Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Jewish community in Turkey dates back to the Roman Empire. The vast majority of Jews in Turkey are descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Their language is Ladino, a variant of fifteenth century Spanish. There is also an ethnic Ashkenazi minority, which speaks Yiddish.
Jews are protected under the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923, but this essentially amounts to being considered second class citizens by the state. Despite this official protection, and alongside other non-Muslim minorities, they have been subject to a series of policies since 1923 that have led to their near-eradication as communities: state tolerance of mob attacks, such as those suffered by Jews in Thrace in 1934 and in Istanbul against non-Muslims in 1955; the exclusive military conscription of non-Muslims to serve in labour battalions in 1941 and 1942; the levy on non-Muslims of a disproportionate and discriminatory wealth tax in 1942; and the systematic confiscation of properties belonging to non-Muslim foundations since 1960s.
The community has experienced sporadic incidents of targeted violence, including the 1986 bombing of an Istanbul synagogue by extremists that killed 22 people and an attack in 2003 on two synagogues, also in Istanbul, that left 20 dead and hundreds injured.
There are now less than 20,000 Jews in Turkey, 600 of whom are Ashkenazi. The vast majority live in Istanbul, there are around 2,500 Jewish people in Izmir and the rest live in very small numbers elsewhere. There are 19 synagogues in Istanbul, one of which belongs to Ashkenazis.
There have been continued reports of widespread anti-Semitism in Turkey, at times intensified by events in Israel such as the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the US Trump administration in 2017, with reports of anti-Israeli protestors holding demonstrations outside a synagogue and attacking the doors of the building. However, despite its small size, the community has taken steps to engage wider Turkish society about their history and culture, including through the Jewish History Museum in Istanbul and cultural activities such as concerts.
Updated June 2018
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