Turkey’s Jews Say Goodbye — But Where Are They Going?

28 May 2015
A painting of a Jewish man in the Ottoman Empire.
A painting of a Jewish man in the Ottoman Empire.

The New York Times reports that Turkey’s Jewish population is on the way out. In the last ten years, the community, which is Sephardic, has shrunk from 19,500 to 17,000. The community cites a list of reasons including lack of opportunities and the rising tide of anti-Semitism—from city mayors praising Hitler to anti-Semitic crossword puzzles in newspapers.

This particular gem came from the head of one of Turkey’s largest human rights organizations.

“If the Turkish Jewish community does not put an end to Israel’s actions, very bad things happen,” Bulent Yildirim, president of the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul. (Flickr User Chadica)
The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul. (Flickr User Chadica)

The steady march of Jews leaving Arab countries isn’t anything new. Jewish populations in Arab countries have steadily declined since the State of Israel was declared. Turkey, a secular Muslim country, was hoped to be the exception and the emigration is a blow to a country that once prided itself on its secular identity. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made some symbolic efforts to curb anti-Semitism, but the community says there has been no real follow-up to those efforts.

Most interesting about the story is where the Jewish population is going: not to Israel or America, but to Spain, where they were originally exiled from in the 15th century. Spain is expected to approve a bill that would grant citizenship to those Jews who were expelled in 1492.

However it is unclear what they’ll find there. Anti-Semitism in Spain is alive and well. According to the ADL, close to 50 percent of the Spanish population harbors some anti-Semitic prejudices. Though in positive news, at least it seems the Spanish town named “Kill the Jews” will change its name. But perhaps there is hope for the larger rebirth of Spanish-Jewish culture including the language of Ladino, which is on the brink of extinction (as was spoken Hebrew and Yiddish at one point). Let the golden age begin again.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.