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Turkey's Jews Feel Security Slip Away

In a nation seen as a refuge for 500 years, the synagogue bombings recall a 1986 attack.

November 16, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL — Jews here trace their presence back more than half a millennium. Expelled from Spain in the late 15th century, Jews saw Turkey as a haven, the "road of life," in the words of one rabbi.

The twin car bombs that targeted two synagogues Saturday were the latest incidents to help undermine that sense of refuge. In 1986, Palestinian gunmen burst into the Neve Shalom Synagogue and killed 22 worshippers. On Saturday, bombs damaged Neve Shalom as well as a second Jewish house of worship, Beth Israel, three miles away, killing at least 20 people and injuring more than 300.

Nevertheless, the community remained defiant.

"A million bombs cannot drive us Jews out of here," said Josef Habib Gerez, a 77-year-old painter in Istanbul's Galata neighborhood, home to Neve Shalom, the city's largest synagogue.

"This is our home and so it shall remain," he said, shaking his fist in anger.

Gerez said he was getting ready for his daily morning walk when "the ground shook beneath my feet."

If he had left just a few minutes earlier, he said, he would "have walked past the synagogue as usual" just as the bomb exploded.

"God spared my life," he said.

Most Jews in this predominantly Muslim nation trace their ancestry back to 150,000 Sephardic Jews who fled persecution in Spain during the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century and were offered shelter by Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II.

The Jews settled in Turkey, while the sultan famously said that he wanted to transform the Ottoman Empire into "an umbrella of humanity."

Jewish religious leaders were said to have been so impressed by their reception that, according to historical accounts, one rabbi, Yitzhak Sarfati, wrote back to his congregation: "If you listen to me, the road to Turkey is the road of life. Do not dally, but come to this place of comfort. Here everyone lives happily and peacefully in the shade of his own vine and fig tree."

Today, Turkey is home to about 27,000 members of the Jewish faith, with the majority living in Istanbul.

Officially secular and determinedly pro-Western, Turkey "has always been a safe haven for us," said Gerez, who has spent most of his life in Galata.

Jews are counted among Turkey's most successful minorities and control some of the country's top business conglomerates, including Alarko and Profilo. But their success in the business world has not been repeated either in politics or the bureaucracy. There are no Jewish members of parliament.

Many Jews initially settled in Galata, a bustling commercial district crisscrossed by narrow streets. It is best known for an imposing tower built by the city's Genovese invaders in the 14th century that offers visitors panoramic views.

Galata is home to three synagogues and several churches.

Many of Galata's more prosperous Jewish residents have moved to swankier neighborhoods in the last four decades, leaving behind now-decaying, turn-of-the-century apartments to gypsies and migrants from the countryside.

Still, many Jews return each Saturday to pray at Neve Shalom. On a narrow street facing the Galata tower, Neve Shalom, "haven of peace" in Hebrew, was built in the late 1940s and opened for services in 1951. Its modest facade belies an opulent and spacious interior that boasts intricate woodwork and enormous gilded chandeliers. Many were said to have been shattered by Saturday's blast.

The stone building has remained heavily guarded since the 1986 slayings.

The hands of a grandfather clock standing in the synagogue's lobby remain frozen at 9:17, the time at which the previous attack took place, also on the Sabbath. The incident hastened the Jewish exodus from Galata, though Istanbul's chief rabbi continues to keep his headquarters in a nearby building.

"It was the worst day of my life," an 81-year-old Jewish corset-maker said of the 1986 attack. "I can't believe this nightmare has been visited upon us again."

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