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Jews in Istanbul
Zulfaris Synagogue. Photo: flickr/Alan

Jews have lived in the geographic area of today's Turkey for more than 2400 years. Their greatest influx into the Ottoman Empire occurred during the reign of Beyazid II (1481-1512), who issued a formal invitation to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. These so-called Sephardic Jews have since played an important role in the life of Istanbul. 

The 20th century has not been kind to Istanbul's Jews, however. Turkification policies in the 1920s, pogroms in Thrace in 1934 and the Varlık Vergisi ("wealth tax") of 1942, which impoverished most of the non-Muslims, losing most of their property in the process, all played a role. The "wealth tax" had probably the most detrimental effect on the numbers of the Jewish community. Many, unable to pay the tax, were sent to labour camps, and thousands emigrated. At the same time, Turkey offered refuge to prominent German Jews escaping from the Holocaust.

After the foundation of the state of Israel, Jews from Turkey emigrated in great numbers to Israel, where they have since established several associations and foundations. After the September 1955 riots, thousands more fled Turkey. There have also been tragic attacks, the most fatal in 1986, when 22 Jews were killed at the Neve Shalom Synagogue. In 2003, an attack on two synagogues in Istanbul (Neve Shalom and Beth Israel), carried out by Turkish and Kurdish supporters of Al-Qaeda, killed 6 Jews.

The present size of the Jewish community is estimated at between 23,000 and 26,000. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2,500 settled in Izmir. Sephardic Jews make up approximately 96 percent of Turkey's Jewish population.

Turkish Jews are still legally represented by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi, currently Izak Haleva. Born in Istanbul in 1940, he graduated from Beyoglu Jewish High School and continued his higher education in Jerusalem. After his military service from 1961-63 he started working on the staff of the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey.

Izak Haleva

October 2008

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