While attending the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Brazil, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an unexpectedly met with two American Jewish men and took the opportunity to assure the Jewish population of Turkey that he would protect them, despite the country’s worsening relations with Israel.
“Under my leadership, the Jewish community in Turkey is safe and under my protection. We [Turks] see them as our brothers,” Erdo?an said on Thursday.
He reportedly told the two Jewish men in Rio that he made a strong distinction between the Jewish people and the policies of the Israeli government.
“Our problem is with the aggressive attitude of the Israeli government,” Erdogan said.
“We have to find a solution for the problems in the Middle East. Israel should treat Palestinians better.”
Once strong allies, Israel and Turkey have become increasingly alienated since May 2010 when Israeli commandoes killed nine Turks who were part of an international flotilla seeking to break the blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza and deliver supplies to the Palestinians there.
Israel has never formally apologized for the incident -- in retaliation, Ankara drastically reduced its military and diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
But Jews have a long and glorious history in Turkey. Ironically, in a country that has committed grave atrocities against its Greek, Kurdish and Armenian minorities over the centuries, the Jews have found Turkey to be a relatively safe haven.
When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, from 2,000 miles to the east, the Turkish Sultan Bayazid II welcomed them with open arms.
In the subsequent decades and centuries, Jews fleeing persecution from other states found refuge in Ottoman Turkey. Four Turkish cities, Istanbul, Izmir, Safed and Salonica (which is now in Greece), became flourishing centers of Jewish culture.
By the twentieth century, the founder of the modern Turkish nation, Gamal Ataturk, invited some German Jews to his country to escape the Nazi holocaust.
Jews had a relatively peaceful existence in Turkey until September 1955, during the so-called Istanbul Pogrom, an organized mob attack that targeted the homes and businesses of the city’s Greek, Armenian and Jewish minority communities. The incident prompted about 10,000 Jews to depart Turkey.
Since that time, violent attacks on Turkish Jews, including the 2003 bombing of an Istanbul synagogue that killed 20 people, have been carried out primarily by Arab terrorists.
There are now about 26,000 Jews in Turkey, concentrated principally in Istanbul.