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Seven Episodes from our
Turkey Mission and Trip
Episode 5
by Joseph Patrick Meissner

This was my second trip to Turkey, a country and people I very much admire and appreciate. Of course, on my second trip I learn how much I have not learned about Istanbul and Ephesus and Mary's place and Ottoman history.

It is impossible to relate all that happened on this trip. So I have picked out seven specific episodes and hope these may be thought-provoking as well as encourage you to plan a trip to Turkey, the home of Fethullah Gulen and Hizmet.

Episode 5

'Tell us about communities of Jewish background in Turkey?' It is Attorney Ken Kabb's probing question wherever our group talks to people we encounter in Turkey.

This Country sitting on two continents is very proud of its history involving people of Jewish background. The most famous example is the welcoming of Jewish refugees in 1492 by the Ottoman Empire and its Sultan B after the Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon had conquered all of Spain. The new rulers ordered that all Jewish people, as well as Muslims, had to convert to Christianity or leave the country. (Spain was not the first European power to expel Jewish people. See Appendix for more )

More than 100,000 Jewish people left Spain and sailed on ships of the Ottoman Fleet to resettle in the Empire. The Sultan is reported to have remarked, 'If Spain is stupid enough to deport 100,000 of its best people, we Ottomans are smart enough to welcome them to our lands.'

During this trip, we did visit the small museum dedicated to the Jewish heritage in Turkey which is located near the Galata Tower in Istanbul. The museum, which originated from the large celebration in 1992 in both Turkey and America to commemorate the 1492 events, is not that large. Moreover, the display lights did not work on the upper balcony and I got a shock when I tried to turn these on. Also the video monitors did not seem to work.

But there were a fine display of books and other items from Jewish history and culture. There was also a small but excellent bookstore and gift shop near the Museum entrance. We also observed a synagogue and related buildings undergoing rehabilitation in the city of Izmir.

So what are our conclusions? Certainly Turkey is publicly welcoming to its Jewish peoples. Relations between Israel and Turkey have been good at times, and then strained at other. There is now tension which seems to date to the boarding of the Turkish humanitarian vessel and resulting loss of lives. The ship was stopped while it was taking supplies and medicines for Palestine.

The most worrisome fact we encountered is that at one time there were up to 250,000 people of Jewish background living in the Ottoman Empire. This fell off as the Ottoman empire collapsed and later when Israel because available for settlement. But this does not explain why there are less than 20,000 people of Jewish background now in Turkey. These are mostly older people and the number seems like it is subject to further declines.

It was hard to find any Jewish person we could talk to about this. My impression is that many Turkish people (which include others beside Jewish) are very cautious about dialogue with foreigners and seem to follow a strategy of 'keeping their heads down.'

My recommendation is that Turkey needs to recall that 1492 was more than just words.

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