Sephardic Jews Leave Turkey for Spain Fleeing ‘Unnerving’ Wave of Anti-Semitism

AP Photo
AP Photo

The increasingly difficult-to-ignore presence of anti-Semitic attitudes in Turkey is forcing Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from their homes due to the Inquisition, to consider returning to Spain and rebuilding their lives there, now that the nation’s legislature is poised to grant them passports.

The New York Times reports that Spain’s Sephardic Ancestry Bill, which is expected to pass this month and would grant dual Spanish citizenship to the Jewish descendants of those expelled from the nation in 1492, is posing an increasingly tempting option to Jews in Istanbul who find themselves increasingly the targets of discrimination in the land in which they were born and raised.

The incidents are many and vary in intensity; Rafi, a 25-year-old Sephardic Jew from Istanbul, tells the Times that a crossword puzzle in a newspaper honoring Adolf Hitler made him think, “there is no future here.”

“Last year the level of hate speech in Turkey reached an unnerving level,” he explained. Among other incidents listed are a running tab of anti-Semitic statements by politicians on television, and a particularly vicious social media rant by Turkish singer Yildiz Tilbe that culminated in “May God bless Hitler.” “I applaud you,” replied the mayor of Ankara.

A poll released in January by the Hrant Dink Foundation found that more than half of Turks believed that Jews are “responsible for most of the world’s wars.” Sixty-nine percent believed Jews were more loyal to Israel than their native countries. Seventy percent answered that Jews “only cared about their own kind.” Sixty-one percent responded affirmatively that anti-Semitism was the product of Jewish “behavior.”

As the New York Times notes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed to be the first Turkish president to denounce anti-Semitism. But even when Turkish officials have attempted to express solidarity with their Jewish constituents, they have failed. In January, for example, speaking at an event observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek used the opportunity to accuse Israel of human rights violations against Palestinians in Gaza, rather than discussing the Holocaust itself.

“I made an immediate request for a Spanish passport. The same goes for my entire family, and actually all the Sephardic Jews in Turkey that I know,” one Turkish Sephardic Jew told Deutsche Welle. He describes the passport not as an immediately tool for fleeing Turkey, but a good tool to pocket “just in case.”

The Times reports that the Jewish population of Turkey has declined from 19,500 to 17,000 in the past ten years, and the welcoming legislation from Spain may expedite the process. Portugal has already passed a similar bill, as Sephardic Jews all over Iberia were affected by the expulsion.

Spanish Minister of Justice Rafael Catalá describes the bill, which could affect up to 3.5 million people, as a way for Spain to pay “its historical debt” with a law that is “transparent, well-articulated, and generous in its content.” Historians have supported the bill, noting that the history of Jews in Spain is, as professor Carlos Aganzo phrased it, “older than the Romans and than ours, and they have never left us, despite the expulsion.” Aganzo places the arrival of Jews in Spain at around the same ancient time as that of the Phoenicians.

Complicating factors is a petition on the part of Spanish Muslims for a similar law to be applied to descendants of Muslims who were forced to leave after Al-Andalus, the traditionally Muslim southern region of Spain, lost its war to the Catholics.

“The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist,” said Bayi Loubaris, the President of the Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus. Such a move proved unpopular in both Spain and Portugal, however. Attorney Jose Ribeiro e Castro, who helped draft the Portuguese Sephardic return law, stated in rebuttal that “persecution of Jews was just that, while what happened with the Arabs was part of a conflict… There’s no basis for comparison.” While the Jews never established a nation-state in Iberia and never went to war with Iberian states, North African Muslim invaders were “expelled” following the loss of a war.

Such a return of Muslim populations to Spain may also trigger yet another way of anti-Semitism. Rising Muslim populations in Sweden, the UK, and France, thanks to generous immigration policies, have heralded in increasingly aggressive anti-Semitic public behaviors in each respecting state. A study by the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP) revealed that Muslims in Europe were responsible for a “disproportionate” number of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe.