Jews in Turkey
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 19 08:45:15 MST 2003
NY Times op-ed, November 18, 2003
In Turkey, a History Lesson in Peace
By SEYLA BENHABIB
In Istanbul this past summer, an Israeli friend and I visited a
synagogue in Ortakoy, a neighborhood on the shores of the Bosporus.
Ortakoy is home to a mosque, a synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church,
which huddle together between the sea and gently sloping hills. It is a
place where the frescoes of Byzantium meet the architecture of Islam,
and where the white-washed summer residencies of the Ottoman
aristocracy, with their latticed woodwork, coexist with the Bauhaus
buildings of the newer middle class.
On that summer evening, the voices of the muezzin calling Muslims to
prayer mingled with those of street vendors hawking shelled almonds and,
later in the night, of teenagers attending one of the many discos lining
Ortakoy's streets. The elderly cantor outside the synagogue informed us
that it was being repaired but would reopen by Rosh Hashana.
We talked in Turkish and Ladino, a Sephardic Jewish equivalent of
Yiddish. My ancestors helped bring the language to Istanbul when they
fled the Spanish Inquisition after 1492 and were given refuge by the
Ottoman Empire. My colleague, a scholar of Spinoza, the 17th-century
Sephardic philosopher, listened in amazement to the living continuity
between the object of his historical research and this withered
gentleman, perched upon a bench in a busy street in Istanbul.
During my childhood in the 1950's, the number of Jews in Istanbul alone
was 80,000. With settlements in other cities, the size of the Turkish
Jewish community was well above 100,000. With the founding of the state
of Israel and then the growing political instability of Turkey in the
1970's and 80's, many Jews started leaving. The Jewish population in
Turkey now numbers about 30,000.
Yet the presence of the Jews in Turkey cannot be measured in numbers
alone. They are a testament to the peaceful coexistence of Jews and
Muslims not only in medieval Spain but throughout the old Levant. This
is something the murderous forces of Islamic terrorism, who attacked
synagogues in other areas of Istanbul on Saturday, would like to obliterate.
The Jews of Turkey are also proof of the foresight and sound judgment of
secular Turkey's republican founders. As Hitler's troops were marching
from the Balkans and emptying Greek cities of their Jewish populations,
Turkey's president, Ismet Inonu, closed its border. Tense negotiations
with the Nazis ensued. Although Turkey sent Jewish men, including my
father and uncles, to camps in the interior to appease the Nazis, they
were only labor camps, and there is little evidence that the Turkish
government made any greater concessions to Germany, which had been its
ally in World War I.
That moment in Turkish Jewish history alone is a thorn in the flesh of
Islamic terrorists: it underscores the peaceful coexistence of Jews and
Muslims since the 15th century in a Muslim country that respects the
democratic equality of citizens of different faiths and ethnicities.
To be sure, some of Turkey's other minorities — the Greeks, Armenians
and Kurds, who unlike the Jews, have had territorial claims on Turkish
lands — have fared far less well. What matters now, though, is which
historical model Turkey will be encouraged to embrace. That summer night
in Ortakoy remains a beacon of hope for those of us from the Middle East
who are fighting against the nihilistic message being spread by
terrorists. The synagogues of Istanbul will be built again. No one
should doubt it.
Seyla Benhabib is professor of political science and philosophy at Yale
Under Andalusian Skies
On April 11th a gasoline truck exploded in front of an ancient synagogue
on the resort island of Djerba, which is part of Tunisia. At first
considered an accident, it was subsequently revealed to be a terrorist
act. This event--along with synagogue desecrations in Europe attributed
to Arab or North African immigrants--have given ammunition to Zionist
commentators who view anti-Semitism in essentialist terms. They are
trying to reduce Islamic peoples to eternal foes of the Jews, just as
Daniel Goldhagen did for the Germans.
A careful reading of press coverage reveals a different reality. In the
April 15th NY Times, Donald G. McNeil Jr. reports that the Jewish
district in Djerba, called a 'hara', was never a ghetto:
>>Tunisia's Jews have never been walled in. Police cars have been
constantly present for years, but are there to protect this island's
tiny Jewish enclaves.
Tunisia, a center of Jewish life since the Roman Empire, was a refuge
for those fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Greek persecution and
Sicilian raids on Libya.
"We're the shop window," said Rene Trabelsi, a tour operator whose
father is president of the Ghriba Synagogue. "We prove to the world that
there's religious freedom and tolerance in Tunisia. We're the favorite
minority, like a girl in a family of seven boys."<<
We also learn from McNeil that Jewish life in Tunisia absorbed Islamic
"Boys do not expect a bar mitzvah, party because religious law does not
call for it, the rabbi said. Young men wear blue jeans and skullcaps,
but older men often wear baggy-bottomed Turkish shorts, slippers and a
sort of mashed red fez called a kabous."
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