Assalamu Alaikum – Turkey’s tiny Jewish community is reaching out to its Muslim neighbors.‎


Assalamu Alaikum

Faced with growing prejudice, Turkey’s tiny Jewish community is reaching out
to its Muslim neighbors.

Murat Yalnýz, NEWSWEEK Turkiye

Newsweek Web Exclusive

Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue is tucked away on a winding street near the
Galata Tower. The synagogue isn’t as easy to spot as the landmark turret
with its panorama of the city’s iconic mosques, but that hasn’t stopped
terrorists from finding the Jewish house of prayer over the years. In 1983
gun- and grenade-wielding attackers stormed worshipers, taking 23 lives; in
2003 a car bomb outside a bar-mitzvah service killed more than a dozen and
injured hundreds—mostly Turkish Muslims who lived and worked nearby. Neve
Shalom has since been rebuilt, but several bullet holes remain in a seat as
a reminder of the bloodshed. Visitors can come to take a look, but only if
they preregister and provide passport details ahead of their arrival.

Yet if these security precautions are a predictable feature of the post–9/11
global landscape, recent initiatives by Turkey’s Jewish leaders are not.
Turkish Jews are a tiny minority in their Muslim country and prejudice
against them is rising. A 2008 Pew survey on European attitudes toward Jews
and Muslims found that 76 percent of Turks surveyed had a negative view of
Jews—an increase from 49 percent in 2004. In addition, a recently published
study on radicalism by Yilmaz Esmer, a professor at Bahçesehir University,
found that 64 percent of Turks in 34 different cities say they do not want
Jewish neighbors. And then there’s the tension between Israel and Ankara
over the celebrated Davos stage-storming incident by Turkish Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan after an argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres
in January. But instead of hunkering down in a hostile environment, Turkey’s
Jews are reaching out.

Led by Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, the 23,000-strong community is preparing to
say shalom—and salaam (the Hebrew and Arabic words of greeting)—to its
Muslim neighbors. In March they launched a project to introduce the
community and its culture to non-Jewish neighbors. Using funds allocated by
the European Union for human-rights projects, Jewish leaders are working to
curb spreading anti-Jewish prejudice and to underscore that they’re Turks as
well as Jews. As one of their first steps, they’ve commissioned a company to
conduct a public-opinion survey to get an accurate picture of what their
fellow citizens really think of them. (Right now, they believe, study
results are skewed because researchers tend to lump queries about religious
discrimination in umbrella questions on views about homosexuality and drug
addiction.) When that’s completed in July, they will use it to draw a “road
map” on how to proceed, says project coordinator Lina Filiba. “In the eyes
of [our] society, Turkish Jews are the others of the other,” she says. “We
are crying out loud that we’re Turks, but people keep seeing us as

The battle against stereotypes is being fought on other fronts too.
Organizers of the bridge-building project are offering free cultural tours
and concerts showcasing the work of Jewish composers who have contributed to
Turkish music. Another key program: teaching Muslim theology students about
Judaism. Rabbi Haleva, 69, is again at the forefront of this measure, given
his extensive experience in this area. Educated in Istanbul and Jerusalem,
Haleva recalls feeling “confusion, fear, and hesitation” when three theology
professors at Marmara University first asked him to teach Hebrew—which
shares many similarities to Arabic—to their graduate students 11 years ago.
That changed within two weeks of starting classes. “Back then there was not
much communication between the Muslim and Jewish communities,” he recalls.
“But the distance between me and the students was bridged as we became
familiar with each other. I was teaching a language course, but we were
talking about Qur’an, Torah, and life; religious and philosophical matters.
We never talked about politics.” When word of the rabbi’s classes spread,
other universities invited him to teach classes there too. Only once, he
says, did he ever encounter any direct hostility. “A student of theology who
was not taking my class hit me with his shoulder in the corridor,” he says.
“He was expecting me to say something. I didn’t and he couldn’t take it

Certainly, Haleva seems popular with those he teaches. Abdullah Yildirim, a
Ph.D. student at Marmara University, says any reservations about lessons
from a rabbi disappeared as soon as he got to know his teacher. “I am a
Muslim Turk,” says Yildirim. “I have my red lines, and learning from someone
who is outside these lines made me a bit uneasy. The images drawn of members
of each religion are scary for the members of the other religion. But when
you get in touch with them, when you learn their culture, you realize that
your fear is pointless.” Yildirim now laughs at friends who criticize him
for taking courses from a chief rabbi. “When it comes to learning, a true
Muslim does not underline the ideological differences,” he says.

Haleva is building on this acceptance by expanding his teaching outside of
the classroom as well. At his students’ request, he organized a tour to
Jerusalem for them. He has also brought interfaith prayer to the Neve Shalom
synagogue. On one recent June evening, about 30 Muslim theology students
gathered amicably in the temple to listen to a rabbi’s address on the
customs and beliefs of Turkey’s Jews. At a time when Turkey-Israel relations
were roiled by an Israeli military leader’s comments on Turkey’s policies
toward the Kurds and on Cyprus, the students left politics at the door to
share a meal, tour the Turkish-Jewish museum, and discuss the similarities
between kosher and halal foods. One young woman in a hijab turned to the
Jewish man next to her and asked, “Do you serve in the Israeli Army every
year?” Another one asked, “Do you have advantages when you are entering and
exiting Israel?” The answer was short: “We are citizens of Turkey. What
applies to you applies to us.” If the rabbis’ outreach program works, such
questions may no longer need to be asked.

This Article Was Adapted From A Report By Murat Yalniz For Newsweek’s
TurkishLanguage Partner, Newsweek Turkiye <>


© 2009


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