The dark night of antisemitism in Turkey

“Jews!” she screamed in Turkish. The chorus responded: “Death!”

A FISHING boat sails through Istanbul (photo credit: REUTERS)
A FISHING boat sails through Istanbul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On August 3, the independent Turkish news platform T24 released a video from a children’s summer camp. More than 50 girls covered in floral hijabs were sitting on the ground. About a dozen more stood behind them robed from head to toe in black burkas. They faced the camera, raised their fists and followed a young female leader.
“Jews!” she screamed in Turkish.
The chorus responded: “Death!”
“Palestinians!” she yelled.
They answered: “Will be saved.”
Then, they demanded that the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, the ancient heart of Greek Orthodoxy, be transformed from the museum it has been for nearly a century into a mosque, as it was in Ottoman times.
“It’s deeply rooted. It’s institutional. It’s personal. You experience antisemitism in Turkey at every level and interaction. Turkish Jews ignore what the state and the press has to say,” said Henri J. Barkey, the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and former US State Department adviser, who grew up in a Sephardi family in Istanbul. “Antisemitism in Turkey is at its peak now.”
Barkey last left Turkey on July 15, 2016, the night of the failed military coup, and has been unable to return. He is implicated in an ongoing criminal investigation for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Turkish government.
These charges are shared by the philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been incarcerated for nearly two years in pre-trial detention. Kavala shoulders the Turkish government’s antisemitism against public figures like Barkey and George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation funded Kavala’s civil society organization, Anadolu Kultur.
In November 2018, Reuters reported that Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan said Kavala was backed by the “famous Hungarian Jew Soros... a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them.” Kavala’s hearing on October 8 drew activists from across Turkey’s cultural sector in protest of the corrupt judiciary. But after two years in jail, he has not been freed.
I have lived in Turkey for nearly four years. In December 2015, less than a month after arriving, I was turning 29. A chilly northern wind swept over the Black Sea onto the shores of the Bosphorus Strait that divides the city of 16 million into two continents, and cooled the pier of Ortakoy. In its square, famed for used bookstands and stuffed potatoes, a crowd warmed each other beneath a recently renovated mosque.
THE ASSEMBLY performed the first public Hanukkah ceremony in the history of the Turkish Republic, which Ataturk founded in 1923. I was initially optimistic for Turkish Jews.
The following month, the Istipol Synagogue in Balat, one of Istanbul’s traditionally Jewish districts, opened for the first time in 65 years. Its original congregants were from the Macedonian town of Štip. A few weeks later, anti-Israel graffiti appeared on the synagogue’s outer wall.
The Ahrida Synagogue is around the corner. Said to be the earliest surviving synagogue in Istanbul, it was built during the Byzantine era by the city’s assimilated Romaniote Jews. It is open to passport holders who apply for entry. Its boat-shaped wooden podium, a pre-modern homage to migrants, is protected as if it was on foreign territory.
Erdogan’s consolidation of presidential power in 2017 was momentous. He is a political disciple of former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, whose undisguised antisemitism was pervasive throughout his career. Not since Ataturk has one man gained so much power in the Turkish Republic, and never behind a religious base.
“Antisemitism is one of the pillars of Turkish xenophobia, that century-old hatred of ‘outsiders,’ paradoxically instigated by ideas imported from the West,” wrote Kaya Genç in an email, drawing from research for his most recent book, The Lion and the Nightingale. “There is so little criticism of antisemitism in the Turkish press you’d think it does not exist in Turkey. I think people have just become myopic and can’t see beyond their own concerns.”
In my first year in Istanbul, I frequently traveled up the Golden Horn to Balat, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood bordering the city’s most conservative Muslim community. The vine-covered stone facade of the Istipol Synagogue stands across from former Jewish homes. Stars of David are visible beneath their abandoned, ramshackle balconies. An alleyway leads behind the building, where a wood relief of a Star of David remains intact.
I sat under it and reflected on the histories of my Jewish ancestors, who lived without American privilege in Ottoman Greece, Austro-Hungarian Galicia and elsewhere for 2,000 years, as second-class subjects of emperors, czars, sultans and kings.
I would return home to a village-like neighborhood on the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus called Kuzguncuk. Locals are proudly nostalgic of its multi-ethnic, ecumenical past. They have a saying: “After the Armenian dinner, make love to a Greek woman in a Jewish bed.” In one reading, minorities are hospitable – in another, the dominant pervade.
The author is an arts writer and journalist based in Istanbul.