Is Turkey safe for Israelis and Jews?

Relations have deteriorated to a new low amid the recent Gaza Strip violence.

Turkish Jews join to blessing prayers of Mi Sheberah by Chief Rabbi Izhak Haleva at Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul (photo credit: REUTERS/FATIH SARIBAS)
Turkish Jews join to blessing prayers of Mi Sheberah by Chief Rabbi Izhak Haleva at Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul
Amid the most recent diplomatic row between Turkey and Israel, journalist Ohad Hemo with Israel's Channel 2 was preparing for a live broadcast in the center of Istanbul when he noticed a crowd gradually gathering around him and his cameraman.
“Some people were coming and surrounding us. [They] started shouting and everything and we didn’t really feel comfortable in this situation,” he told The Media Line.
He believed the masses were able to tell he was with an Israeli outlet from the news logo and the fact he was speaking in Hebrew.
One man started shouting and while Hemo could not understand most of what was said in Turkish, he did recognize the word “killer.”
Then a woman came over and started hitting the two journalists.
“A little bit me but mostly my cameraman. She hit him, she was kicking him and then she hit him on his head,” he said.
The two decided it was best to go back to their hotel. The police somehow found Hemo and interviewed him and his cameraman about the incident. Hemo says the police treated them well and were able to find and detain the woman who attacked them.
While the attack garnered headlines, Hemo says was not shocked considering the deteriorating relations between Turkey and Israel.
“Whenever it’s tense…one would expect that something would happen,” he said.
On Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution put forward by Turkey condemning Israel for excessive use of force against Palestinians. Over 120 Palestinians have been killed since March 30 as a result of the Hamas-initiated "March of Return" protests. The deadliest day was when the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
The Gaza violence and the embassy move prompted another dispute between Turkey and Israel. Ankara recalled its ambassadors from both Tel Aviv and Washington and expelled Israel's envoy. Israel, in turn, sent home the Turkish Consul-General from Jerusalem.
Turkish journalists purportedly were invited to film the Israeli ambassador going through a security check at the airport as he was leaving the country. Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported the Israeli foreign ministry summoned a Turkish representative in Tel Aviv to protest the treatment.
The leaders of both countries also went after each other on Twitter. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel an apartheid state while Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Erdogan of supporting Hamas.
Erdogan has tried to position himself as a leader among Muslims in the region. In May, Istanbul hosted an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to discuss the situation in Gaza and the American embassy relocation.
That has put more pressure on the Jewish community in Turkey where many equate being Jewish with support for Israel.
Graffiti with the words “Baby Killer Israel” can be seen spray painted on walls in central Istanbul. There have also been rallies in support of Palestinians in Istanbul and Ankara.
There are up to 20,000 Jews living in Turkey today, although many have left for Israel or assumed Spanish citizenship, as the country has offered passports to Jews due to their flight during the Inquisition.
Reuters called the most recent row between Turkey and Israel the lowest point in relations since 2010, when 10 Turkish activists were killed in clashes with Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara ship that was attempting to breach the blockade on Gaza.
Nevertheless, Simon Waldman, an analyst focused on the Middle East at the Istanbul Policy Centre, said that Turkish-Israeli disputes have become routine.
“I’m no longer shocked,” he told The Media Line. “That’s normal.”
Waldman said Jewish conspiracies have become part of the political culture in Turkey, with newspapers tying Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for orchestrating the attempted coup in July 2016, to Judaism.
Waldman added that while he feels comfortable enough to identify himself as Jewish, he remains slightly “on guard.”
Members of the Jewish-Turkish community either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to The Media Line’s requests, including Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, President of the Jewish Community of Turkey.
“The idea is to be under the radar, the security is that you’re not noticed,” Waldman stressed.
“Jewish groups don’t like to criticize the government, they feel that their security is very much by nodding their heads at the official line, ‘yeah, everything is fine, thanks very much.’ The reality is not everything is fine.”
Last week, members of the Turkish Jewish community attended an Iftar dinner, the breaking of fast during Ramadan, in Edirne in northwestern Turkey.
The state-run Anadolu Agency published a story highlighting that the governor of the province said the dinner was evidence that people of different religions could live together in peace.
For his part, Waldman disagrees with that presumption.
“I don’t think there’s co-existence. I think it’s propaganda.… It should be easy to co-exist with a community of less than 20 000,” he said. “The Jewish community feels they need to do this.”
Waldman added that he does not believe the situation will improve so long as Israel remains in conflict with the Palestinians.
Arik Segal, the Israeli head of the Turkish-Israeli Civil Society Forum, said the relationship between the two countries has always been affected by the larger geopolitical landscape, especially as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tries to cultivate an image as a protector of Palestinians.
His group, which is supported by the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation, organizes an annual meeting of civil society representatives from Israel and Turkey with a view to improving ties.
That, so far, has not led to an improvement for Jews living in Turkey.
‘“They say it all the time that things are getting worse and they really need to be more and more segregated and they’re afraid of anything they say," Segal told The Media Line. "For [Jews] it’s a huge, huge issue. For them, they don’t feel safe physically.”
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