentuated that this is not a war of religions," said Musevi Cemaati, which means Jewish Community in Turkish. But the group, which has links to Turkey's rabbis, said "at present there are unfortunately several TV programs with messages embedded with harshly anti-Semitic rhetoric."
The group appeared to be referring to some current affairs programs and other news shows in which comments deemed to be anti-Jewish were made.
It said it was in contact with Cabinet ministers and members of parliament, and was cooperating closely with police as it worked to ensure "community premises and members are protected."
Haberturk television reported that Mustafa Cagirici, the chief Islamic cleric in Istanbul, instructed clerics to avoid statements in weekly sermons on Friday that would disturb the Jewish community.
In November 2003, Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaida detonated bombs outside two synagogues in Istanbul, killing and injuring dozens. Since then, police have often been posted at Jewish centers.
During the Gaza offensive, Turkish fury was mostly directed at Israel, but a few Turkish protesters held placards with anti-Semitic messages. Turkish media showed a photograph of three men in front of the office of a cultural association; they held a dog and a sign saying: "Dogs are allowed, but Jews and Armenians aren't."
Jewish community leaders say there have been several hundred anti-Semitic writings in Turkish media, and that prosecutors have failed to take legal action. Turkey bans acts that incite racial or religious hatred.
Turkey acted as a mediator last year in peace efforts between Israel and Syria, and Erdogan said his country could still play such a role despite his criticism of Israel.
"Telling the truth is not an obstacle to be a mediator between two countries," Erdogan said.
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