Cloistered Turkish Jews hold their first public menorah lighting

Community chairman says he believes that attitudes toward Jews were changing in Turkey.

Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Turkey (photo credit: REUTERS)
Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Turkey
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey’s usually closed and self-effacing Jewish community held its first public hanukkia lighting on Sunday since the founding of the republic nearly a century ago, marking a possible shift in how the community interacts with the larger society.
Community representatives, alongside local dignitaries and foreign diplomats, lit the final Hanukkah candle in the Istanbul neighborhood of Ortaköy.
“I wish peace, happiness and welfare to all Jews, primarily Turkey’s Jewish citizens who are an inseparable part of our society, on the occasion of Hanukka,” Erdogan said in a statement quoted by Turkish media.
“On the occasion of Hanukka, I wish a culture of peace and tolerance to dominate the world and an immediate end to violence and hatred,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was quoted by the Hurriyet Daily News as saying.
According to the Jewish Salom newspaper, community chairman İshak İbrahimzadeh said he believed that attitudes toward Jews were changing in Turkey and that the community was experiencing a “turning point.”
“Every sector began to shake prejudices, and fears to overcome marginalization,” he said, citing the fears and attitudes that forced the Jewish community to turn in on itself and shun outward shows of religious observance.
Despite the intense pressures felt by many Jews in Turkey, the local media was quick to play up the Ottoman Empire’s historic acceptance of Jews fleeing persecution in Christian Europe, with the Daily Sabah newspaper reporting that “the community rejects allegations in news sources or dailies that the Turkish state promotes anti-Semitism in the country” and citing a community statement that “pressure from the state is out of the question.”
The official policy of Turkish Jewry has long been one of studied silence. Two years ago, this reporter visited Istanbul and spoke with congregants at a synagogue who expressed a strong affinity for Israel.
Standing behind the thick steel doors of the synagogue, protected by guards, those who spoke with The Jerusalem Post at that time denied feeling any fear in Turkey but all of them declined to allow themselves to be quoted by name.
The official Jewish communal bodies declined to speak, either in person or by phone, and soon after publication, they contacted this newspaper through an intermediary to request that the article on their community be removed from the Internet.
“The Turkish Jewish community will prefer to keep their mouths shut because of their public safety, and they are right to do this,” one emigré told The Post afterwards.
Such reticence has long been a defining feature of Turkish Jews, who were largely silent during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded they denounce the Jewish state’s actions in Gaza.
Sixty-nine percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, according to the Anti-Defamation League and a study earlier this year by the Hrant Dink Foundation found that anti-Semitism is the most common racial or religious prejudice expressed in Turkish media.