I wandered downhill from Istanbul’s Galata Tower. Moving towards the Bosporus, I meandered into and out of kitsch shops leisurely, enjoying the sights and sounds of the colorful, friendly city, tired from a week of classes in the morning and sightseeing all afternoon and night. As I perused the pins in a junk shop, I grabbed the attention of my travel friend. “Look! There’s a pin of a crossed Turkish and Israeli flag!” I whispered excitedly. We’d been avoiding mentioning we were Israeli because we were warned of rising anti-Semitism in the country, but here, in this shop in the middle of town, there seemed to be an idication that Turkey and Israel could get along. The shopkeeper saw us looking and asked in English, “Oh, you are Jewish?”
As two travelers eager to avoid such conversations, all we came up with in response to such a straightforward question was “uhhh…” And then he asked, “atem medabrim ivrit?!” Hebrew for “you speak Hebrew?” The smiles that immediately broke out on our faces must have been answer enough.
We’d just met Moshe, a Turkish Israeli whose parents had moved to Israel, raised him until his teenage years, and brought the family back due to the normal struggles of immigrants—homesickness and a lack of social integration into the community they’d tried to adopt. In slightly broken, but wonderfully accented Hebrew, Moshe told us about his parents’ struggles with anti-Semitism which drove them to the Promised Land, their unhappiness in a place much smaller than bustling Istanbul, and his modern frustrations with a country he said was growing less welcoming of its Jewish population. He was the first Jewish person we’d met and he told us that, as a kid, he didn’t worry much about walking to school, but he didn’t feel comfortable mentioning his Judaism to his fellow shop owners today.
I was in Istanbul for a semester of coursework for my masters and I had trouble finding ways to connect to Istanbulite Jews. Insular and protective of itself, the Jewish community asks visitors to submit copies of their passports in order to visit synagogues. I never heard back after submitting my application. That summer, while the Muslim world celebrated Ramadan, anti-Israel rhetoric spiked as Israel went to war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. President Erdogan accused Israel of “Hitler-like fascism” and of perpetrating a “systemic genocide” against Palestinians.
But in the street, I felt none of the anger I read in the newspapers. I felt comfortable walking around alone at all hours of the night. Istanbulites themselves were very welcoming.
Merav Ceren holds a BA in International Relations from UCI, where she led the re-establishment of Anteaters for Israel, and is pursuing her Masters in International Relations from Syracuse University.