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Jewish Journal

Turkish Jews Dig Out After Bombs

by Yigal Schleifer

November 20, 2003 | 7:00 pm

A damaged sanctuary in Istanbul's Beit Israel synagogue, shortly after a terrorist bombing Nov. 15, 2003. A pair of truck bombs exploded outside two of Istanbul's largest synagogues Saturday morning, killing 25 people and injuring more than 300. At least six of the dead were known to be Jewish. Photo by Yigal Schleifer/JTA

A damaged sanctuary in Istanbul's Beit Israel synagogue, shortly after a terrorist bombing Nov. 15, 2003. A pair of truck bombs exploded outside two of Istanbul's largest synagogues Saturday morning, killing 25 people and injuring more than 300. At least six of the dead were known to be Jewish. Photo by Yigal Schleifer/JTA

Yoel Ulcer was so set on helping Istanbul's Jewish community that he could hardly wait to turn 18, when he could join the corps of volunteer guards that stands outside synagogues and Jewish institutions in Turkey's commercial capital.

His devotion cost Ulcer his life: He was one of 25 people, including six Jews, killed in twin suicide bombings at the Neve Shalom and Beit Israel synagogues during Sabbath services Saturday morning.

"The reason that he joined is because he wanted to help us," said Berk Termin, a friend of Ulcer's who also is part of the volunteer security group, which is made up of university-aged Jews from the Istanbul community.

"He was waiting for this, because he couldn't join before turning 18. It's something he wanted to do for years."

As an intermittent autumn drizzle turned into a steady downpour on Tuesday, some 3,000 mourners gathered at Istanbul's largest Jewish cemetery, in the same plaza holding the graves of the 22 Jews killed in the 1986 terrorist attack on Neve Shalom, Istanbul's central synagogue which means "Oasis of Peace."

The six Jewish victims were identified as Anna Rubinstein, 85, and her granddaughter, Anita Rubinstein, 8; Avraham Idinvarul, 40; Berta Usdawan, 34; Yona Romano, 50, who died of a heart attack as a result of the bombing; and Ulcer.

Among the crowd were survivors of Saturday's attacks, some of them still in bandages, their faces covered with lacerations.

Over a public address system, the voice of a cantor carried the mournful intonation of a traditional prayer for the dead.

"Throughout time, Jews have been victims of violence and massacres only because they are Jewish," Turkey's chief rabbi, Isak Haleva, told the crowd. "I ask God to come and hold our hands and help us all love each other and help us see human life as something holy."

Speaking before the chief rabbi, Izak Ibrahim Zade, one of the community's leaders, told mourners that life must go on despite the community's tragedy.

"We invite everyone to take on the responsibility to build a better world and a better future for your children," Zade said. "Please, everyone, think about what we can learn from this, and let us all work together to make this a better world."

Turkish Jewish leaders are shocked by the force and sophistication of the bombings of the two synagogues -- but not surprised that the Jewish community was targeted.

"This was bound to happen," said Lina Filiba, executive vice president of the Turkish Jewish community. "Something here is changing. The peaceful life here is different now."

The first truck bomb explosion occurred at 9:30 a.m. near the main entrance of the city's central synagogue, Neve Shalom. The second took place a few minutes later at the back side of the Beit Israel synagogue, in Istanbul's Sisli neighborhood, about three miles away.

The blasts were heard from miles away and left the streets surrounding the synagogues littered with shards of broken glass.

On Wednesday, Turkish officials said DNA tests identified the two Turks who perpetrated the bombings. Mesut Cabuk, 29, and Gokhan Elaltuntas, 22, carried out the attacks. A radical Turkish group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Turkish officials said the bombings were too sophisticated to have been carried out solely by a homegrown group.

Condemnations poured in from around the world, including from such unlikely sources as Iran and Malaysia, both Muslim nations.

Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, flew to Turkey on Sunday to visit the bombing sites and meet with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also toured the site Sunday afternoon, accompanied by Gul.

Turkish police arrested three people in connection with the bombings, but they already had been released a day later, according to news reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened the weekly Cabinet meeting with a statement of condolences for the victims.

"We saw yesterday yet again that terrorism knows no bounds," Sharon said. "Terrorism doesn't discriminate by religion or blood. The aim of terrorism is one, to sow fear and terror through the slaying of innocent people."

International Jewish organizations also mobilized. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is raising funds to help Turkey's Jewish and general community after Saturday's attacks.

"This was an attack on Turkish society," in which Jews have lived since the Spanish Inquisition, said Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the JDC. Schwager said the group hopes to raise a few million to rebuild the synaogues destroyed in the attack and restore local shops.

For its part, the Jewish Agency for Israel dispatched a mission of high-level staff to the region Saturday evening. The group included two psychologists who are terror specialists and two youth leaders who are familiar with the Istanbul Jewish community. In addition, the Jewish Agency held an emergency conference call Saturday evening with members of world Jewish communities, including France, England, South America and the United States, to determine ways to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The group plans to meet again soon to address threats to Jews worldwide.

Overnight, religious Israeli forensic volunteers, still in their Sabbath clothes, donned fluorescent vests and scoured the bomb sites for body parts.

"We are, unfortunately, used to terror in Israel and feel we can help here, in accordance with Jewish law," their spokesman told curious local journalists.

An Israeli diplomat noted that Turkey was ripe for violence by Islamic terrorists.

"As the world's only Muslim democracy, with ties to Israel, Turkey is doubly likely to be hit by Islamist terrorism. That puts Turkish Jews all the more at risk," the diplomat said, according to Reuters.

Such concerns were nothing new for Nessli Varol, a 23-year-old daughter of Turkish emigres who flew in from Israel for the funeral of an uncle killed in the Beit Israel attack.

"The Jews here have a prosperous life, but there is also fear. They stick together and avoid too much exposure," she told Reuters. "When I used to visit my grandmother as a child, she would tell her Muslim friends I was from France, rather than Israel."

Jewish community officials said they have been on high alert for the last three months regarding possible attacks and had notified the police about their concerns. Security at Istanbul's synagogues had been increased in response, officials said.

"If we didn't have security as good as it is, the tragedy could have been a lot worse. We wouldn't have been as lucky," community leader Filiba said.

In front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue, a deep crater marked the spot where Turkish officials said the small, explosives-packed truck blew up. A blackened axle was all that remained of the vehicle.

The stone and wrought-iron facade of the synagogue was completely destroyed, the synagogue's foyer filled with a tangle of twisted metal and shattered glass.

The synagogue is located on a narrow street in one of Istanbul's most historic districts, an area filled with small shops selling lamps and chandeliers. The explosion devastated the entire length of the street, shattering store windows and leaving some balconies on the verge of collapse.

"I heard the explosion. I thought it was an earthquake. From my front terrace I saw people coming out of the synagogue, some of them covered in blood," said Gulen Guler, who lives in a building a few doors down from Neve Shalom. "We could see bodies lying in the street and windows smashed everywhere."

Neve Shalom's sanctuary is set off from the street, so the number of injured was relatively low and the damage was limited to the entrance.

Most of the day's injured came from the Beit Israel synagogue, which was filled with an estimated 300 people, many of them there to celebrate the recent renovation of a smaller sanctuary in the back of the synagogue, close to where the car bomb exploded.

After the bombing, that sanctuary was littered with dust and shattered glass, prayer books and blood-stained prayer shawls covering the ground and the rows of wooden chairs.

The force of the explosion carried through the synagogue, completely blowing out a large window in the building's front, leaving a large empty circle where a stained glass Star of David used to be.

An outlawed Turkish radical group called the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders Front claimed responsibility for the attacks. Turkish officials dismissed the claim, however, saying the group did not have the resources to mount this kind of coordinated attack.

In a news conference, Turkey's interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, said similar trucks were used in the two attack and that they contained similar explosives, according to initial police analysis.

"It is obvious that this terrorist attack has some international connections," Gul, the foreign minister, said.

Gul's claim was echoed by local Israeli diplomats, who compared the attack to an April 2002 Al-Qaida car bombing of a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. That attack killed 21 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Several other high-profile attacks on Jewish targets have been carried out in the past year. Last November, an Israeli-owned hotel was bombed in Kenya, and missiles fired at an Israeli passenger plane leaving a nearby airport narrowly missed. Then, in May, Jewish institutions were targeted in a series of terrorist bombings in Casablanca, Morocco.

Israel had warned Turkey several times of the possibility of an attack on the country's Jewish community, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported.

"I'm sure the Turkish government has done everything possible to prevent an attack like this," said Pinchas Avivi, Israel's new ambassador to Turkey. "To my great sorrow, the organization and sophistication of this attack indicate that it wasn't a local organization."

"Unfortunately, we are seeing this kind of attack again," said Moris Levi, a member of the Jewish community's advisory board.

"After the Neve Shalom attack in 1986, our community was very united," Levi said. "Today, our synagogues will be open in the afternoon and I'm sure many people will go. All we can do is help the families who lost people."

Funds for the JDC's relief effort in Turkey can be sent to "JDC-Turkey Assistance," at Box 372, 8472-A Second Ave., New York, New York, 10017.

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