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Jewish-Turkey-Israeli Relations
An Historical Perspective

By Drew Kopf

Mehves Somez, President of the Istanbul University Alumni Association of USA (left), Turkey's Deputy Consul General, Zeynep Kiziltan  (center) and David Mallach, Managing Director, Commission on the Jewish People of UJA Federation of NY. Photos: Drew Kopf

NYC – The Consulate General of the Republic of Turkey in New York hosted a lecture and discussion arranged for by the Istanbul University Alumni Association of the United States on Thursday, November 20, 2008 that helped to clarify and to put it perspective the long and fascinating history of how the people of Turkey and its mostly Muslim population has related to the Jewish people, who have lived in Turkey for many hundreds of years, and how the Republic of Turkey has related to the State of Israel since the advent of the Jewish State slightly more than sixty years ago and to the United States of America.

H.E. Mustafa Aksin, Retired Ambassador (Left) and Mr. Naim Guleryuz, VP of Quincentennial Foundation of Turkey. Photos: Drew Kopf

Ms. Mehves Sonmez, President of the Istanbul University Alumni Association of the USA explained that the organization is staffed entirely by volunteers, in a non-political entity and has taken, as part of its mission, the objective of sharing the Turkish Culture and History with Americans to bring about a greater understanding between American and the Turkish people and with the hope that doing do will lead to the bringing together what many might believe were otherwise divergent peoples. The organization was founded in 2005 by Mr. Ali Cinar of the Southern New England Turkish Association. The last program was held in April 2008 and was entitled: “Desperate Hours: How the Turkish People Helped the Jewish People.” The November 20, 2008 program, which was open to all, had a double caption: “Overview of Turkish-American-Israeli Relations” and “Glimpses of Jewish Life in Turkish Society.”

The team of lecturers was, in a word, wonderful: H.E. Mustafa Aksin, Retired Ambassador and Mr. Naim Guleryuz.

Retired Ambassador Mustafa Aksin has an extensive background in public service and international diplomacy. He has represented the Turkish government in Nairobi, Damascus and Belgrade. From 1988 through 1993, he served as the Ambassador on the Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, where Turkey was recently elected to a seat on the Security Council. Currently, he is the Turkish National Director of the International Center for Black Sea Studies in Athens, Greece.

Naim Guleryuz is the Curator of the Jewish Museum in Turkey. He is also the Vice President of the Quincentennial Foundation of Turkey, which serves to educate the public about the history and culture of Turkish Jews. G?lery?z is also a scholar of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Jews. His books include Synagogues of Istanbul and The History of the Turkish Jews.

The event attracted a wide range of attendees from industrial and community leaders such as Mr. Jules Silbert, President of the Silbert Group, to a young engaged Turkish couple currently studying in the USA; Mr. Yesua Sedat Behar, who is a student at Brandies University and his fianc?e Belsak Ilyago, who is studying in New York City.

In an interview following the lecture, Mr. Guleryuz provided an overview of the Quincentennial Foundation of Turkey. The year 1992 marked the five hundredth anniversary of the most gracious welcome of Sephardim to Turkish lands. Turkish Jews felt it was both fitting and proper to launch an extensive celebration in Turkey, in the United States and in Europe.

Jewish History is filled with sad events which are marked by commemorations and memorial services. But, now, there was a major event to celebrate. To celebrate both the 500th anniversary of the welcoming of Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire and the five centuries of continuous and peaceful life in Turkey. The Quincentennial Foundation was founded in 1989 by a group of 113 Turkish citizens, Jews, and Moslems alike. Founded and headquartered in Istanbul, the The Quincentennial Foundation planned a three-year (1990 to 1992) cultural and academic program both within Turkey and abroad mainly in the United States, Canada and Mexico on the American continent; France, the United Kingdom and Italy in Europe.

The Foundation embarked on a very ambitious program as befitted the greatness of the occasion. What Turkish Jews lack in numbers they make up in enthusiasm and commitment. This program has been designed to bring the diverse and rich legacy of Turkish Jewry to a greater audience. See: http://www.turkishjews.com for more details.

Ambassador Aksin traced the history of the Jewish People in Turkey in a lively way by touching on key events and relating them to how those events play a part up until today for those 20,000 Jews who still make their home in Turkey and, to a certain degree, to how Turkey relates to the modern State of Israel.

The next event at the Turkish Consulate is scheduled for December 2008 and will be titled: “Who are Ahiska Turks?”

Turkey’s relationship to the USA enjoyed a kind of honeymoon during the 1950’s with Turkey’s very supportive role in the Korean Conflict. There was a kind of hiccup in the 1960s but Turkey always was an active member of NATO and strongly allied with the western camp; i.e. the Free World, throughout the Cold War.

The fall of the Berlin Wall came as a kind of shock to Turkey in that it presented so many possibilities. It was glad to be European but had great opportunities in Asia. Things started to bend as its government began to adjust to all the new options. It is linked with so many countries and finds comfort in all the relationships.

Turkish–American relations flourished with the joint fight against the PKK Turkey committed troops to the Operation Enduring Freedom and pledges $200,000.00 to help restore Afghanistan.

The War in Iraq caused another hiccup, but still, the relationship with the USA and its role in Iraq are vital. The Turkish government was worried that it would be come a recruiting ground for terrorist but that seems to behind it now. There is a kind of “Neighborhood Watch” that has sealed off the borders against terrorists.

Turkey has also come forward to play the role of “the Honest Broker” to help seek rapprochement between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and has encouraged Syria to participate.

The 2nd Speaker of the evening began by letting the audience know that it was not uncommon to see a church, a synagogue and a mosque right next door to each other in Turkey. He explained that for the last seven centuries Jews have been welcome in and living in Turkey not merely the 500 years that are usually acknowledged to be the period of when Jews lived in Turkey. He traced some well known landmarks in history back to 1326 and further back than that where Jews who were living in Turkey served in some capacity and were so noted in the historical documents of those times. The Spanish Inquisition, which ejected Jews from Spain, saw Jews migrate in several directions to find safe haven and Turkey welcomed them warmly. The Ottoman Empire had a huge open door policy towards Jews.

It just so happened that on August 2, 1492 at mid-night, all Jews were to either be converted to Catholicism or to have left Spain. This may have inadvertently led to establishing a large Jewish community in America. According to some reports, Columbus left Spain at that time and most of his crew did as well. This led historians to surmise that most or many of Columbus' crew were Jews, especially those who dealt with navigational instruments.

Another more recent wave of immigrants to Turkey occurred when Hitler came to power in Germany and many Jewish scholars settled in Turkey, taught at the universities and became successful businessmen and professionals.

The current population of Jews in Turkey is approximately 20,000 with some 20 synagogues in Istanbul, 17 open all year with an additional 3 only in the summer. There is one Jewish newspaper in Turkey called Shalom. This tight knit community is strong but shrinking through deaths, relocation to other countries and mixed marriages. Hopefully with a more outspoken Muslim Prime Minister and population this will not have a greater negative effect of that Jewish population.

One very positive fact that has always made Turkey a fantastic place for Jews to travel and visit is the welcoming attitude that the Turkish people have for guests in their country and the enormous respect they have for how Israel has made its county bloom and prosper while neighboring countries remained mired in the past. The amazing history, culture and places of interest throughout Turkey are enough reason to explore that country. However, for Jews, the remarkable manner in which they have always been welcomed, when others persecuted them, and their ability to keep their own culture intact and their own identity as a people, proves that the Jewish, Turkish, Israeli relationship is strong and thriving.

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