In Turkey, a History Lesson in Peace

In Istanbul this past summer, an Israeli friend and I visited a synagogue in Ortakoy, a neighborhood on the shores of the Bosporus. Ortakoy is home to a mosque, a synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church, which huddle together between the sea and gently sloping hills. It is a place where the frescoes of Byzantium meet the architecture of Islam, and where the white-washed summer residencies of the Ottoman aristocracy, with their latticed woodwork, coexist with the Bauhaus buildings of the newer middle class.

On that summer evening, the voices of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer mingled with those of street vendors hawking shelled almonds and, later in the night, of teenagers attending one of the many discos lining Ortakoy’s streets. The elderly cantor outside the synagogue informed us that it was being repaired but would reopen by Rosh Hashana.

We talked in Turkish and Ladino, a Sephardic Jewish equivalent of Yiddish. My ancestors helped bring the language to Istanbul when they fled the Spanish Inquisition after 1492 and were given refuge by the Ottoman Empire. My colleague, a scholar of Spinoza, the 17th-century Sephardic philosopher, listened in amazement to the living continuity between the object of his historical research and this withered gentleman, perched upon a bench in a busy street in Istanbul.

During my childhood in the 1950’s, the number of Jews in Istanbul alone was 80,000. With settlements in other cities, the size of the Turkish Jewish community was well above 100,000. With the founding of the state of Israel and then the growing political instability of Turkey in the 1970’s and 80’s, many Jews started leaving. The Jewish population in Turkey now numbers about 30,000.

Yet the presence of the Jews in Turkey cannot be measured in numbers alone. They are a testament to the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims not only in medieval Spain but throughout the old Levant. This is something the murderous forces of Islamic terrorism, who attacked synagogues in other areas of Istanbul on Saturday, would like to obliterate.

The Jews of Turkey are also proof of the foresight and sound judgment of secular Turkey’s republican founders. As Hitler’s troops were marching from the Balkans and emptying Greek cities of their Jewish populations, Turkey’s president, Ismet Inonu, closed its border. Tense negotiations with the Nazis ensued. Although Turkey sent Jewish men, including my father and uncles, to camps in the interior to appease the Nazis, they were only labor camps, and there is little evidence that the Turkish government made any greater concessions to Germany, which had been its ally in World War I.

That moment in Turkish Jewish history alone is a thorn in the flesh of Islamic terrorists: it underscores the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims since the 15th century in a Muslim country that respects the democratic equality of citizens of different faiths and ethnicities.

To be sure, some of Turkey’s other minorities — the Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, who unlike the Jews, have had territorial claims on Turkish lands — have fared far less well. What matters now, though, is which historical model Turkey will be encouraged to embrace. That summer night in Ortakoy remains a beacon of hope for those of us from the Middle East who are fighting against the nihilistic message being spread by terrorists. The synagogues of Istanbul will be built again. No one should doubt it.

Seyla Benhabib is professor of political science and philosophy at Yale.


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