In Turkey, Jews Reach Out to Muslims

Istanbul's Neve Shalom synagogue is tucked away on a winding street near the Galata Tower. The synagogue isn't as easy to spot as the landmark turret with its panorama of the city's iconic mosques, but that hasn't stopped terrorists from finding the Jewish house of prayer over the years. In 1983 gun- and grenade-wielding attackers stormed worshipers, taking 23 lives; in 2003 a car bomb outside a bar-mitzvah service killed more than a dozen and injured hundreds—mostly Turkish Muslims who lived and worked nearby. Neve Shalom has since been rebuilt, but several bullet holes remain in a seat as a reminder of the bloodshed. Visitors can come to take a look, but only if they preregister and provide passport details ahead of their arrival.

Yet if these security precautions are a predictable feature of the post–9/11 global landscape, recent initiatives by Turkey's Jewish leaders are not. Turkish Jews are a tiny minority in their Muslim country and prejudice against them is rising. A 2008 Pew survey on European attitudes toward Jews and Muslims found that 76 percent of Turks surveyed had a negative view of Jews—an increase from 49 percent in 2004. In addition, a recently published study on radicalism by Yilmaz Esmer, a professor at Bahçesehir University, found that 64 percent of Turks in 34 different cities say they do not want Jewish neighbors. And then there's the tension between Israel and Ankara over the celebrated Davos stage-storming incident by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after an argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres in January. But instead of hunkering down in a hostile environment, Turkey's Jews are reaching out.

Led by Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, the 23,000-strong community is preparing to say shalom—and salaam (the Hebrew and Arabic words of greeting)—to its Muslim neighbors. In March they launched a project to introduce the community and its culture to non-Jewish neighbors. Using funds allocated by the European Union for human-rights projects, Jewish leaders are working to curb spreading anti-Jewish prejudice and to underscore that they're Turks as well as Jews. As one of their first steps, they've commissioned a company to conduct a public-opinion survey to get an accurate picture of what their fellow citizens really think of them. (Right now, they believe, study results are skewed because researchers tend to lump queries about religious discrimination in umbrella questions on views about homosexuality and drug addiction.) When that's completed in July, they will use it to draw a "road map" on how to proceed, says project coordinator Lina Filiba. "In the eyes of [our] society, Turkish Jews are the others of the other," she says. "We are crying out loud that we're Turks, but people keep seeing us as Israelis."

The battle against stereotypes is being fought on other fronts too. Organizers of the bridge-building project are offering free cultural tours and concerts showcasing the work of Jewish composers who have contributed to Turkish music. Another key program: teaching Muslim theology students about Judaism. Rabbi Haleva, 69, is again at the forefront of this measure, given his extensive experience in this area. Educated in Istanbul and Jerusalem, Haleva recalls feeling "confusion, fear, and hesitation" when three theology professors at Marmara University first asked him to teach Hebrew—which shares many similarities to Arabic—to their graduate students 11 years ago. That changed within two weeks of starting classes. "Back then there was not much communication between the Muslim and Jewish communities," he recalls. "But the distance between me and the students was bridged as we became familiar with each other. I was teaching a language course, but we were talking about Qur'an, Torah, and life; religious and philosophical matters. We never talked about politics." When word of the rabbi's classes spread, other universities invited him to teach classes there too. Only once, he says, did he ever encounter any direct hostility. "A student of theology who was not taking my class hit me with his shoulder in the corridor," he says. "He was expecting me to say something. I didn't and he couldn't take it further."

Certainly, Haleva seems popular with those he teaches. Abdullah Yildirim, a Ph.D. student at Marmara University, says any reservations about lessons from a rabbi disappeared as soon as he got to know his teacher. "I am a Muslim Turk," says Yildirim. "I have my red lines, and learning from someone who is outside these lines made me a bit uneasy. The images drawn of members of each religion are scary for the members of the other religion. But when you get in touch with them, when you learn their culture, you realize that your fear is pointless." Yildirim now laughs at friends who criticize him for taking courses from a chief rabbi. "When it comes to learning, a true Muslim does not underline the ideological differences," he says.

Haleva is building on this acceptance by expanding his teaching outside of the classroom as well. At his students' request, he organized a tour to Jerusalem for them. He has also brought interfaith prayer to the Neve Shalom synagogue. On one recent June evening, about 30 Muslim theology students gathered amicably in the temple to listen to a rabbi's address on the customs and beliefs of Turkey's Jews. At a time when Turkey-Israel relations were roiled by an Israeli military leader's comments on Turkey's policies toward the Kurds and on Cyprus, the students left politics at the door to share a meal, tour the Turkish-Jewish museum, and discuss the similarities between kosher and halal foods. One young woman in a hijab turned to the Jewish man next to her and asked, "Do you serve in the Israeli Army every year?" Another one asked, "Do you have advantages when you are entering and exiting Israel?" The answer was short: "We are citizens of Turkey. What applies to you applies to us." If the rabbis' outreach program works, such questions may no longer need to be asked.