‘I defend, therefore I am,’ says survivor of 2003 bombing at Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.

Ten years following attack, city’s Jews call for wider society to oppose anti-Semitism.

Neve Shalom Synagogue in Turkey 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Neve Shalom Synagogue in Turkey 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ISTANBUL – Hundreds of Jewish men and women gathered in Istanbul’s renovated Neve Shalom synagogue, to mark the 10th anniversary on the Hebrew calendar of the twin bombings that devastated the Neve Shalom and Beth Israel synagogues.
On November 15, 2003, al- Qaida-linked Turkish suicide terrorists wreaked havoc on the two historic synagogues, using trucks laden with bombs. Five days later, suicide bombers attacked the HSBC Bank building and the British Consulate.
The attacks claimed 57 lives and left more than 700 wounded.
The victims of the synagogue attacks included an unborn child, a 10-year-old girl and a 19-year-old volunteer standing guard at the door during a bar mitzva.
Those behind the attacks were also responsible for the subsequent bombing of a freemason lodge in the city and the murder of 39-year-old dentist Yasef Yahya a few months earlier. “We thought we should kill a Jew,” Yahya’s shooter later testified.
For a dwindling community with increasingly fewer members showing up at social and religious events, high attendance at the vigil on October 23 (20 Heshvan) conveyed a message of solidarity with the victims’ families and one of unity against anti-Semitism.
Despite the Turkish-Jewish community’s longstanding policy of shunning political statements, the vigil featured an overtly political tone. Men wore purple kippot and women matching shawls, all embroidered with the words “I am here” written in Turkish and Hebrew.
Survivor Dani Baran, who was a volunteer guard during the attacks, gave the opening remarks, saying that “as the bomb-laden trucks commanded by rabid terrorists who believed that they were fighting in the name of Allah approached to take the lives of innocent people, those same people were praying to the same God for a more peaceful world for all.”
Baran listed a series of anti- Semitic and other anti-minority incidents in Turkey, arguing that the reluctance of survivors to talk about them had led to ignorance about the country’s recent history among the younger generation.
“We believe no Jew living in the Diaspora can defend himself, or even sustain his existence, without knowing the history. Our existence is meaningful only if we shout fearlessly that we are here; we speak freely and express our opinions,” he said.
Baran concluding with Libyan Zionist musician Herbert Pagani’s wordplay on Descartes’ famous dictum: “I defend, therefore I am.”
In a brief speech, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, president of the Turkish-Jewish community, called for unity in the community instead of focusing on minor differences. “Ten years later, our world continues to fail in the test of opposing anti- Semitism. Satanic convictions that abuse our belief systems continue to produce murderers as furiously as ever,” he said.
Ibrahimzadeh called on Gabi Talu, father of 10-year-old victim Annette Rubinstein Talu, to speak about the attacks openly for the first time.
Talu, who lost his daughter and mother-in-law at the Neve Shalom synagogue in the historic Galata district, started by calling those who came to show support his only remaining family, and asked the crowd to keep the painful memories alive.
The vigil then featured a short documentary by Turkish- Jewish director Eytan Ipeker, followed by evening prayers and the mourner’s Kadish, recited together by the congregation and the chief rabbi.
Ten years after the synagogue bombings, threats against Turkish Jews are relatively commonplace. In March, an al-Qaida-linked plot was foiled at the last minute. The plotter intended to plant bombs at an industrial history museum, the US Consulate and the Ahrida Synagogue in the historically Jewish district of Balat in Istanbul.
In Turkey, the online and print media frequently feature conspiracy theories involving Israel and Diaspora Jews. For instance, Ergün Diler, chief columnist of the pro-government Takvim newspaper, used his Monday column to accuse “Jewish barons” of being responsible for Turkey’s troubles.
The article ends with a series of exclamations that read: “Those who secretly turned our land of star and crescent flag into Israel now panic! Both their money and espionage networks are damaged! That was made possible only with the X-ray vision we the Turks now have! We used to not prescribe a medication, because we didn’t recognize the disease! But now we know the source of the disease! And now the formula to cure the disease – which is a foreigner masked as a Turk – is ready!” Newspaper columnists are not the only source of conspiracy theories. In July, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay publicly accused the “Jewish Diaspora” of being behind the anti-government protests that had swept through the country for three months.
The Turkish-Jewish community generally maintains cordial relations with all governments regardless of political makeup, and community leaders frequently praise the currently ruling AK Party government for its openness to dialogue with minority groups.
However, perceiving the party’s rule as increasingly Islamist-leaning and authoritarian, and an increase in anti- Semitic content across the national media, many Turkish Jews express fear of further attacks.
Many community members interviewed at the vigil said their plight does not find resonance within the larger public.
As an example, they cited the lack of mainstream media coverage of the synagogue bombings and its aftermath.
On the anniversary of the bombings, Hemi Behmoaras, a Jewish visual artist from Istanbul, complained about the lack of sympathy even from the most likely segments of society. Addressing his Twitter post at two prominent left-leaning Turkish news portals, Behmoaras wrote: “Those who stand behind every minority, those who do not miss any commemoration event, somehow miss 15 November 2003.”
Yunus Emre Kocabasoglu, a medical doctor-turned social media activist, was one of few non-Jewish bloggers who marked the day by saying, “15 November is the anniversary of the attacks against synagogues solely for being Jewish. You won’t pretend yet again that you don’t know about it, or will you?” When contacted, Kocabasoglu said, “The fact that almost nobody cares about [the attacks] upsets me.”Igal Aciman is a business development entrepreneur and a freelance journalist. His blog can be viewed at www.igalaciman.com