The Turkish newspaper Milliyet published a news report on March 20 entitled “Synagogues from the era of Byzantium are about to disappear forever!”
“Among the historical and cultural heritage of Istanbul that is on the verge of extinction are Byzantine synagogues which belong to the Turkish Jewish community,” said the report. “Most of the historic synagogues which numbered in dozens in the early 20th century are located in the Balat and Hasköy areas. Many run the risk of disappearing forever”.
“A lot of historic monuments belonging to the Jewish community and built during the Byzantine era are in ruins,” said Mois Gabay, a columnist for the Jewish weekly Salom, and a professional tourist guide. Gabay added that Turkish Jews who lived in the region of Golden Horn, also known by its Turkish name as Haliç “left Turkey a long time ago”.
When there are no more Jewish congregants, it becomes almost impossible to preserve synagogues.
Jews in Turkey are mostly known for being the descendants of the immigrants who moved to the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain. However, Jews have been living in Asia Minor since antiquity. Professor Franklin Hugh Adler explains: “Jews, in fact, had inhabited this land long before the birth of Mohammed and the Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, or for that matter, the arrival and conquests of the Turks, beginning in the eleventh century. On the eve of the birth of Islam, most of world Jewry lived under Byzantine or Persian rule in the lands of the Mediterranean basin.
“At the beginning of the Turkish Republic, in 1923, the Jewish population was 81,454. In Istanbul alone there were 47,035 Jews, roughly thirteen percent of a city that then numbered 373,124.”
Today, there are fewer than 15,000 Jews in Turkey, whose entire population is almost 80 million. What happened?
Since 1923, when the Turkish Republic was established, Jews have been exposed to systematic discrimination and campaigns of forced Turkification and Islamization.
With the Law of Family Names accepted in 1934, Jews as well as other non-Muslim and non-Turkish citizens had to change their names and surnames and adopt Turkish sounding names. The 1934 Turkish Resettlement Law resulted not only in the forced assimilation of non-Turks, but also in their forced displacement. Jews who had lived in Eastern Thrace were forcibly sent to Istanbul.
The last of the Jewish “Alliance Israélite Schools” was shut down by the Turkish government in 1937.
When Yasef Yahya, a 39-year-old Jewish dentist was brutally murdered on August 21, 2003 in his office in the Şişli district of Istanbul, many Jewish lawyers and doctors in Istanbul removed the signs on their offices in order not to have the same fate as Yahya.
Jews were deprived of their freedom of movement at least three times: in 1923, 1925 and 1927. During the Holocaust, Turkey opened its doors to very few Jewish and political refugees and even took measures to prevent Jewish immigration in 1937.
During the Ottoman Empire, Jews had been allowed to engage in Zionist activities — activities that support the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland in the historic Land of Israel — but during the rule of the new republic, these activities were banned.
Hate speech in the Turkish media against Jews has also been a serious and continued problem for decades. For example, in the one-party regime of the CHP (Republican People’s Party) government between the years 1923 and 1945, “The Turkish satirical magazines were full of caricatures of the ‘Jewish merchant’: dirty, materialistic, afraid of water, hook nosed, a black marketer, an opportunist, and utterly unable to speak Turkish without a comical Jewish accent; in short, a similar figure to Jewish types encountered in Nazi iconography,” writes Rifat N. Bali, the leading scholar of Turkish Jewry.
Other anti-Jewish and anti-non-Muslim discriminatory actions in Turkey include but are not limited to:
Ancestry Codes of Jews and Other Non-Muslims: Turkey has been secretly assigning codes its Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Syriac, and other non-Muslim minorities ever since the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923. The Population Directorate of Turkey codes Greeks using the number 1, Armenians using the number 2 and Jews using the number 3.
Laws that excluded Jews and other non-Muslims from certain professions: When the Turkish republic was founded, non-Muslim bureaucrats and public employees—Turkish citizens of Jewish, Anatolian Greek, and Armenian origin—were quickly banned from carrying out many professions including working for public institutions. Thousands of non-Muslims lost their jobs.
Prohibitions against the Ladino language: On January 13, 1928, a campaign was launched to prohibit the use in public of all languages other than Turkish, including Ladino, the language Jews brought from Spain and Portugal. “The ‘Citizen Speak Turkish!’ campaign of the first years of the Republic, which aimed to put public pressure on minorities for convincing them to speak Turkish in public, mainly targeted the Turkish Jewish community,” writes Rifat N. Bali. “They were continuously criticized by the republican elites, in whose eyes Turkish Jews were the prototypes of a minority population which did not want to be Turkified. Not a day went by in the humoristic journals and the daily press when Jews were not made the laughing stock in articles or caricatures.”
1934 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Eastern Thrace: The Jews of Eastern Thrace were targeted by pogroms from June 21- July 4, 1934. These began with a boycott of Jewish businesses, and were followed by physical attacks on Jewish-owned buildings, which were first looted, then set on fire. Jewish men were beaten, and some Jewish women reportedly raped. Terrorized by this turn of events, more than 15,000 Jews fled the region.
The Conscription of “Twenty Classes” (1941-1942): On April 22, 1941, 12,000 non-Muslims (also known as “the twenty classes”), including Jewish men – even the blind and physically disabled – were conscripted. But instead of doing active service, they were sent to work in labor battalions under terrible conditions for the construction of roads and airports. Some of them lost their lives or caught diseases.
The Wealth Tax Law (1942-1944): On Nov. 11, 1942, the Turkish government enacted the Wealth Tax Law, which divided the taxpayers in four groups, as per their religious backgrounds: Muslims, non-Muslims, converts (“donme”), i.e. members of a Sabbatean sect of Jewish converts to Islam, and foreign nationals. Only 4.94 percent of Turkish Muslims had to pay the Wealth Tax. The Armenians were the most heavily taxed, followed by Jews. According to the scholar Başak İnce, “the underlying reason was the elimination of minorities from the economy, and the replacement of the non-Muslim bourgeoisie by its Turkish counterpart.”
In her book “Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust,” the historian Corry Guttstadt wrote: “Many families were forced to sell their shops and businesses, their houses, even their carpets, furniture, and other household articles, to raise the tax money. Some people committed suicide in despair. The extraordinary tax was also levied on foreign Jews, and if they were in no position to pay, their property was confiscated down to the beds and cupboards.”
6-7 September 1955 Istanbul Pogrom: During the 6-7 September 1955 government-instigated attacks against non-Muslim communities in Istanbul, Turkish mobs devastated the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish districts of the city, destroying and looting their places of worship, homes, businesses, cemeteries, and schools, among others. Professor Alfred de Zayas writes that the Istanbul pogrom “can be characterized as a ‘Crime against humanity,’ comparable in scope to the November 1938 Kristallnacht in Germany, perpetrated by the Nazi authorities against Jewish civilians.
Murders of Jews: Jews in Turkey have also been murdered with impunity. On August 17, 1927, for example, Elza Niyego, a 22-year-old Jewish woman, was stabbed to death by Osman Ratip Bey, a married man aged 42, who had proposed her but was rejected. At the end of the trial, the murderer Osman Ratip Bey was sent to a mental asylum, but not to prison. Nine Jews and a Russian witness of the murder, however, were brought to court for “insulting Turkishness,” and four were imprisoned.
76 years later, when Yasef Yahya, a 39-year-old Jewish dentist was brutally murdered on August 21, 2003 in his office in the Şişli district of Istanbul, many Jewish lawyers and doctors in Istanbul removed the signs on their offices in order not to have the same fate as Yahya.
Despite these anti-Semitic attacks and more, some Turkish government authorities have claimed that “There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey”.
Addressing the UN council last month after a number of Arab representatives accused Israel of practicing “apartheid,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based UN Watch, asked the Arab representatives: “How many Jews live in your countries? How many Jews lived in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco?… Where are your Jews?”
Turkey’s Jews have been the victims of constant discrimination and pressures, which have made many of them eventually leave Turkey. And the tiny Jewish population of the country keeps shrinking. Hence, the same question should also be asked to Turkey: Where are your Jews?