ISTANBUL — A THANKSGIVING service to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival in Turkey of the Jews who were expelled from Spain was held earlier this month at the Neve Shalom synagogue here, only four days after a bomb attack.
The service started a year-long series of celebrations to include the inauguration of a five-century-old synagogue now being restored and the setting up of a Jewish Museum, as well as conferences, concerts, exhibitions, and other efforts to revive the ancient Judeo-Spanish culture.
The terrorist attack, reported to be the work of the Lebanon-based, Iranian-backed, Shiite group Hizbullah, has not prevented the Jewish community here from celebrating what leaders describe as "five centuries of peaceful and prosperous Jewish life" in this predominantly Muslim country.
"Turkey's tolerance and respect for human rights existed centuries ago, at a time when those concepts did not exist elsewhere," Chief Rabbi David Asseo said at the thanksgiving service. "This could be taken as an example by others."
Sephardic Jews have lived in Turkey free of discrimination since their ancestors were offered sanctuary by the Ottoman Empire in 1492. Indeed, the Turks have gained a reputation for not only letting Jewish citizens live in peace, but also providing those fleeing repression - under Nazi-occupied countries during World War II, for example - with asylum or free passage.
Jewish historians recognize that the 500 years of Jewish life in Turkey constitute a unique and privileged chapter of the eventful history of the Jews in the Diaspora.
According to Cetin Yetkin, a Turkish political scientist and author of a recent book on Turkish-Jewish relations, the reason for this is the convergence of interests of both sides. "The Turks ... have always opened their arms to and lived in harmony with the Jews. The Jews, unlike other religious groups and minorities at certain times of history, have always been loyal to the country and have served well the national causes."
Today, the 26,500 Jews in this country of 56 million are engaged in trade and industry, the professions, and the arts.
"The Jews in Turkey are taking an active part in the nation's development," says Silvio Ovadia, editor of the Jewish weekly Shalom, published in Istanbul. "They are also engaged in reactivating Jewish life."
The quincentennial has provided an impetus for an extensive effort to revive Sephardic language, art, and culture, which were on the verge of disappearing. Turkey's Jews have used Ladino (the Jewish Spanish language used by those expelled from Spain) as their mother tongue for almost 500 years, but it has been fading in the last 50 years. Songs and literature in Ladino have been disappearing as well.
As a result of the effort to "rediscover" this cultural heritage, hundreds of traditional Sephardic folk songs are now being performed by a group called The Sephardic Birds. The weekly Shalom continues to carry a page in Ladino, still widely spoken among the older generation, and organizes Ladino language courses for younger people.
While the recent terrorist attack and an anti-Jewish campaign by some Islamic fundamentalists cause concern among Jews, they say they do not change their views on the nature of their experience as Turkish citizens.