Turkey’s small Jewish community got a rare chance to showcase its culture in Istanbul last Sunday during the European Days of Jewish Culture event.
“Our target is non-Jews who want to know more about us,” said Nisya Isman Allovi, director of the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews that organised the event, which was attended by about 1,300 people.
Hatice Yilmaz and Halime Niyaz, 26-year-old divinity graduate students studying Jewish culture, were impressed with the professionalism of the events, which included a theatrical representation of a traditional Ashkenazi wedding, a living library and musical performances.
“For me, the best part is that there’s no prejudice here. Everyone is behaving really well. We have different religions, but we clapped for the same things during the concert,” Ms Niyaz said.
Both women said that such events can reduce antisemitism in Turkey.
“There can be prejudice sometimes, but that’s only because of a lack of knowledge and because the cultures have been kept apart,” Yilmaz said.
Turkey’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community of approximately 17,000 has long been targeted with antisemitic stereotypes and hate speech from media outlets and politicians. According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Defamation League, 71 per cent of Turks agree with a majority of common antisemitic stereotypes.
The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, which is part of the heavily guarded complex that hosted the events, was hit by devastating attacks in 1986 and 2003.
On July 20, the synagogue was pelted with stones by Turkish ultranationalists protesting against new security restrictions in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. “We will prevent your freedom to worship here just like you are preventing ours there,” “Unfortunately, there is no difference between a Jew and Israel in the eyes of some people, so whenever there is a problem between Turkey and Israel, it affects the Jews of Turkey,” said Karel Valansi, a columnist with Turkey’s Jewish-focused Şalom newspaper and participant in the living library exhibit. Valansi explained that Jews in Turkey were generally very low-key about their identity for fear of discrimination, but that this was beginning to change.
In 2015, there were several positive initiatives, including the first publicly celebrated Chanukah, and the restoration and inauguration of the Edirne Great Synagogue in the country’s north-west.