Turkey needs to alter course

Not only was the incursion attempted through Israel’s blockade of Gaza largely the work of Turkish Islamic “activists,” the Turkish government has itself taken an increasingly hostile position toward Israel. Although Turkey is constitutionally a secular nation and claims to offer religious freedom, it is severely restrictive of other than Islam and is moving toward becoming yet another Islamic nation.

For the past year I have been reading everything on Turkey in anticipation of spending almost a month there, as I did in March. I read everything in English while there, attended several lectures, and asked a lot of questions of Turks whom I came to know. I continue in dialogue.

Turkey is becoming noticeably hostile toward its own Jewish citizens and the more so toward Israel. The political rhetoric sounds copied from Iran and is certainly meant to ingratiate the Arab states. Turkey’s greatest value to the West is as a bridge to the East, but it is tilting toward the East and away from the West.

Even while we were en route to Turkey, on the Sabbath of March 6th, Turkish police raided the Hemdat Yisrael Synagogue in Istanbul, demanding identification from worshippers. This was an outrageous demand, as it appears it was meant to be, because Orthodox Jews do not carry objects on the Sabbath—especially not to worship. Those without ID were forced to report to a police station to present it. No reason was ever given for demanding identifications.

This may now explain something that puzzled me when I inquired about visits to one of Istanbul’s four synagogues. Those who are not permanent residents of Turkey must make reservations and then present a valid passport upon arriving. Turkey’s Jews are living in fear for their property and even lives.

This explanation didn’t occur to me until after return to this country. Although the synagogue raid had just occurred, I read or heard not a word about it while in Turkey. It wasn’t even mentioned self-consciously or defensively in the presentations we were given about Turkish democracy and religious freedom.

The reason appears to be that harassment and mistreatment of Jewish people is perceived by Turks as within the bounds of “religious freedom.” To consider an act to be a violation of religious freedom, it must rise to the level of physical persecution.

When a suicide bomber attacked Neve Shalom and another Istanbul synagogue in November 2003, the government acknowledged this to be a violation. More than a dozen people were killed, among them several neighborhood Muslims. (One can but wonder if the Muslim deaths was the greater concern.) The officials publicly went through the formal motions of contrition, but subsequent attitudes and actions have failed to convince objective observers of sincerity.

Indeed, Neve Shalom had been attacked twice previously. Hazbollah attached on March 1, 1992. Although no one was killed, 23 Jewish worshippers were killed on September 6, 1986, in a Palestinian Muslim attack.

These sorts of things look very much like the Hamas attacks on Israel from Gaza that the Israeli blockade attempts to prevent. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that radical Muslims in Turkey would act similarly there.

Turkish authorities boast of how quickly they arrest those who have committed such crimes, not only against Jews but Christians as well. Yet none, after years of such atrocities, no one has been brought to trial.

Jewish communities began to develop in what was then the Roman Province of Asia very early, bringing to the country and empire trade and crafts skills not otherwise available. They gained status with the Roman government as “religio licita,” or “allowed religion.” A second wave entered in 1492 when thousands fled the infamous Spanish Inquisition. They were received with renewed tolerance by Sultan Beyazit II.

Turkey, despite all its political claims, just is not friendly to other than Muslims. The traditional non-friendliness is now escalating into open hostility.

We can expect further anti-Jewish, anti-Israel actions from the Turks, and our task is to bring Turkey back into the community of democratic nations.