Jews in Turkey are a small and dwindling minority, but the community will never disappear altogether, according to Louis Fishman.
“They won’t all leave. And the reason is that they feel Turkish,” Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, told NJJN in a phone interview.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged, increasing numbers will emigrate as they encounter rising anti-Semitism; in fact, many already have.
Fishman will discuss the situation in his talk, “Turkish Jews: Between Citizens and the ‘Other,’” on Sunday, Nov. 22, at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson.
The speaker, who has written extensively about Turkish, Israeli, and Middle Eastern affairs for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, The Forward, and other publications, has homes in Istanbul and Tel Aviv, as well as in New York.
Describing himself as an American-Israeli, Fishman said, “I have lived in Turkey off and on for 15 years, right up to the present — sometimes three to four years at a time,” he said. “The Jewish community has always interested me, but it is only recently that it has become a focus of my work.”
Noting that Jews in Turkey date back to Byzantine times, Fishman said the greatest influx came in 1492, when the Ottoman Empire took in Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Spread among various Ottoman lands, the Jewish population reached a peak of about 200,000 throughout the empire by the end of the 16th century.
When the Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923, a large number of Jews remained within the new country’s borders, but that is also when a slow, steady stream of emigration began, said Fishman.
Over the course of more than nine decades since then, there have been inevitable ups and downs. But for the most part, he said, when it was difficult for the Jews, it was similarly difficult for other non-Muslims, including the most prominent groups, the Greeks and Armenians.
For example, he explained, “In 1944, the pace of emigration picked up sharply, but that could be attributed to a discriminatory tax that was levied on all non-Muslims.”
In 1955 there were anti-Greek pogroms that spilled over into actions against Jews, but Jews, Fishman said, were not the main targets.
In recent years, however, there has been a notable rise in acts that are specifically anti-Semitic, coinciding with the assumption of power of the conservative AKP party, he said. This is despite the fact that the total number of Jews in all of Turkey is between 15,000 and 17,000, a tiny percentage in a country with nearly 16 million people in Istanbul alone.
Overall, this slim Jewish cohort supports a dozen or so synagogues — all Sephardi, with the exception of one Italian synagogue and one Ashkenazi shul. Many who attend these synagogues, and some Jews who do not, have deep roots in Turkey, going back centuries.
Even though most Turkish Jews are not suffering severe economic hardship and manage to live relatively normal lives, some are leaving. Exploring the reasons, Fishman said some leave to find work or to study abroad, but another factor is the more or less constant barrage of anti-Semitic rhetoric on the air, in print, on the internet, and via social media.
He remains convinced, however, that some Jews will remain. With a nod to Turkish-Jewish writer Riva Hayim, Fishman wrote in a recent article, “[T]hey’ve stayed put for the past 500 years, so what makes you think they’re going to leave now?”