"After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, we all became equal citizens"

Posted in Broader Middle East | 23-Jul-06 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Deniz Saporta: "Israel and Turkey have a good relationship, politically, militarily and culturally."

Exclusive interview with Ms. Deniz Saporta, Press and Public Relations Officer for the Jewish Community of Turkey

WSN: Deniz, from your knowledge when did the first Jews arrive in Turkey?

Deniz Saporta: As far as I know, the first came in 1492, when they were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella. They were welcomed here by the Ottoman Empire. Our community is made up of Sephardic Jews, and the majority of our ancestors are from Spain. However, the Chief Rabbi says that long before 1492 there were Jews in Anatolia.

WSN: How many Jews are living in Turkey today?

Deniz Saporta: Today, we are approximately 20,000, maybe 22,000 people, and most of us live in Istanbul, around 2,000 in Izmir and others are scattered throughout all of Anatolia. We have some 700 to 800 Ashkenazi Jews, and I want to emphasize that we are a united community.

WSN: What do you mean by a united community? There are no conflicts within it?

Deniz Saporta: It is not like in Europe or America, with different confederations, or the so-called small churches. It is not like this. We have one chief rabbi for the whole community, and good relations among us.

WSN: How many synagogues do you have in Turkey?

Deniz Saporta: We have 18 synagogues that are now in operation. In 1996 and 2003 we had a few incidents where there were attacks on our synagogues. The Neve Shalom synagogue which was bombed in 2003 is now under reconstruction so that we will be better protected in the future.

WSN: How is it to be part of a Jewish community in Turkey?

Deniz Saporta: After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, we all became equal citizens. We have Turkish passports and we obey and are subject to the same laws like all other citizens. We are not a minority per se, since in Turkey we have the Lausanne Agreement, which guarantees that Turkish citizens who are not Muslims have the same political and civil rights as the Muslims. Thus, we are all Turkish citizens, just that we have a different belief than that of the majority.

Some foundations of the various religious minorities have had problems in buying and selling real estate, but now the situation is better; we can buy, sell or renovate. As Turkey is preparing to join the EU, we have the Copenhagen criteria, and that is respected here.

On the other hand, the Jewish foundations do not own as much real estate as the others, so when you do not have much, the problems become smaller and smaller, and you can handle them.

WSN: Beside the synagogues, do you have cultural, educational or other types of sites?

Deniz Saporta: Yes, we have a good school, from kindergarten through high school, and we have two homes for the elderly and a hospital open to everyone, regardless of religion. We also have youth clubs and all sorts of activities during the year, like celebrations, commemorations, conferences, etc.

WSN: What can you tell me about anti-Semitism in Turkey?

Deniz Saporta: I always separate our normal daily life from what a part of the press is choosing to say and print about us.

From time to time we have problems with the nationalist, fundamentalist press, but not with the people, who are our friends and neighbors. Also, we do not have problems with the mainstream media. This nationalist media makes up a small percentage when you compare it with the whole, and we are trying to combat it. We often hear of conspiracy theories; you can hear about the Jews all over the world.

WSN: Are you affected by what is going on in the Middle East, and I'm referring mainly to the Palestinian situation?

Deniz Saporta: Yes, we are affected by the state of affairs between the Palestinians and Israel. When things are better there, things are better here.

Israel and Turkey have a good relationship, politically, militarily, culturally, etc. at the top level, and there are also many tourists going there, and Jews from Israel coming here. However, we should not forget that Turkish people are sympathetic toward the Palestinians - maybe because they are Muslims.

WSN: Do you have representatives of the Jewish community at the state level, in parliament?

Deniz Saporta: We had one, but currently we do not. That person left and since then no one from the Jewish community has tried to become a member of parliament. We have very reputable lawyers, doctors, professors, businessmen, dancers and musicians - people from many professions - except in the political arena.

WSN: Have you organized roundtables and conferences between the Turkish Jews and the Turkish Muslims?

Deniz Saporta: In the last four years, we have sponsored the European Jewish Cultural Day. We prepare Jewish meals, concerts, etc. and since we are from Spain, we are doing our best to preserve our identity through singing songs in Ladino (the old Spanish language, also known as Cervantes language).

This year we had the Holocaust Memorial Day, and we had a few days of special film showings in the cinemas, such as documentaries and well-known films like Schindler's List. And we had a small exhibition. We are trying to open ourselves to others, to inform people about us.

WSN: What is your community's relationship like with Israel?

Deniz Saporta: Many of us have relatives over there. At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were 100,000 Jews here, and after Israel was set up, many Jews left Turkey. It is said that they left the country mainly because of the economic problems. They were dreaming of having a better life.

The Turkish Jews in Israel are well connected with Turkey; they have organizations and foundations for promoting Turkish traditions. I have heard that they have even planted a forest and called it Ataturk

On the people level, we have very good relations. We all feel Turkish. Our prime minister is Erdogan, we have the Turkish laws, so we are well connected with Israel.

I want to say that we are not a closed community, quite the contrary: We are open to everyone who is interested in us. There are too many prejudices about the Jews in the world, and we are trying to correct this. However, while Turkey has a population of 70 million people, there are only 20,000 of us; so it is definitely not an easy task, but we are doing our best.

WSN: Thank you, Deniz.