Turkish Jews search for answers

A suicide attack against two Istanbul synagogues this weekend killed 25 and wounded more than 300.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Berta Rayna goes to synagogue only on special occasions - like the bar mitzvah she was attending on Saturday when powerful suicide bombings hit two of the city's main synagogues. The attacks killed 25 people and injured over 300 in a strike that authorities say was perpetrated by Turks trained by Al Qaeda.

Tuesday, the red-haired grandmother was one of several thousand mourners who huddled in the freezing rain to lay to rest six victims from the Jewish community - a minority amid Muslim casualties. As Ms. Rayna stood with her daughter and granddaughter, she struggled with the images running on replay in her head: the crash of the explosion, the shattering of crystal teardrops in the chandeliers, the people who didn't make it.

Turkey's entire Jewish community is in a similar state of shock after the weekend bombings, trying to come to terms with its future in a Muslim country which has been largely hospitable to Jews - but which is no longer on the fringes of the map of the Middle East's problems. Although synagogues and individual Jews here have been attacked before, Saturday's bombings appear to mark the first time Turks have been involved in a major attack on a Jewish target. A 1986 attack on the Neve Shalom synagogue, where Rayna was on Saturday, was carried out by Palestinians affiliated with the Abu Nidal group.

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"I married all three of my children there," she says, her blue eyes turning glassy behind her large spectacles. "But right now, I wouldn't go back there for quite a while."

Fears of additional attacks have raised concerns in Istanbul that the city's Jews, a largely middle-class population of about 20,000 people, will have a hard time picking up the pieces. Already, many of the city's approximately 15 synagogues are in well-guarded, unmarked buildings, while youth and social clubs are tucked anonymously into quiet side streets.

Still, the community had been undergoing something of a renaissance in the past few years, with an upsurge in cultural activities. In September, the community participated in a European-wide day of Jewish culture by holding openhouses in all of its synagogues, institutions, and museums. Now, those doors are likely to close - all social activities and meetings have been canceled until further notice.

"I have a feeling that this will affect people in a very bad way. People were just starting to send their kids out to be more involved with the community, and now I think they will be more afraid," says Stella Issever, a community veteran who came back to Istanbul from the US Thursday - and narrowly missed the bombings by choosing to attend a different synagogue. "But for someone who goes to synagogue, it's a part of life, and you can't not go back to it."

Silvyo Ovadya, a spokesman for the community, says he hopes the community will recover as soon as the buildings are repaired. "In the long term, people will come again, because the real issue isn't Turkish terrorism, it's international terrorism. Maybe they used Turkish people to do it, but the planning was not made in Turkey."

Indeed, Turkish officials say that the bombings have links to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, and that the men suspected of carrying out the bombings had training abroad. According to reports in major Turkish newspapers, Turkish officials have been tracing these links ever since a notebook containing suicide bombing instructions in Turkish was found in an abandoned Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan not long after the fall of the Taliban two years ago.

"It has emerged that there is a link with an organization in Afghanistan in terms of belief and understanding," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters. "A trail has been found and relationships have emerged."

Turkish media also carried the names and photographs of alleged Turkish militants who were said to have come from southeastern Turkey. Three of the four trained in Pakistan and Iran, Reuters reported, and one had fought in predominantly Muslim Chechnya against Russian troops.

Many members of the Turkish Jewish community are descendants of ancestors who fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, which demanded mass conversion to Catholicism. The Ottoman sultanate welcomed Jews here, building the Turkish empire's reputation for diversity and tolerance.

More accurately, however, this is a community that historians say dates at least to the Byzantine Empire, and possibly earlier. Today, there are an estimated 25,000 Jews across the country, although experts say the real numbers have been dwindling due to assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates, and emigration other countries.

Rifat Bali, a historian of the community, says that its leaders have sought to downplay its shrinking numbers and other problems. He points to a largely marginalized society that - as if according to unwritten rules - is expected to stay out of politics and public life. "The Turkish Jews have not been fully integrated or Turkified, and they have had to limit their expectations. A kid grows up knowing he is never going to become a government minister, so no one tries, and the same goes for positions in the military," says Mr. Bali.

As Turkey's chief rabbi, Isak Haleva, spoke at Tuesday's funeral, he invoked the country's founding father, Kemal Ataturk, quoting his motto calling for "Peace inside our borders, peace in the world." Said Haleva: "We can't think of any religion that would support such actions. From now on, we will pray for anyone who goes out to pray."

In the masses of mourners, a pretty young woman stood with tears running down her face and a picture of a Berta Ozdogan - one of the victims - pinned to her white jacket. Betul Basol, a Muslim, cried for her co-worker, a Jewish woman who was four months pregnant - and married to a Muslim man.

The couple were killed on Saturday as they walked into the Bar Mitzvah celebration. "They were very happy. For us, it doesn't matter which religion you are," says Ms. Basol. "It's a good thing neither of them left the other behind."

The rain came down harder, and Rayna looked up at the sky. "You see the weather?" she asks. "That's because God is crying."

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