Sephardic Jews Feel Bigotry’s Sting in Turkey and a Pull Back to Spain

Istanbul — For Rafi, a local newspaper’s anti-Semitic crossword puzzle was the final affront. He knew he had to leave Turkey.

“There are many reasons to leave: a lack of work opportunities, growing polarization within society and oppressive leadership. But the hatred toward our community has been the tipping point for me,” said Rafi, 25, a graphic designer based in Istanbul, who provided only his first name out of fear of harassment by Turkish nationalists. “There is no future here.”

Rafi is one of thousands of Sephardic Jews in Turkey who trace their ancestry to Spain and are now applying for Spanish citizenship in anticipation of a parliamentary bill expected to pass this month in Madrid that would grant nationality to the Jews who were expelled in 1492, during the Inquisition.

Most are seeking visa-free travel within Europe and an opportunity to escape what they see as rising anti-Semitism in Turkey. But many are taken with the idea of reversing the trek their ancestors took centuries ago as they escaped persecution in Spain and settled in the more tolerant environs of the Ottoman Empire.

Anti-Jewish sentiment is not uncommon in the Turkish news media, but the implications of the crossword puzzle sent shock waves across Turkey. It featured an image of Adolf Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for you.”

“Jews are attacked all over the world, but last year the level of hate speech in Turkey reached an unnerving level,” Rafi said.

During the 15th century, about half a million Sephardic Jews sought the safety of the Ottoman Empire, and they prospered there under the rule of Sultan Bayezid II.

“The Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled,” the British-American historian Bernard Lewis wrote in his book “The Jews of Islam.”

But since the beginning of the 20th century and the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey’s Jewish population has been in sharp decline. A discriminatory wealth tax in the 1940s introduced by a secularist government, along with the establishment of the state of Israel, reduced the number of Jewish residents by tens of thousands.

Those who stayed faced pressure to assimilate, and Turkish quickly replaced Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of Sephardic Jews. Today, only a small portion of older Sephardic Jews speak the language of their forebears.

“My grandmother would sing me Ladino lullabies, but I can only remember a few words,” Rafi said. “Our generation is focusing on learning modern Spanish for Spanish citizenship.”

Over the past decade, under the government of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, and pressured by a string of deadly terrorist attacks on synagogues and a surge in anti-Semitism, the Jewish population — the vast majority of whom are Sephardic — has shrunk to 17,000 from 19,500 in 2005, according to figures obtained from the chief rabbinate in Istanbul.

Although Jews have felt increasingly uneasy over the past two years, Selin Nasi, a columnist for Salom, a Jewish weekly, acknowledged that Turkey had taken some positive symbolic steps to improve relations with Jews.

The Turkish government spent $2.5 million on a project to restore the Great Synagogue of Edirne and participated in the United Nations’ Holocaust Day for the first time this year.

“These steps are good, but we never see a continuation,” Ms. Nasi said. “It’s always one step forward, one step back, confusing rhetoric and inconsistent implementation that causes the community to be apprehensive.”

At a rally last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted that he was the first Muslim leader to denounce anti-Semitism. He has, however, engaged in heated exchanges with the Israeli leadership, primarily over Gaza. Some analysts say that those disputes, combined with his dissemination of conspiracy theories that often implicate Jews, have encouraged anti-Semitism.

Apprehension among Jews in Istanbul rose in 2013, after Mr. Erdogan accused an “interest rate lobby” of backing widespread antigovernment protests that were supposedly meant to bring down the economy and topple his government.

“In Turkey, you could say anti-Semitism is marginalized, until you turn on the TV and see the president and other politicians cursing Jews in public,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who specializes in Turkish-Israeli affairs. “When you have public displays of hate speech from politicians, it changes the landscape considerably.”

According to a poll conducted in July 2013 for the Anti-Defamation League, 69 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. During the war last summer between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, pro-government news outlets in Turkey began a series of anti-Semitic social media campaigns that stoked anti-Jewish sentiment.

After a Turkish singer posted “May God bless Hitler” on Twitter, Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, who has over 2.5 million followers, responded, “I applaud you,” and he encouraged others to chime in.

Many Turks put the blame for the rise in anti-Jewish feelings on the actions of the Israeli government, particularly the killing of civilians during the Gaza war. “If the Turkish Jewish community does not put an end to Israel’s actions, very bad things happen,” Bulent Yildirim, president of the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

But in the eyes of most of the Jews who were interviewed, that amounts to collective punishment. “When lashing out at Israel, the government condemns Jews without making a differentiation, which incites hatred toward the community,” said Mert Levi, 26, a Sephardic Jew who left Turkey for a few months last summer because of the tensions he felt in Istanbul.

“It was so thick, you could have cut it with a knife,” he said. “It got so bad that in some circles, we had to think twice before giving our names.”

In Bursa, the northwestern province where the first Sephardic Jews arrived by sea in the 16th century, only 65 Jews remain, most of them advanced in age. Over the decades, thousands of families have moved to Istanbul and Izmir, a southern city, to seek better work and education prospects.

The Jews of Bursa have never experienced anti-Semitism. “If anything, our community has been embraced and respected,” said Leon Ennekave, 70, the president of the Bursa Jewish Foundation.

“People here know us. They remember our heyday, when this street was lined with Jewish shops and restaurants, and it was called ‘Jewish Street.’ ”

Yet even in this province, Jews are concerned that given the high symbolic value of Bursa, mounting tensions in other parts of the country could result in copycat terrorist attacks here.

Two synagogues, the only visible remnants of the Sephardim left on Jewish Street today, have been heavily fortified.

One resident, Sara, said her grandfather was more cautious than Jews who had been subjected to anti-Semitism in Istanbul. “Sometimes when people point to the gate of the synagogue and ask what is behind it, he tells people it is a church so as not to draw attention to it,” said Sara, who gave only her first name.

The headquarters of the Jewish foundation is in a nondescript white building marked by a single Turkish flag. Inside, Mr. Ennekave sat opposite a large security screen, split to show 18 camera views, and he spoke in Ladino with a friend until a Turk entered the room.

“Things have happened in the past, so we have to take precautions,” he said.

But Mr. Ennekave maintains that Bursa’s Jewish population has harmoniously coexisted with the Turks for centuries and has no reason for concern. “The only anti-Semitism we witness is what we see on television or hear from our relatives in Istanbul,“ he said.

“If you set your sails in the direction of the wind, your ship will sail smoothly and no harm will come of you,” Mr. Ennekave said. “That’s the position our community has taken to remain in this country.”