In Turkey and North Africa, cause not for alarm, but for ‘extreme caution’

In Turkey and North Africa, cause not for alarm, but for ‘extreme caution’

By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound

The news out of Turkey, when it comes to politics and Jewish life, is bleak.

The positive relationship between Turkey and Israel has been deteriorating at least since Turkey began showing support for Hamas during Israel’s 2008-09 war in Gaza, and it only worsened after the deadly altercation between the Turkish flotilla Mavi Marmara and the Israeli navy in 2010. Turkey’s rightward shift and support for the Palestinians has become a cause for concern.

Yet Jewish life there is still vibrant, if only a shadow of its former self. That was the subject of Sam Amiel’s July 23 talk, “A Night in Istanbul.” Amiel, senior program director for Europe and the North Africa region at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, met with a small group to discuss the countries he works with, particularly Turkey.

“It’s an opportunity to share with them from a personal standpoint and a professional standpoint what is happening in the Jewish world,” Amiel told the Jewish Sound before the event.

Amiel, a Seattle native whose work with the JDC has taken him around the world, now lives in Israel with his wife and their three kids. During his whirlwind tour, he was able to log just a couple of days with his family here before moving on.

Amiel considers himself a liaison to the Turkish Jewish community, helping them when they need help, usually with technical issues like the merging of two half-empty Jewish nursing homes. The JDC has no office there.

“The Jewish community there is highly self-reliant,” he said. “They’ve lived there for centuries. This isn’t the first cycle of tension.”

For Amiel, whose mother’s side of the family originally hails from Turkey, working with the Turkish community is a closing of the circle.

“I think it’s a positive definition of assimilation,” Amiel said of Turkish Jews’ proud identification with their country. “They have a very rich history; they have a very, very proud history.”

Despite the political tensions, the Turkish community is vibrant, Amiel said, with an annual Limmud conference, a new community center in Istanbul, a strong Jewish day school, and good lay leadership.

“The darker lining around that cloud is that it’s in demographic decline,” he said.

The aging community of less than 20,000 faces the same threats as every Jewish community, like intermarriage.

“Given that it’s a very traditional Sephardic community, it has a little more difficulty coming to terms with those kids of issues,” he said.

And anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment does affect the community, which Amiel notes is not necessarily a cause for alarm, but for “extreme caution.” Particularly since the bombing of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in 2003, the community has increased security and kept a lower profile.

“They’re very careful in terms of how they react,” Amiel said. “But at the same time they are an extremely legitimate, sometimes public, minority. They’re quick to respond [to anti-Semitism].

“Many in the community find it unfortunate that the rhetoric of the ruling party resonates with a part of the country that doesn’t understand a difference between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism,” Amiel continued. “That line is very blurred and spills over.”

Amiel’s work in Turkey is quite different from his work in North Africa, where just a remnant of the former Jewish communities exists. In Egypt, the JDC provides cash stipends, medicine, and food at holiday times to the 25 or so remaining Jews.

“There is an attempt by those who are left to say, ‘We are Egyptian and always have been Egyptian,’” he said. “The concern is that they’ll be able to make it through and die with dignity.”

Working with the Egyptian community has also been a full-circle experience for Amiel, since his father was born in Alexandria.

There are no JDC country representatives in Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco, but Amiel stays in touch with the community leaders to keep a finger on the pulse of the community, particularly when it comes to anti-Semitic rhetoric or political riots that could spill over into the community.

“They’re the ones who say to us either we need help [or we don’t],” said Amiel. “They’re mature communities that know what to do during difficult times.”