Jews and Turks: Centuries of Goodwill

By Heather Abraham

While working out in my neighborhood gym last week I was unfortunate enough to overhear a conversation between several gym members who had been watching the multiple televisions on display, most of which were tuned into channels covering the clash between the Israeli army and Turkish nationals aboard a relief flotilla attempting to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza.  Discussing the situation, these men concluded that this was just another “Muslim attempt to threaten Israel” and that “Turks were anti-Semitic by nature of their religion.”  Wow! 

This encounter reminded me of another conversation that occurred several months ago, when my husband and I attended a dinner party where he happily reconnected with old friends from Turkey.  During the evening, I found myself in conversation with a Jewish American woman whose family had emigrated from Turkey just after World War II.  As she was narrating her family’s history, another guest inquired as to why her family had left Turkey given that Jews have historically been well received in Muslim Turkey.  To my dismay, she responded that although Turkish Jews were not harmed during World War II, they were harassed and accounted for just in case Germany invaded Turkey.  Although several Turks questioned and argued against the accuracy of this statement, the women appeared to be firm in her beliefs.  Needless to say, I was astounded by her statements and more than a little troubled.  This may be how entertaining urban legends begin but in this period of religious dissension, I think that we need to look at the facts, be responsible, and refrain from creating or adding to existing disinformation.  

Truth be told, Turkish Jews were not harassed, treated badly, nor did they live in fear of their own government.  It is true that Turks, regardless of religious affiliation, were concerned that Nazi Germany may turn its attention southward toward Istanbul, as it would not be the first nation to covet the strategic land that spans the two continents of Europe and Asia.  World War II was a time of horrific battles and crimes against humanity but the story of Turkey and its Turkish Jews is one of bravery and is the story of the conviction of a nation to protect all of its citizens from the Nazi war machine, regardless of religious background, even if it meant putting the lives of their diplomats on the line to do so.  

Although our culture is well versed on the horrifying events of World War II, the story of the Turkish Jews is one that has unfortunately slipped into obscurity.  In this time of religious discord, I believe it is important to remember that it has not always been so and that, contrary to popular media portrayals, religious differences do not, for the vast majority, signify hatred, distrust, or the negation of humanity.  Although the vast majority of Turks are Muslims, Jews have for centuries lived and practiced their religion in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey without fear of discrimination or harm and during WWII, the Republic of Turkey went to great lengths to protect their Jewish citizens from the Nazi’s final solution.  

During World War II, Turkish Jews living abroad were protected by their Turkish citizenship and a highly concerned Turkish diplomatic machine which worked tirelessly to protect its Jewish citizens; often times rescuing them from European nations occupied or controlled by Nazi Germany.  Stanford J. Shaw, Professor of Turkish History- UCLA, encapsulates the efforts of the Turkish Republic to save its Jewish citizens during WWII.    

While six million Jews were being exterminated by the Nazis, the rescue of some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and even of some 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe might well be considered as relatively insignificant in comparison. It was, however, very significant to the people who were rescued, and above all it showed that, as had been the case for more than five centuries, Turks and Jews continued to help each other in times of great crises.    

Turkish diplomats in Europe, especially in Nazi controlled France, did not sit idly by and allow their Jewish citizens to be subject to Nazi persecution but made tremendous efforts to ensure their safety; protesting the arrests and persecution of Turkish citizens by reinforcing official Turkish policy which argued that as 

Turkey made no distinction among its citizens of different religions, and that under treaties maintained between Turkey and Germany, the latter therefore had no right to distinguish between Muslim and Jewish Turks.                                                                                                                                               

Victoria Barrett

As longs as a Jew could prove Turkish citizenship, they were officially not subject to European anti-Semitic legislation but were under the protection of the Turkish government.  Unfortunately, thousands of Jews, in embracing their new European identity, had let their Turkish citizenship lapse.  Turkish diplomats worked around the clock with Ankara to process the thousands of requests by Jews to reestablish their Turkish citizenship.  In many cases, they were issued a temporary Certificates of Irregular Turkish Citizenship which kept the Nazi authorities temporarily at bay.  Knowing that their diplomatic arguments would only, at best, delay the inevitable, Turkish authorities moved decisively and determinedly to ensure the safety of their citizens.  Turkish officials removed many Turkish Jews from occupied Europe on organized train caravans which plodded dangerously through Nazi occupied territory as it made its way to the safety of the Turkish border.  

In 2001, documentary film maker and director Victoria Barrett’s film Desperate Hours debuted on PBS. Barrett’s film explores Turkish and Jewish history primarily focusing on the period surrounding WWII and tells of individual and collective efforts of Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in Turkey and working to rescue Jews from certain death in Europe’s concentration camps.  


Jews and Turks have long enjoyed a complex and primarily peaceful history.  This most recent crack in Israeli-Turkish relations does not negate the bond that has existed between Jews and Turks throughout the centuries beginning with the Ottoman period and moving through the establishment and flourishing of the Turkish Republic.  Turkey has been a friend and ally to Israel and in 1949 was the first Muslim nation to officially recognize the State of Israel.  Encouraged by the media, we often mistake current events as reflections of historical relationships.  This could not be further from the truth.  

Although Turkey and Israel have a solid historical relationship, there are ultra religious conservatives in both Turkey and Israel that are working to inflame the situation for their own political/theological agendas.  The dangers of allowing religious beliefs to dictate political policy are numerous and yet both countries too often appear to be bowing to the pressures of the ultra conservative minority.  Blanket statements labeling Turks as “anti-Semitic by nature of their religion” are not only historically inaccurate but such statements propagate religious and political discord.

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