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Fear in Istanbul, Relief in Prague

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From the Summer 2015 Issue "Climate's Cliff"

By Aliza Goldberg  

PRAGUE—The Czech guard leans against the doorway of the Staranovà Sinagoga (Old New Synagogue), Europe’s oldest active synagogue, and stares with crossed arms. A visitor has shown him an identification card with an irreproachably Jewish name, and yet the guard remains unconvinced. Fourteen rapid questions range from the visitor’s biography to that of her rabbi to religious habits and traditions, followed by a careful search for arms. The second Czech guard opens the door, finally, and points to the women’s section. The service has already begun.

By contrast, the largest place of Jewish worship in Istanbul, Neve Salom Sinagogu Vakfi, rejects any guest, Jewish or not, armed or not, who has not called in advance. That synagogue survived a shooting incident in 1986 and bombings in 1992 and 2003. Now, no one answers any of the seven steel doors that line the synagogue’s façade, covered in Star of David patterns. Often, no one answers the phone either. In Turkey, Jews need to make an appointment to pray in a synagogue. Yet they can walk into any mosque or church. No one checks bags, identity, or intent; all they must do is cover up.

What Jews in Istanbul cover up, however, is not their clothing but their religion. In contrast, the starkly delineated Jewish Quarter of Prague allows Jews a space to cover themselves conservatively according to Jewish law, but unfurl their Judaica for sale. Sidewalk stalls with marionettes, typical Prague knickknacks, display rabbi figurines alongside Eastern European dolls and fairytale animals. Effectively each represents two poles of Europe’s reaction to the Islamic attacks on world Jewry—Czech Republic, a nation in the heart of Central Europe and another nation, Turkey, geographically straddling two continents, with its heart in the Middle East.

“I don’t believe we solve this problem,” said Ira Forman, appointed in 2013 by Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. “We deal with it.” Speaking in February 2015, after the hostage attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, Forman clarified that “this is not a Jewish issue. It’s a human rights issue.” Every European country has handled the resurfacing of anti-Semitism differently. Forman understands that a unique solution must occur in each place. 

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has a solution apparently designed to blanket every country. Speaking on January 11, 2015 to French Jews after the Paris hostage attack, Netanyahu declared that “Israel stands with Europe, and Europe must stand with Israel” against the enemy, which he labeled as a “global network of radical Islam.” Netanyahu never mentioned anti-Semitism, instead inviting all Jews to “come home” to Israel. Leaving would not solve the problem, however. Leaving would not make most Europeans feel at home. As French Prime Minister Manuel Valls responded, “France, without its Jews, is not France.”

Though vastly disparate in political views, both the Czech Republic and Turkey’s treatment toward minority groups and news reporting have succeeded in containing violence despite the hate. This shared security is surprising and admirable. Only one country, though, could stand as a European model to follow—the Czech Republic.

DIFFERENT CULTURAL NORMS

In both countries, Jews say they feel safe, but for wildly different reasons. In the Czech Republic, Jewish acceptance has always been the cultural norm and, despite tensions in the streets, Prague still stands by its Jewish citizens. In Istanbul, Jewish intolerance has always been the cultural norm, but Istanbul has not recently exhibited any violence. Some admit a touch of new fear based on reactions to the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, known as Operation Protective Edge. More express general frustration at rising anti-Semitism in France, Belgium, the U.K., and other parts of Europe and the Middle East. 

Historically, both cities have their own checkered histories toward minorities, but especially Jews. Prague was once a seat of anti-Semitic activity by Nazis during World War II, followed by the communists in the ensuing half century. Istanbul, once the seat of the entire Ottoman Empire, which ruled large chunks of Europe and most of the Middle East, is now rapidly returning to its deeply Islamist past with all that means for its own Jewish minority. 

Czech Jews suffer few consequences for Israeli government policies, but Turkish Jews certainly do. Jewish identity, religious affiliation, and cultural tradition have become political lightening rods around the world and raised fears in metropolises like Prague and Istanbul—both far removed from the most recent front lines of Gaza. 

In the Czech Republic, the casualties of the Gaza war have taken the form, not of bodies, but of desecrated walls. Anyone can see the anti-Semitic graffiti. There have been four documented incidents since Operation Protective Edge began on July 8, 2014. Petra Koutská Schwarzová, a municipal official who works for the Security Department of the Prague Jewish Community Center, said she has noticed an increase in anti-Semitic vandalism since Operation Protective Edge, which she attributes to discontent with the Israeli Defense Forces. Schwarzová shares photographic evidence in confidence, noting that none of the incidents was repeated in the media to maintain calm. 

Some Czechs say they have not noticed any anti-Semitic events. Milan Walter, a Jewish employee at the Prague Jewish Museum Library, says he has only heard about “two or three such incidents” in the last 20 years. In the wake of escalation of fighting in Gaza, Walter observed demonstrations in Prague in support of the Israeli state by Czechs and “no anti-Jewish mood connected to the war in Gaza.” 

There are no official reports of anti-Semitic incidents on the streets of Turkey, but a casual stroll uncovers at least a half dozen examples of graffiti of swastikas and references to Nazis and the Führer. Bigotry runs rampant on virtual walls. Facebook and Twitter have become forums for hate speech in Turkey, as documented by Hrant Dink Foundation, which monitors prejudice in Turkish media. In its last hate speech report from September to December 2013, with data gathered from every Turkish print media source, the foundation counted 57 cases of anti-Semitic language—the same number of hateful language citations against Armenians. 

Zeyne Parslon of Hrant Dink Foundation has noticed a rise in anti-Semitic tweets parallel to escalations in violence in Gaza. The hashtag #TurkeyPrayingforGazze relayed language that shocked Asli Tunç, a professor of media studies at Istanbul Bilgi University. “You see how intolerant we’ve become,” Tunç’s lips pursed with worry over tweets and retweets that compare Israel to Hitler, the Gaza conflict to genocide or massacre, and Jews as the “curse of our community.” One tweeter views Jews, collectively, as the “illegitimate child” of the Middle East. Another considers Israel “the hunchback of the world,” which “shall be humbled.” Many post political cartoons showing Israelis as terrorists and murderers, as well as disturbing photographs of dead children.

SAFETY WITHOUT CONCERNS

“Don’t worry about him; he’s paranoid,” sniffs Czech kosher restaurant owner Aaron Günsberger, a few steps away from the Staranovà Sinagoga, commenting on the security guard’s vigilance. Spotting a tape recorder as I speak to the few Czech Jews who had prayed—most attendees are tourists—the guard begins asking more rapid-fire questions, including whether I’m a Russian spy.

Shifting his weight from leg to leg in excitement, Günsberger dismisses bigots in Prague as “just a few stupid people.” To a bystander who shouts, “Go home!” during a pro-Israel demonstration, which 400 people attend, Günsberger responds, “What do you mean go home? My family has been here for eight generations. I’m Jewish, but I’m Czech.”

The cantor of Staranovà Sinagoga, whose job is to lead the congregation in prayer, also dismisses the security. Baruch Weiss finds the precaution unnecessary and feels safe in Prague. Given the Czech Republic’s past positive stance toward Israel, Weiss has faith his country will continue supporting Israel and Czech Jews. Weiss explains in a soft British accent the historical understanding Czechs have toward Israelis. The betrayal in the Munich Agreements, which allowed for the invasion and seizing of land by Germany, “gives the Czech people an understanding of how it feels to be surrounded by hostile neighbors,” says Weiss.

The Czech sympathy toward Israelis translates to sympathy for Jews as well, though not many remain in the country. The Czech reaction to Israel’s war in Gaza has been muted. There were two small anti-Israel protests in Prague, both attended by less than 100 people. There were no anti-Semitic chants, no negative references to Jews or violence.

“I’ve run a kosher restaurant for 25 years, and sometimes I’m also a bit anti-Semitic,” Günsberger joked, referencing the dwindling number of Jews who keep kosher. “It’s really hard to survive such a kind of business.” He displays an Israeli flag outside his restaurant and the IDF symbol on his motorbike. In their Czech newspapers, Czechs read about more flagrant anti-Semitism in other European cities than they experience locally, given the Czech government’s support for their institutions and continued upkeep of the Jewish Quarter. 

CONTRASTS IN ISTANBUL

Compared with the balanced Czech newspapers, Tunç observes, “anti-Semitism is embedded in Turkish society. The language isn’t censored because it’s acceptable.” With such strong cultural ties in Turkey, hate speech is not met with the same shock by the public as in the Czech Republic or in other European countries.

Like the Czech Republic, Turkey, too, has a dwindling Jewish community. The number of resident Jews has dropped to 17,000, with 15,000 of them living in Istanbul. Turkey’s population is more than 76 million. There are no areas where Jews historically were forced to live, which allows the Jews to disappear into the population. Andrew Finkel, an American journalist who has been reporting from Turkey for more than 20 years, believes Turkish Jews are protected by their assimilation because “you’d have to find them first to be violent against them.”

The number of Turkish Jews will almost certainly decrease. The coordinator of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, Karen Sarhon, believes that the Jewish presence will diminish even more “especially after these Gaza events and with Erdoğan as President. People are trying to figure out a way to leave before something bad happens. It might not, but you can never be too sure.” Sarhon has not experienced or heard of any violence, but “people shout, ‘Go away, we don’t want you here.’”

The Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center looks like an artifacts museum, as if all the Turkish Jews had already disappeared. The center lies hidden in an apartment building. A doorman checks identification and bags, and uses both a phone and a walkie-talkie to alert the center of visitors. After an elevator ride, a locked gate buzzes open, only to allow access to a staircase that leads to a locked entrance door. Books in Hebrew and Turkish about Jewish philosophy and history, Jewish holidays and traditions, Israeli politics, and by authors as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Paul Auster, stack the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves throughout the office. Menorahs, skullcaps, and awards decorate the books. A glass case in the middle of the room protects mezuzahs, Torah pointers, and silver and cobalt necklaces and bracelets.

None of the synagogues in Istanbul offers daily services anymore. Some are weeknights only, and others unlock their doors just for the Sabbath. Most Turks have never met a Jew or don’t think they have. Rifat Bali, a scholar of non-minority Turkish groups and anti-Semitism, thinks the level of prejudice has remained consistent and that “social media has made it more visible,” which is “why one has the sensation that anti-Semitism increased.”

THE MEDIA

Social media has changed citizens’ view of war. Connectivity allows those formerly removed to sympathize more closely with those in the heat of conflict. During Operation Protective Edge, every global citizen seemed to have commentary to offer.  The issue in Gaza, however, is more than a hashtag. 

Most media in the Czech Republic and Turkey, as well as other parts of the world, do not present the full picture of the two sides or their motivations and the context for this latest conflict. This leads citizens to engage in political debates online and on the streets with incomplete information. Ignorance fuels hatred.

Czech news takes a pro-Israel stance in its coverage, according to Veronika Kuchynova Smigolova, head of the Security Policy Department at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Local papers “report with sympathy toward Israel and the IDF,” though “Czech media in general pays less attention to the Middle East than other places in Europe and the U.S. The Ukrainian crisis is reported on more.”  And when the Czech media reports on the Middle East, the tone is notably neutralized. Czech local paper iDNES ran headlines such as, “A rocket from Gaza, Israel responded with an air raid for the first time” and “Israel started a ground attack in Gaza, about 70 thousand mid-fielders were called.”

That said, Smigolova considers the clearer visibility of anti-Semitic sentiments reported by international media outlets to be “good because people used to say there is no anti-Semitism, but now it’s more acknowledged as a problem.” 

In contrast, Rifat Bali, found that “the local Turkish media reporting of the news is extremely biased. It takes as a fact that Israel is the aggressor and a rogue state and reports accordingly.” And since the IDF is equated with all Israelis, who are equated with all Jews, Turkish Jews become the target of bigotry every time Israel becomes front page news, according to Zeynep Arslan, a soft-spoken and visibly empathetic member of the Hrant Dink Foundation. Slanted news articles in Turkish papers about Israel unleash anger toward the Turkish Jewish community, says Arslan.

The Turkish press has been unfettered in its anti-Semitism during Operation Protective Edge, such as the July 2014 newspaper headlines “Poisonous statements from Israeli PM” on Hürriyet’s front page, “Germany had one Hitler, how many are there in Israel?” from Yeni Akit,  “Occupation, blood, and revenge” from Daily Sabah, “How can I not be anti-Semitic?” from Yeni Akit, “Herzl’s heritage is blood and tears in Gaza” from Star, and “Is killing Zionists licit?” from Yeni Akit, all translated by the international digital forum based out of Israel, The Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism.

The Şalom newspaper aims to reverse prejudice by covering underreported news related to the Jewish community. One editor, who wishes to remain anonymous, defines the mission of Şalom as creating a paper for the Turkish-Jewish community, where they can receive news otherwise unavailable in Turkey, since the only Jew that most Turks know is the Israeli soldier with a gun displayed on Turkish television. The vast majority of Şalom’s online readership identifies itself as non-Jewish.

Şalom is located above the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Research Center, accessible atop a spiral staircase. Five desks just fit in a sparsely decorated white office. Şalom collaborates with its downstairs neighbors by publishing a page of its weekly Turkish paper in the Ladino language. On the other hand, the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Research Center publishes a weekly paper solely in the Sephardic Ladino language. Called Amaneser, it supports the Şalom mission, but also reports on current events unrelated to Jewish affairs.

Despite the scope of Şalom’s paper, the editor still restricts articles devoted to the Gaza conflict and reactions to the war. She admits she self-censors—not  because she’s Jewish, but as a reaction to the way other Turkish media has covered the Gaza conflict. The Şalom editor feels hopeless for the future, especially with the election as president of former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

“Which prime minister would say things like ours?” Sarhon asks, referring to Erdoğan’s July 2014 statement calling on Turkish Jews to apologize for the war in Gaza. “Everyone’s aware that we’re not responsible for the Israeli government, but people still think that we have the power to call Netanyahu and tell him to stop the bombing,” she adds, noting she’s stopped watching Turkish television because of how skewed the information is, calling the obvious media bias “weird and funny and tragic.”

And as Sarhon put it, “the Arabs haven’t won the war, but they have definitely won the media.” 

IDENTITY CRISIS

As is the case in much of the European Union, in the Czech Republic, national identity coexists with religious affiliation for Jews as well as Catholics and Muslims. In Turkey, however, members of the Jewish community have been forced to reconsider what it means to be Turkish, since it is at odds with at least some of their Jewish heritage.

Aaron Günsberger boasts that the Czech Republic is “quite unique” and that on Facebook, “all the discussions—99 percent—are pro-Israel.” He prides himself on being Jewish and is proud of his country for making him feel protected. But reading the news of anti-Semitism in France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom has shocked Günsberger, who realizes that since the Czech Republic is such a small country, more powerful European nations might eventually influence Czech politics.

On the other hand, the Şalom editor noticed that even though anti-Semitism thrives “deep inside” Turkish society, there has been a social media backlash against hate speech. Louis Fishman, an Israeli-American professor living in Istanbul, has also noticed the support Turkish people provide after a wave of anti-Semitic language sweeps the media. After Fishman wrote an article for the Israeli paper Haaretz, the Turkish professor Ali Ihsan Göker tweeted the response “Treblinka will be ready soon. Constructing the railway to transport Jews at the moment.” Fishman said social media has provided a “flip side” by giving an outlet for Turks who support “all Turkish citizens” to publicly defend Fishman and other threatened Jews. Reply tweets called Göker’s language “disgusting” and “shameful.”

The government clearly distinguished Turkish Jews from the Israeli government on July 19 to further support the community, when Erdoğan declared Jews to be “citizens of this country.” But despite this governmental intervention, Erdoğan controls most of the local media, and these outlets demonize the IDF. The language is not as shocking as Göker’s tweet and other stinging remarks on Twitter and Facebook, but “you read between the lines,” Fishman explains. “Erdoğan is giving those editors a rubber stamp, moral support. It was like a sea tide—Erdoğan was drawn into this defamatory language we read now.”

Like a sea tide, Operation Protective Edge has washed up an animosity toward Israel and Jews in Turkey, but this hatred does not have to be an assumed narrative. The Czech Republic’s calm waters show that effective leadership and press laws can quell an anti-Semitic storm. Though Czech Jews enjoy a more privileged existence based on historical partnerships, how the country has maintained this relationship could serve as a model for other countries. By contrast, a more independent Turkish press, more oversight of the Turkish government, and acknowledgment of a turbulent past with Turkish Jews can help establish a safe space in this nation that straddles two fraught regions. The future of European Jewry is unlikely to be marked by a utopian peace, but the urban landscape should be free from spray-painted swastikas and blood spattered cobblestones. 

*****

*****

Aliza Goldberg is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on international security policy and global media.

[Photo courtesy of Adam Jones]

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