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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Another Wakeup Call for Turkish Jews

By Shelomo Alfassa for the Sephardic Voice Newspaper - August 12, 2005

Because of both a media blackout in Istanbul and because the American media does not place much attention on news from Turkey, few have heard of the near cataclysmic disaster that was almost perpetrated against 3,500 Jews last week. Four Israeli cruise ships carrying a total of 3,500 tourists were scheduled to dock in the Mediterranean resort of Alanya last Friday, but were rerouted to the island of Cyprus by the Israeli authorities for fear of a terrorist attack. But this was not just another empty threat. With a plan and explosives in hand, this was a near tragedy that almost killed more people than died in the World Trade Center.

A Turkish court on Thursday charged a 32 year old Syrian named Louai Sakra of plotting to slam speedboats packed with explosives into cruise ships filled with Israeli tourists. He was arrested by the Turks for conspiring to sink the ships and kill all those on board. This man, considered part of al-Qaeda, was arrested on charges of membership in an illegal organization, but his lawyer said he denied being a member of al-Qaeda. Another Syrian al-Qaeda member was also arrested for conspiring in this plot.

According to the indictment, these two terrorists said they originally planned to attack an Israeli ship in the Mediterranean Ocean, but later changed their minds and attempted to do so when the ships reached port. As Sakra left the courthouse, he shouted, "I was planning an attack in open seas." According to a Turkish defense lawyer, this man was in possession of 1,650 pounds of explosives, easily enough to bring down all three ships. "I had prepared a ton of explosives and I have no regrets. I was to carry out the attack last Friday…Allahu Akbar!" His verbal threats continued, "If they [Jews] come, my friends will attack them."

But this is no isolated case. The media reported that a senior police official in Istanbul said the country expected a fresh attack from al-Qaeda before November. Terrorism had hit Turkey in the past. In 1986 an Arab terrorist shot 22 people to death on Shabbat in an Istanbul synagogue. Five years later the Iranian-backed Hezbollah carried out a bomb attack against the synagogue. Fresh in our minds is the double synagogue bombings in Istanbul which killed 20 people and wounded 300 less than two years ago. These attacks and the threats of further attacks are not isolated cases. Over 60 people have been indicted related to the 2003 bombings and Turkish police are monitoring around 1,000 people in Istanbul alone believed to have links with al-Qaeda.

The terrorists who bombed Istanbul's Jewish community in 2003 have direct and clear ties to terror groups now operating in Iraq. The Islamic terror cells in Turkey are not some fly-by-night group, these are groups that are organized, well funded and on a systematic campaign to attack and kill Jews in Turkey-both citizens and visitors. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Syria, al-Qaeda has no great love for Turkey. Because Turkey is a secular state, it is considered an "infidel" among the Islamic countries. Another reason is because it is connected to the United States and has relations to Israel. Turkey is not home to al-Qaeda, it is just their latest battle field.

A recent poll conducted by the BBC found a astonishing 82% of Turks are anti-American. The Islamic propaganda war against the West continues in Turkey. After the 2003 synagogue bombings, Islamic papers declared that "a majority of the Turkish people and its media believe that the bombings were carried out by some Western intelligence agencies to push Turkey into the crisis created by them in the region." Many Turkish newspapers have also made comments that "the real culprits behind the bombing were some other people and not the al-Qaeda." In addition to al-Qaeda, the Hezbollah terrorist organization is alive in Turkey, despite a crackdown a few years ago in which security forces arrested 3,370 of its members.

In the first part of the fifteenth century Haham Isak Sarfati of Ottoman Adrianople wrote a letter to Jewish communities in Europe inviting his coreligionists to leave the torments they were enduring in Christian lands and to seek "safety and prosperity in Turkey." But that was a different time, a time before Jews could easily settle in their historic homeland. Today few Turkish Jews make aliyah to Israel. There are about 25,000 Jews living in Turkey with another 300,000 that visit this top Israeli tourist spot annually. Turkey is a wonderful country and the government has always been cordial with the Jews as well as the State of Israel, but times are changing. Even though these campaigns of terror are not state sponsored and the government does its best to crack down on terrorists, Jews who live there need to reexamine their situation.

Turkish Jews live in a country where for the last few decades they have seen the ever growing verbal and physical manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred. And while some Jews remain active in politics, most remain in a purposeful low-profile mode, knowing they are the potential targets of Islamic radicals. While some are keenly aware of the problem and have emigrated to Israel, others remain in denial and refuse to flee. Some good can come from evil--there is a slight chance that this averted near tragedy will rouse more of the Jews in Turkey to consider emigrating to Israel. In 1492 Jews left Spain for Turkey, in 1517 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Jerusalem, many of the Spanish Jews of Constantinople and Salonika moved to Jerusalem. Now, in 2005, the rest of them can all go home, it's there and waiting for them.

Jews and Turks

Supplement for the Sephardic Voice Newspaper

By Shelomo Alfassa - August 12, 2005

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Palestine in 1517, Sultan Suleiman, known in Arabic as "the Law maker," (but better known as the Magnificent), rebuilt Jerusalem. He repaired the walls and gates that we still see standing today that had lain in ruins since the period of the Crusaders. The ancient aqueduct was reactivated and public drinking fountains which were severely needed were installed. After Suleiman's death, cultural and economic stagnation set in, Jerusalem again became a small, unimportant town. Although the renewal of Jerusalem's Jewish community is attributed to the activity of Nahmanides, who arrived from Spain to the city in 1267, the community's true consolidation occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the influx of Jews who had been expelled from Spain.

The friendship between the Turkish and Jewish people is a long and historical one. When Sultan Mehmed II took Constantinople in 1453, he encountered a Jewish community that welcomed him with enthusiasm. Immediately the Sultan issued a proclamation to all Jews: "...Let him dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and cattle. Let him dwell in the land, trade in it, take possession of it." This set the stage for what would come about during his son Beyazid II's administration. In 1492 after the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella decreed that all Jews (over 250,000) must leave Spain. Sultan Beyazid II heard of this sentence that the crown had brought upon the Jews and took pity on them. He discovered they were seeking refuge, so he wrote letters and sent emissaries to proclaim throughout his territory that none of his rulers may refuse entry, or expel to Jews; instead, they were to be given a gracious welcome. The leadership of the Ottoman Empire had always been tolerant of the Jews, for within the Empire Jews were allowed to speak their own Spanish language, as well as govern their own millets (communities); this tolerance lasted from the beginning of the Empire, up until its final days.

Though the Jews had reassembled their Spanish congregations in Ottoman Salonika, Adrianople, Constantinople and elsewhere, they would always pray towards and lament over Jerusalem. When the holy land came under the wing of the Sultan in 1517, these same Spanish Jews could then go to Jerusalem freely and easily. It was like moving from New York to Florida-no passport needed. The Sephardim helped rebuild the Jewish community in Jerusalem and the Spanish rabbis were given autonomy over the Jewish community with the sultan confirming the office of the Hahambashi that would rule over the community for hundreds of years.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, the Jews continued to remain close to the Turkish people. In 1923 President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared: "Our country has some elements who gave the proof of their fidelity to the motherland. Among them I have to quote the Jewish element; up to now the Jews have lived in happiness and from now they will rejoice and will be happy." In the 1990's, relations between Israel and Turkey greatly expanded and reached to an unprecedented degree of closeness which remains today.