- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

ISTANBUL — The synagogues that serve Istanbul remained closed on the Sabbath last week, highlighting a fear of terrorist attacks that is driving the nation’s Jewish community underground.

“The community is closing in on itself. It was already not a very open community,” said Rifat Bali, who has written three books on the history of the Turkish Jews. “Now it is closing much more.”

Some Jews said they were overwhelmed with expressions of compassion from Muslim neighbors after the explosions outside of the Neve Shalom and Beth Israel synagogues Nov. 15.

But that doesn’t erase a sense of vulnerability to anti-Semitic groups on the margins of Turkish society. The fear has made every stranger a potential threat.

The tragedy is compounded by a history that goes back five centuries, during which the Sephardic Jews of Turkey have flourished culturally. Today, the community numbers about 18,000.

On the first Saturday after the bombings, the streets around Neve Shalom and Beth Israel were closed to vehicles and pedestrians. Services at the 16 synagogues around the city were canceled and worshippers gathered in private homes.

The houses of worship remained closed Saturday, with no word on when they would reopen.

Meanwhile, community members injured in the bombings continued to recuperate in hospitals. The twin blasts killed at least 25 persons and injured hundreds, most of them Muslim passers-by. The two bombers also died.

A group of teenage friends socialized outside the hospital room where 19-year-old Nadim Yisrael was recuperating from leg injuries suffered in the Beth Israel bombing. They have been congregating here from morning until night for the past week, and plan to remain until Mr. Yisrael is discharged — a date that may be a month away.

“We hate reporters,” blurted out one of Mr. Yisrael’s comrades. Another, Lisse Azuz, a 22-year-old engineering student who has spent a decade in Israel, explained that the group was upset because the local press misquoted Mr. Yisrael saying he saw the suicide bombers while he assisted Turkish security outside the Beth Israel synagogue.

Mr. Yisrael had volunteered Saturday mornings at the synagogue to help Turkish police separate tourists from members of the community. The wounded security guard said he had a friendly rapport with the police officers protecting the synagogue.

“We don’t fear the Muslims that live here,” said Mr. Yisrael, whose legs were bandaged after 10 hours of surgery that saved them from amputation. The attack “wasn’t from Turkey; it was from outside.”

The bombings of the British Consulate and the HSBC bank headquarters later in the week, which killed 30 persons and injured more than 400, provided a grim measure of comfort to Jews that they are not alone as terrorist targets in Turkey.

Jewish Turks have good reason to feel loyalty to their country. Ancestors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition more than 500 years ago were encouraged to take refuge here by the Ottoman sultans.

With the establishment of the secular Turkish republic 80 years ago, Jews were encouraged to integrate and speak Turkish rather than the Ladino that they brought from Spain.

The seminal event shaping Jews’ view of outsiders came in 1986, when Palestinian gunmen killed 22 worshippers and wounded six during a Sabbath service at Neve Shalom, leading to tighter security.

The recent spate of bombings has reinforced the uneasiness about coming together in public.

“On our own we are not targets. In my business, nobody has ever discriminated against me. But we are targets when we come together in the synagogues or in social clubs,” said Gabi Shaul, a survivor of the 1986 attack.

“The Jewish community doesn’t like to speak. Maybe they think they don’t want to make waves, but that isn’t the way it should be. They are scared for their families.”


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