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News Background : Jews in Turkey: No More Than 25,000 Remain

September 07, 1986

In a predominantly Muslim country of 45 million people, the Jewish community in Turkey is small and shrinking fast despite hundreds of years of history.

Jewish leaders in Turkey estimate that there are between 22,000 and 25,000 Jews in the country, with about 18,000 of those in Istanbul, the largest city. They cannot be sure, since the Turkish government's census does not list the population by religion.

Most of the Jews in Turkey are Sephardic descendants of Jews who fled Spain and the Inquisition in 1492-1497. Some still speak a Spanish dialect called ladino.

In the 16th Century, Istanbul was one of the world's most important Jewish centers, and the Jewish community was said to number about 200,000. Jews held high administrative posts in the government until the end of the Ottoman Empire, and until the mid-1960s, they also served as members of Parliament.

But the pace of emigration has quickened in recent years, and the community has shrunk by as many as 15,000 since the mid-1960s. Jewish leaders cite the effects of chaotic domestic political conditions, the spillover of Middle East conflicts and some incidents of anti-Semitism.

The Turkish constitution provides for religious freedom, but the Jewish community has no overall structure, and there are only a few Jewish schools. Most Jewish children attend non-Jewish schools and study religion after school.

Istanbul residents said Saturday that they thought the attack on the Neve Shalom synagogue was the first attack on a synagogue in that city within memory.

In 1972, leftists kidnaped and killed Israel's consul general in the city.

Turkey, which maintains low-level diplomatic relations with Israel, is no stranger to Middle East-related violence. But strong security has normally protected Israeli and Jewish installations.

In 1982, three Palestinians told an Istanbul court they had been sent to the city by the Palestine Liberation Organization to blow up the office of the Israeli airline El Al. The raid was foiled by police.

An August, 1985, explosion near El Al's office broke some windows.

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