Turkey's chief rabbi to Israelis: Keep visiting despite security risk

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) Ishak Haleva said Israelis should feel at home in Turkey, contradicting repeated warnings by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

 Hatikva plays at Erdogan's palace as Israel resets ties with Turkey March 9, 2022. (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
Hatikva plays at Erdogan's palace as Israel resets ties with Turkey March 9, 2022.
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Although Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has urged Israelis not to visit Turkey due to threats, Turkey’s chief rabbi said that they should continue visiting his country.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva said that “there is a lot more noise than actual threats” to Israelis.

“There was an issue that occurred, [and] the State of Israel rose to its feet – and rightly so,” he said. “Otherwise they would be responsible if something happened and they didn’t warn about it beforehand.”

Haleva, 82, has been chief rabbi since 2002 and is a member of the Conference of European Rabbis.

He explained that security levels outside of Jewish institutions in Turkey are the same as they have been in the past few years. “We have police officers guarding our synagogues on behalf of the government and young members from our community who help them secure the facilities – in order to identify who is a member of the community and who is not.”

“We have police officers guarding our synagogues on behalf of the government and young members from our community who help them secure the facilities – in order to identify who is a member of the community and who is not.”

Turkish chief rabbi Ishak Haleva
 Turkey's Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva in 2009. (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER) Turkey's Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva in 2009. (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

The members of the community have remained careful ever since “twice we had a disaster” – namely, the two terrorist attacks that occurred at the Neve Shalom synagogue in 1992 and 2003.

Looking Jewish

When asked if he instructed members of his community to change their Jewish visibility in public, Haleva answered that the Jews of Turkey weren’t accustomed to wearing a kippah in public.

“We have never worn kippot in public,” he said. “I have never seen Jews with a kippah on the streets. Anyone who wants to cover their head may do so, [such as by] wearing a hat, but we only wear kippot while praying in the synagogue.”

As far as he knows, nothing has changed regarding the security of Jewish institutions. “We had a minyan [prayer quorum] this morning at the synagogue and everything took place as it usually does.”

Haleva prayed at the Bet Israel Synagogue in Şişli, Istanbul.

Israelis should feel at home in Turkey

The chief rabbi suggested that Israelis should feel at home in Turkey, especially since the relations between the two countries are the best they’ve been for many years.

“In the past few months, there’s been a good relationship between Israel and Turkey,” he said. “Everything is okay regarding the relations between our two countries. President Isaac Herzog was at our synagogue, Neve Shalom; we were photographed together and prayed together. He even recited the mourner’s kaddish.”

“I can’t tell you if the Turkish security services are doing more than they’ve been doing till now behind the scenes,” he added.“But as someone that is in constant contact with the police, I can tell you that we did not receive any new instructions from the Turkish government.”

When asked if he thought that Israelis should continue to visit Turkey despite the Israeli government’s warning, Haleva said, “I think that Israelis should continue to come and visit. Turkey is a very beautiful country. They can come and enjoy it without making a fuss about it. Also, when talking on the streets, they shouldn’t speak as loudly as they usually do. Turkey is beautiful in the summer, so please be our guests.”

The Turkish Jewish community has about 14,500 members, according to the World Jewish Population (2020) report coordinated by Sergio Della Pergola.

Israelis should not visit Istanbul, Lapid said Monday as the National Security Council raised the threat level for such trips. This decision followed the publication of reports that Israel and Turkey thwarted an Iranian terrorist attack in the city last month.

The attempted attack on Israeli tourists was one of several by Iran in recent weeks, he said, adding that Israeli security organizations, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office are trying to save Israeli lives. “These terrorist attacks are aimed at Israelis who went on vacation,” the foreign minister said at a Yesh Atid faction meeting in the Knesset. “They are intentionally choosing Israeli citizens to abduct or murder. It could happen to anyone; it’s a real and immediate danger.”

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.