One recent sunny Shabbat morning just after services, the congregation of Istanbul’s Italian Synagogue, in the city’s Galata district, sat down at long tables for breakfast. Plates laden with cheese, boiled eggs, and savory Turkish pastries called poğaça were passed around to the hungry members, whose numbers totaled about 38, most of them men. Carafes full of strong tea offered warmth in the drafty room, but some who were feeling festive drained a bottle of raki, an aniseed liquor with an alcohol content slightly higher than most whiskeys.
The conversation, between the tea drinkers and raki drinkers alike, quickly turned to politics. A few days earlier, high-ranking businessmen with ties to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP—including the sons of a few of Erdogan’s Cabinet ministers—had been arrested on charges of corruption, a scandal that has prompted protests and calls for Erdogan’s resignation. Erdogan responded by blaming “international groups”—by implication, Israel—for conspiring to unravel the Turkish state from within.
Erdogan has long been aggressively critical of Israel, and his rhetoric includes some show-stoppers. In 2009, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he told Israel’s president Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill”—and then walked off the stage. The 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara “Gaza flotilla” ship, in which nine activists were killed, further fractured the relationship; only last year, and only under the personal ministrations of President Barack Obama, did the conversation become something close to constructive. When protests against Erdogan’s government spread from Istanbul’s Gezi Park throughout Turkey in the summer of 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay blamed the “Jewish diaspora,” members of which were “jealous of Turkey’s growth,” although he quickly retracted the statements.
The breakfasters at the Italian Synagogue were transfixed, and exasperated. A man sitting to my left rolled his eyes. “We have a problem,” he told me, “called Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” Certainly Erdogan’s repeated decision to scapegoat Israel and the idea of Jewish power—whether out of genuine conviction or simple political expediency—increases the pressure on individual Jews by erasing the line between the personal and the political. For at least the past decade, the narrative around Turkey’s Jewish population has been that they are leaving, often because of political or social alienation owing to Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel. It’s become a familiar headline which, for the congregants wiping poğaça crumbs from their laps and plotting their ferry rides home, seems like a less-than-subtle push out the door.
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