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ISTANBUL - The biggest problem of Jews in Turkey is that most people perceive them as foreigners and not citizens of this country, according to the leader of the Jewish community in Turkey.
While the concerns of the Jewish community in Turkey about possible antagonism over Israeli attacks in Gaza remain, the leader of the Jewish community in Turkey said they wanted equality and democracy, not tolerance.
"Everybody can criticize Israel’s policies and we respect that. However, any anti-Israel statement can easily turn into a condemnation of Jews," Silvyo Ovadya told daily Milliyet in an interview published yesterday. "What we are concerned about is the Jewish part, not the Israel part. We do not want people to insult our religion," he said.
Harsh rhetoric against Israel from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his much-criticized reference to 500 years ago when fleeing Jews were received by the Ottomans and the Education Ministry’s directive to hold a one minute’s silence for Palestinians who had been killed are among the government’s moves that received strong reactions from both within Turkey and abroad. Some observers said Turkey’s Jewish community felt physically threatened by growing anti-Israeli sentiment among the public.
"Whenever there is a war in the Middle East anti-Semitism goes up in the world. One reason is the inability to distinguish between an Israeli national and a Jew who is a citizen of another country. This is exactly our problem in Turkey, people see us as part of Israel," Ovadya said.
Explaining that their biggest problem was that people saw them as outsiders, Ovadya said they had no problems worshiping or holding religious services. "Of course there are restrictions. For example have you ever seen a Jewish ambassador or military officer? However, our problem is something else. We do our military service, we fulfill all our civic responsibilities and we are raised with Turkish culture and language. When somebody calls us a foreigner despite all that, it offends us," he said.
Referring to the protection afforded by the Lausanne Treaty to minorities, Ovedya said they wanted the Turkish Constitution and democracy to protect their rights as they would any other citizen. "Today Jews in France or Britain do not go to the synagogue or Jewish schools because of a Lausanne-like treaty. They do so based on their democratic rights. I am not a guest or a foreigner. I am a Turkish citizen just like you. All we want is acknowledgment," he said. "I do not ask for tolerance. If this is my country, why should anybody tolerate me?" he added.
Stating that the problem was the majority’s discrimination against the minority and faulty generalizations, Ovadya said he did not believe there was anti-Semitism in Turkey generally. "We received so many positive e-mails from Turkish-Muslim citizens after the Gaza war. We also know that there is no place for anti-Semitism in Turkey culturally," he said.
Ovedya also said, however, that he had not witnessed such a negative attitude toward Jews previously. "Maybe it is because of local elections. But the support of politicians (of statements against Jews) directed some circles to more anti-Semitism," he said.
"Billboards reading ’This is not in your book,’ or ’You cannot be the son of Moses,’ hurt us as they are religion-oriented. Imagine how would you feel if Americans placed banners with verses from the Koran reading ’What kind of Muslim are you?’ after [Sept. 11]," he added.
As to the implications of the current atmosphere on daily lives, Ovedya said there had been a 20 percent decline in attendance at synagogues. "We think this is temporary and I have to say that there have not been any physical assaults. The Istanbul police protect synagogues with an immense force," he said.