Istanbul and Hallel

After the Istanbul airport terror attack that left 49 dead and hundreds wounded, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement, “Make no mistake, for terror groups, there are no differences between Istanbul, London, Berlin, Ankara or Chicago.”

Too bad he left out Tel Aviv. Too bad he left out Kiryat Arba.

Because just two days after the Istabul horror, a 17 year-old Palestinian terrorist named Mohammad Tra'ayra, climbed over a fence in the Israeli town of Kiryat Arba, burst into a  home, and stabbed to death 13-year-old Hallel Yaffe Ariel as she slept.

The girl’s blood on the floor, walls and mattress of her childhood bedroom is no different, no less precious and holy than the blood staining the entryway to the Istanbul airport.  the brutality and senselessness no less profound, the sorrow of her family — of us all — no less deep.

What did Erdogan, the self-styled leader of Sunni Muslims, say following her murder? 

Nothing. And that’s a second tragedy.

Because unless and until Muslim leaders condemn all terror, whether it takes place in Istanbul or New York or Paris or Hebron, terror will continue to spread.  Accepting terror anywhere is accepting terror everywhere.

For decades, Israel has been the canary in the coal mines for international terror.  No matter how brutal the Palestinian tactics — killing schoolchildren in Ma’alot,  pushing a wheelchair-bound old man off a cruise ship, blowing up diners at a pizza restaurant — the vast majority of Muslim leaders have either remained silent or rationalized the murders.  Before the 1967 Six Day War, acts of terror against Israelis were justified as part of a war for liberation.  After 1967, the rationale for killing innocents has been that it is a war against occupation.  

The sickness continues. After Hallel’s murderer was shot dead by an Israeli security guard, his parents quickly pronounced their cowardly son a “martyr.”  Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said nothing, and, according to a report in Haaretz, the coward’s family will receive compensation for his death from the PA.

By giving terrorists a pass in their attacks on innocent Jews, the Muslim world helps them perfect their tactics and elevates murderers to heroes.  And then they are shocked, shocked, when these delusional young men and woman inspire others to use these same tactics against innocent Turks, Parisians and Saudis. 

You reap what you sow.  The same sick terrorist minds who believe they are giving the Jews what their Muslim leaders think they have coming, now are getting the same violence coming at them.  If not one of them will condemn the murder of a 13-year-old child in her bed, not one of them should be surprised when the next stabbing takes the life of one of their own sons and daughters. There was zero justification, zero, to take the life of Hallel.   Stabbing an innocent in cold blood is inhuman and despicable. It is anti-peace and, therefore, anti-Palestinian. And the Palestinians who justify it can and will go to hell until they figure that out.

A day after the murder, a Palestinian peace activist named Nadiya al-Noor said it best.

In a column on the Times of Israel website, she wrote, “Let me tell you something. Stabbing pregnant women in the stomach is not ‘resistance.’ Shooting people at a cafe is not ‘resistance.’ Driving your car into pedestrians is not ‘resistance.’ Bombing a bus is not ‘resistance.’ Breaking into a woman’s home and murdering her in front of her children is not ‘resistance.’ And stabbing a little girl to death in the one place where she was supposed to be safe is certainly not ‘resistance.’ Terrorism is not resistance. Terrorism is an unjustifiable crime.”

This is the simple truth Erdogan and other Muslim leaders must begin to convey to their people. And they can add this as well: It starts with the Jews. It never ends there.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Dozens killed, more than 100 wounded in suicide attack at Istanbul airport

UPDATED 4:02pm

Three suicide bombers opened fire before blowing themselves up at the entrance to the main international airport in Istanbul, killing at least 28 people, the provincial governor said earlier.

The number of people wounded in Tuesday's attack on Istanbul's main international airport rose to 106, broadcaster NTV said, citing hospital sources, while another network, Haberturk, said the number was 147, citing a justice minister.

Police fired shots to try to stop the attackers just before they reached a security checkpoint at the arrivals hall of the Ataturk airport but they blew themselves up, one of the officials said.

Speaking in parliament, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that based on initial information he could only confirm there had been one attacker.

“According to information I have received, at the entrance to the Ataturk Airport international terminal a terrorist first opened fire with a Kalashnikov and then blew themself up,” he said in comments broadcast by CNN Turk.

There was no immediate claim of responsbility for the attack.

Ataturk is Turkey's largest airport and a major transport hub for international travellers. Pictures posted on social media from the site showed wounded people lying on the ground inside and outside one of the terminal buildings.

A witness told Reuters security officials prevented his taxi and other cars from entering the airport at around 9:50 pm (1850 GMT). Drivers leaving the terminal shouted “Don't enter! A bomb exploded!” from their windows to incoming traffic, he said.

Television footage showed ambulances rushing to the scene. One witness told CNN Turk that gunfire was heard from the car park at the airport. Taxis were ferrying wounded people from the airport, the witness said.


The head of Red Crescent, Kerem Kinik, said on CNN Turk that people should go to blood donation centres and not hospitals to give blood and called on people to avoid main roads to the airport to avoid blocking path of emergency vehicles.

Authorities halted the takeoff of scheduled flights from the airport and passengers were transferred to hotels, a Turkish Airlines official said. Earlier an airport official said some flights to the airport had been diverted.

Turkey has suffered a spate of bombings this year, including two suicide attacks in tourist areas of Istanbul blamed on Islamic State, and two car bombings in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a Kurdish militant group.

In the most recent attack, a car bomb ripped through a police bus in central Istanbul during the morning rush hour, killing 11 people and wounding 36 near the main tourist district, a major university and the mayor's office.

Turkey, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, is also fighting Kurdish militants in its largely Kurdish southeast.

Istanbul bomber did not deliberately target Israelis, investigation finds

A suicide bomber who killed three Israelis in an attack in Istanbul did not target the Israeli tour group, Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau has determined.

The attacker, who detonated himself on March 19 as the Israeli tour group left a restaurant in the major Turkish city, was attempting to disrupt tourism in general to Turkey, the bureau announced Sunday after a month-long investigation, the Associated Press reported. An Iranian national also was killed in the explosion.  Two of the Israeli victims also held American citizenship.

Turkish media reported a day after the attack that the bomber followed the Israeli culinary tour group from their hotel to the restaurant, and waited until they were leaving the restaurant to detonate his explosives.

The bomber was identified as a Turkish citizen, Mehmet Ozturk, who was affiliated with the Islamic State. He reportedly spent two years in Syria before returning to Turkey illegally.

Following the attack, Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office issued a travel warning calling on Israelis not to travel to Turkey. That warning remains in place.

Istanbul bomber targeted Israeli tour group, Turkish media report

The suspected suicide bomber who killed three Israelis and one Iranian in Istanbul followed an Israeli tour group to a restaurant and detonated himself there, according to Turkish media reports.

The reports published Monday run counter to those of intelligence assessments that said the Israelis were not deliberately targeted.

On Monday, journalist Abdullah Bozkury of Today’s Zaman posted on Twitter that the bomber followed the Israeli tourists from their hotel and lurked outside a restaurant until they finished their breakfast and began to exit, then he detonated the bomb.

He identified the bomber as being affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group.

The Turkish reports,which also include Hurriyet and T24, do not name sources.

On Sunday, the suicide bomber was identified as a Turkish citizen, Mehmet Ozturk, by Turkey’s interior minister.

“The findings obtained show that the terrorist is linked to the Daesh terror organization,” said the minister, Efkan Ala, according to The Associated Press. Daesh is an acronym for the Islamic State.

He reportedly spent two years in Syria before returning to Turkey illegally.

In televised comments Saturday following the blast and an emergency meeting of Israel’s Security Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said officials were investigating whether Israelis had been targeted in the bombing and said intelligence pointed to it being an Islamic State attack.

The three Israeli victims killed in the bombing are Avraham Goldman, 69, of Herzliya; Yonatan Suher, 40, of Tel Aviv, and Simcha Damri, 60, of Dimona. Suher and Goldman also were U.S. citizens.

Eleven Israelis were wounded in the blast, including Damri’s husband, Avi.

The fourth victim of the attack was an Iranian national identified as Ali Reza Razmhah.

Also Sunday, Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a travel warning calling on Israelis not to travel to Turkey. The warning cites the significant rise over the past two months in terror threats in Turkey, especially suicide bombings and particularly in Istanbul and Ankara, the capital.


The warning was raised to Level 2, defined as a basic concrete threat, from Level 4, meaning an ongoing potential threat.

3 Israelis said killed, at least 11 hurt in Istanbul suicide blast

Three Israelis were among the five people killed in a suicide bombing at a main shopping center in Istanbul, Turkish officials said.

At least 11 Israelis were among the 36 people who were wounded in the blast Saturday. The fourth fatality was an Iranian national and the fifth was the suicide bomber, according to Turkish daily Hurriyet.

Turkish Deputy Health Minister Ahmet Baha Ogutken confirmed in a statement to the Daily Sabah newspaper that an Israeli woman was killed in the explosion. Eli Bin, head of Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue services, also confirmed to Israel’s Channel 2 that “there is one Israeli killed whose family has been notified.”

The Israeli victims were part of a 14-member tour group, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The ministry feared two or three Israelis were among the dead, but declined to confirm reports of Israelis killed in the attack, according to The Times of Israel.

“We fear for the lives of three Israelis who were hurt in the attack,” ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said on Saturday afternoon.

Two Israelis injured in the blast were seriously hurt. One was undergoing surgery in an Istanbul hospital, Channel 2 reported.

The explosion rocked Istiklal Avenue in the heart of the Turkish city, a wide pedestrian boulevard with a historic tram running down the middle and lined with international stores and foreign consulates. Police sealed off the street after the attack and ambulances carried the injured away.

Turkish media identified the suicide bomber as Savaz Yildiz, 33, from the Turkish city of Adana, saying he was known to Turkish authorities.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing. But Turkish officials pointed to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, fighting for Kurdish autonomy in the southeast, or to Islamic State.

A CCTV camera appears to have captured the blast, and the footage was posted online by the private Dogan news agency.

Suicide bomber kills 10 people, mainly Germans, in Istanbul

A suicide bomber thought to have crossed recently from Syria killed at least 10 people, most of them German tourists, in Istanbul's historic heart on Tuesday, in an attack Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed on Islamic State.

All of those killed in Sultanahmet square, near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – major tourist sites in the center of one of the world's most visited cities – were foreigners, Davutoglu said. A senior Turkish official said nine were German, while Peru's foreign ministry said a Peruvian man also died.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said the bomber was believed to have recently entered Turkey from Syria but was not on Turkey's watch list of suspected militants. He said earlier that the bomber had been identified from body parts at the scene and was thought to be a Syrian born in 1988.

Davutoglu said he had spoken by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to offer condolences and vowed Turkey's fight against Islamic State, at home and as part of the U.S.-led coalition, would continue.

“Until we wipe out Daesh, Turkey will continue its fight at home and with coalition forces,” he said in comments broadcast live on television, using an Arabic name for Islamic State. He vowed to hunt down and punish those linked to the bomber.

Several bodies lay on the ground in the square, also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, in the immediate aftermath of the blast. It was not densely packed at the time of the explosion, according to a police officer working there, but small groups of tourists had been wandering around.

“This incident has once again shown that as a nation we should act as one heart, one body in the fight against terror. Turkey's determined and principled stance in the fight against terrorism will continue to the end,” President Tayyip Erdogan told a lunch for Turkish ambassadors in Ankara.

Norway's foreign ministry said one Norwegian man was injured and was being treated in hospital.

Turkey, a NATO member and candidate for accession to the European Union, is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State fighters who have seized territory in neighboring Syria and Iraq, some of it directly abutting Turkey.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Islamist, leftist and Kurdish militants, who are battling Ankara in southeast Turkey, have all carried out attacks in the past.

“We heard a loud sound and I looked at the sky to see if it was raining because I thought it was thunder but the sky was clear,” said Kuwaiti tourist Farah Zamani, 24, who was shopping at one of the covered bazaars with her father and sister.


The dull thud of the blast was heard in districts of Istanbul several kilometers away, residents said. Television footage showed a police car which appeared to have been overturned by the force of the blast.

Tourist sites including the Hagia Sophia and nearby Basilica Cistern were closed on the governor's orders, officials said.

“At first we thought it was percussion bomb, it was so loud. They attacked Sultanahmet to grab attention because this is what the world thinks of when it thinks of Turkey,” said Kursat Yilmaz, who has operated tours for 25 years from an office by the square.

“We're not surprised this happened here, this has always been a possible target,” he said.

Ambulances ferried away the wounded as police cordoned off streets. The sound of the call to prayer rang out from the Blue Mosque as forensic police officers worked at the scene.

“It was unimaginable,” the police officer who had been working on the square said, describing an amateur video he had seen of the immediate aftermath, with six or seven bodies lying on the ground and other people seriously wounded.

Just over a year ago, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a police station for tourists off the same square, killing one officer. That attack was initially claimed by a far-left group, the DHKP-C, but officials later said it had been carried out by a woman with suspected Islamist militant links.

“Ambulances started rushing in and I knew it was a bomb right away because the same thing happened here last year,” said Ali Ibrahim Peltek, 40, who operates a kiosk selling snacks and drinks on the square. “This is not good for Turkey but everyone was expecting a terrorist attack.”


Turkey has become a target for Islamic State, with two bombings last year blamed on the radical Sunni Muslim group, in the town of Suruc near the Syrian border and in the capital Ankara, the latter killing more than 100 people.

Violence has also escalated in the mainly Kurdish southeast since a two-year ceasefire collapsed in July between the state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has been fighting for three decades for Kurdish autonomy.

The PKK has however generally avoided attacking civilian targets in urban centers outside the southeast in recent years.

Turkey also sees a threat from the PYD and YPG, Kurdish groups in Syria which are fighting Islamic State with U.S. backing, but which Ankara says have close links to the PKK.

“For us, there is no difference between the PKK, PYD, YPG, DHKP-C … or whatever their abbreviation may be. One terrorist organization is no different than the other,” Erdogan said, vowing that Turkey's military campaign against Kurdish militants in the southeast would continue.

Davutoglu's office imposed a broadcasting ban on the blast, invoking a law which allows for such steps when there is the potential for serious harm to national security or public order.

The attack raised fears of further damage to Turkey's vital tourism industry, already hit by a diplomatic row with Moscow which has seen Russian tour operators cancel trips.

But Yilmaz, the tour operator, said he had sold a package to a tourist from Colombia just an hour after the blast.

“The reality is the world has grown accustomed to terrorism. It's unfortunate, and I wish it weren't true, but terrorism now happens everywhere,” he said.

“The agenda changes quickly in this age. If tourism is affected by this, it will be temporary. These things pass, but the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet mosque are eternal.”

Turkey’s Islamists protest, Gezi Park rioters draw police

A growing divide between secular and religious factions in Turkey was starkly illustrated by two crosstown protests in Istanbul on May 31.

The first, covered minute-to-minute by the international media, was held to mark the first anniversary of Turkey’s historic anti-government uprising.

The protest commemorated riots that drew hundreds of thousands of angry locals to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, after police took brutal measures to disperse a group that had gathered peacefully to oppose the development of nearby Gezi Park. Under a strict crackdown ordered by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, police ended up killing 12 protesters and injuring thousands more — mostly from wounds caused by tear gas canisters and plastic bullets.

The 2014 anniversary protest was a similar scene: Police tackled protesters to the ground, kicking and beating them with batons, and fired tear gas and plastic bullets at close range. 

The second event, held only a few kilometers away on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn, was an anti-Israel rally marking the four-year anniversary of Israel’s deadly raid of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that attempted to deliver aid to Gaza in May 2010.

A largely Muslim crowd marched from the heavily touristed Sultanahmet Square down to the Sarayburnu port, where they crammed onto the decks of the run-down Marmara and the dock below. Ten larger-than-life photos of the Turkish “martyrs” killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the raid hung from the side of the ship. Rally-goers waved a sea of Palestinian flags alongside ones from Turkey, Syria and Egypt. Their cheers and slogans — including “Zionists you will see, Palestine will be free” and “God is great” — echoed across the water. 

Media reports put the Gezi Park protest turnout in the hundreds or low thousands, while the march to the Marmara apparently attracted more than 10,000. Yet not a single policeman could be spotted in the immediate vicinity of the latter.

“The mere fact that anti-government protest is deemed illegal and anti-Israel protest is deemed legitimate is a disconcerting image,” Gabriel Mitchell, Israel-Turkey project coordinator for the Israeli foreign-policy think tank Mitvim, wrote on his blog.

In the days leading up to the Gezi protest, Erdoğan had warned protesters of the Taksim Square area: “You will not be able to come to those places like you did last year. Because the police have taken absolute orders, they will do everything [to drive you out].”

He stayed silent, however, on the anti-Israel march and rally across town.

Both crowds appeared to carry a renewed passion for their cause — perhaps having to do with the fact that, in another coincidence, both 51-year-old Uğur Süleyman Söylemez, a Turkish activist aboard the Marmara, and 64-year-old Elif Çermik, a Gezi protester, finally succumbed to their injuries the week before the protests, after suffering long-term comas.

The Marmara rally, also called “Anti-Zionist Day,” has become an annual event thrown by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the same Turkish NGO that originally sent the Marmara to Gaza. The IHH is often criticized for its close ties with the Turkish government. A columnist from the Hurriyet Daily News, a left-wing Turkish newspaper, once called it a “ ‘GNGO,’ in other words a ‘governmental-non-governmental-organization.’ ”

Speaking to the Journal on the streets of Istanbul, various Gezi protesters said they saw the Marmara fanfare across town as a government-supported ploy to distract the Turkish citizenry from unrest at Taksim.

Although Erdoğan didn’t publicly condone the anti-Israel rally, members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reportedly attended and spoke at the event. One woman in attendance wore a full-length cape printed with Erdoğan’s face. And many others wore sweatbands printed with “R4BIA,” or held up four fingers, a symbol of support for Egypt’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Erdoğan also has close ties.

Another red flag for anti-Erdoğan secularists was that the Marmara event overlapped with a Muslim protest outside Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction: the stunning Hagia Sophia.  Thousands of protesters gathered at the site that same day to demand that the former cathedral — converted into a mosque by a 15th century Sultan, then to a secular museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern-day Turkey — be reverted back into a place of Muslim prayer.

Mitchell of the Mitvim think tank explained in an interview that the message Erdoğan sent on Saturday was that “when it comes to IHH and its agenda with Israel, that’s OK. And when it comes to the pressure to make Hagia Sophia into a mosque, that’s OK. But if you are rallying against the government, that is definitely not OK.”

Atatürk’s radical early 20th-century modernization of Turkey is revered by the Gezi crowd; Erdoğan, on the other hand, is seen as an increasingly authoritarian ruler imposing his Islamist values on the country.

The prime minister isn’t a big fan of his detractors, either. Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey, reported that, on the eve of the Gezi anniversary riot, Erdoğan claimed protesters had “killed people with Molotov Cocktails, attacked our head-scarved sisters, mosques [and] burned Turkish flags.”

Nervana Mahmoud, a popular Egyptian blogger and Middle East commentator, tweeted on the morning of the protest: “On Gezi’s anniversary, Erdoğan is more powerful, but also more paranoid, smug and delusional.”

To the outside world, Turkish-Israeli relations, which collapsed after Israel’s Marmara raid and have remained delicate ever since, appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough this spring. 

However, an IHH lawsuit brought against the four Israeli commanders who ordered the raid may be preventing the final steps of reconciliation. On May 26, Istanbul’s 7th Court of Serious Crimes ordered Interpol to arrest the IDF commanders and force them to appear in court — a highly political move that only added more fuel to the Marmara rally. Bright red posters being waved at the event showed the Israelis’ faces under the heading, “WANTED.”

Erdoğan has distanced himself from the IHH’s ongoing Marmara battle. “The court case opened by families of our martyrs or of our wounded ones is not an initiative of ours,” he said at a recent press conference. “We cannot influence that.”

A scathing piece on the Turkish court’s decision in Foreign Policy Magazine pointed out that while “strategic and economic interests may nevertheless pave the way for a loveless Israeli-Turkish rapprochement … under an Islamist leadership that offers an anti-Israeli narrative for every domestic crisis, Turkey has become a hostile environment for Israel.”

Even if Erdoğan didn’t directly back the anti-Israel rally, he has much to gain from it.

A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of Turkish voters had a negative view of Israel, while only 2 percent viewed Israel in a favorable light. Turkish politicians, Erdoğan included, have been known to piggyback off this popular anti-Israel sentiment in order to win elections — like the one coming up for Erdoğan in August. 

Most recently, when outrage swept the country anew last month after a coal mine caught fire and killed more than 300 miners, Erdoğan was quoted by local media as calling one protester “Israeli spawn.”

Said Mitchell of the Turkish prime minister: “He has made plenty of statements that are closing in on that derogatory, disgusting language. Even in Turkey itself, to refer to someone as Israeli or Jewish, these things are derogatory terms.” 

While the Gezi diehards clashed against Erdoğan’s police barricades up the hill at Taksim Square on May 31, the sounds of an IHH promotional video boomed out over the Golden Horn.

“Since its establishment, the State of Israel has played the role of the world’s spoiled child and has built walls of shame, with the intention to protect its lands and to dissociate itself with the outside world,” read the narrator. Two young Turkish boys in the crowd whooped their support, one of them waving a big sign that read, “DAMN ISRAEL.”

Hopes fade for survivors after Turkish mine fire kills more than 274

Hopes faded of finding more survivors in a coal mine in western Turkey on Wednesday, where 274 workers were confirmed killed and more than 90 more still feared to be trapped in what is likely to prove the nation's worst ever industrial disaster.

Anger over the deadly fire at the mine about 300 miles southwest of Istanbul echoed across a country that has seen a decade of rapid economic growth but still suffers from one of the world's worst workplace safety records. Opponents blamed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government for ignoring repeated warnings about the safety of the country's mines.

[Related: Peres sends condolences to Turkey for mine tragedy]

“We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain,” Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site, at which he gave the figures for those confirmed dead and still thought missing. But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine.

“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world,” he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the coal mine accident site in Soma, Turkey, on May 14. Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout via Reuters

Fire knocked out power and shut down ventilation shafts and elevators shortly after 3 pm on Tuesday. After an all-night rescue effort, emergency workers pumped oxygen into the mine to try to keep those trapped alive. Thousands of family members and co-workers gathered outside the town's hospital searching for information on their loved ones.

“We haven't heard anything from any of them, not among the injured, not among the list of dead,” said one elderly woman, Sengul, whose two nephews worked in the mine along with the sons of two of her neighbors.

“It's what people do here, risking their lives for two cents … They say one gallery in the mine has not been reached, but it's almost been a day,” she said.

The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said late on Tuesday 787 workers were in the mine at the time.

Initial reports suggested an electrical fault caused the blaze but Mehmet Torun, a board member and former head of the Chamber of Mining Engineers who was at the scene, said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine's tunnels and galleries.

Smoke rises from one of the entrances of the mine on May 14. Photo by Gokhan Gungor/Depo Photos/Reuters

“They are ventilating the shafts but carbon monoxide kills in 3 or 5 minutes,” he told Reuters by telephone.

“Unless we have a major miracle, we shouldn't expect anyone to emerge alive at this point,” he said, pointing to an outside chance that workers may have found air pockets to survive.


The disaster highlighted Turkey's poor record on worker safety and drew renewed opposition calls for an inquiry into a drop in safety standards at previously state-run mines. The International Labor Organization ranked the EU candidate nation third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.

Erdogan earlier declared three days of national mourning and cancelled an official visit to Albania. President Abdullah Gul also cancelled a trip to China scheduled for Thursday in order to travel to Soma.

“We are heading towards this accident likely being the deadliest ever in Turkey,” Yildiz told reporters, adding that “hopes were dimming” of finding many more survivors.

People carry the coffin of a dead miner in a cemetary in Soma, Turkey, on May 14. Photo by Erdem Donutkan/KODA Collective/Reuters

A pall of smoke hung above the area and Yildiz said the fire was still burning underground, hampering the rescue operation.

Some 93 people were rescued, including several rescuers who had themselves become trapped or overcome by fumes, and 85 were being treated for their injuries, Turkey's disaster management agency AFAD said in an email.


Freezer trucks and a cold storage warehouse usually used for food served as makeshift morgues as hospital facilities overflowed. Medical staff intermittently emerged from the hospital to read the names of survivors being treated inside, with families and fellow workers clamoring for information.

“This isn't a huge city. Everyone has neighbors, relatives or friends injured, dead or still trapped. I am trying to prepare my family for the worst,” said Hasan Dogan, 27, watching TV news reports from a canteen set up outside the hospital.

Some 16,000 people from a population of 105,000 in the district of Soma work in the mining industry, according to Erkan Akcay, a local opposition politician. The district is no stranger to tragedies, but never before on this scale.

The words “For those who give a life for a handful of coal” are engraved on the entrance wall to the emergency clinic.

Demonstrators argue with riot police as they demonstrate to blame the ruling AK Party (AKP) government on the mining disaster in western Turkey on May 14. Photo by Stringer/Reuters

Teams of psychiatrists were being pulled together to help counsel the families of victims. Paramilitary police guarded the entrance to the mine to keep distressed relatives at a safe distance, as residents offered soup, water and bread.

“They haven't brought any ambulances in such a long time that we've started to lose hope,” said Hatice Ersoy, 43, a woman in a headscarf sitting on a pavement outside the hospital.

Several hundred people chanted “Government: resign!” at Soma's local government building as Erdogan visited the town.

Around 200 people briefly protested in front of the Istanbul headquarters of Soma Komur Isletmeleri, the operator of the mine. The company said in a brief statement late on Tuesday that there had been “a grave accident” caused by an explosion in a substation but gave few other details.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon on student protesters at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara who wanted to march on the energy ministry.

At Istanbul's Taksim Square, two left-wing opposition newspaper vendors read out headlines to silent morning commuters. “Turkey is a graveyard for workers”, and “This wasn't an accident, this was negligence.”


Turkey's rapid growth over the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy demand, with worker safety standards often failing to keep pace. It is a net importer of coal.

Its safety record in coal mining has been poor for decades, with its deadliest accident to date in 1992, when a gas blast killed 263 workers in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.

The Labor Ministry said late on Tuesday its officials had carried out regular inspections at the Soma mine, most recently in March, and that no irregularities had been detected.

But Hursit Gunes, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People's Party, said a previous request for a parliamentary inquiry into safety and working conditions at mines around Soma had been rejected by the ruling AK Party.

“I'm going to renew that parliamentary investigation demand today. If (the government) has been warned about this and they did nothing, then people will be angry, naturally. The opposition warned them. But there's unbelievable lethargy on this issue,” Gunes told Reuters.

The ILO in 2012 said Turkey had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world's third-highest. In the mining sector, 61 people died in 2012, according to the ILO's latest statistics. Between 2002 and 2012, the death toll at Turkish mines totaled more than 1,000.

An injured miner is carried to an ambulance in Soma, Turkey, on May 13. Photo by Depo Photos/Reuters

Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen in Soma; Humeyra Pamuk, Ayla Jean Yackley, Dasha Afanasieva and Evrim Ergin in Istanbul; Gulsen Solaker and Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff

Flight carrying 20 Israelis makes emergency landing in Tehran

A Turkish Airlines flight carrying 20 Israeli passengers made an emergency landing in Tehran.

The flight Tuesday from Istanbul to Mumbai landed in the Iranian capital so a passenger could receive emergency medical treatment. After sitting on the runway for two hours, the plane departed without incident and continued to its destination.

The passengers did not leave the plane, and an Israeli passenger told Israeli Channel 10 that Iranian workers who boarded the plane did not check passengers’ passports.

“When we landed it may have looked like a godforsaken place and the surrounding facilities reminded me of the ’60s,” passenger Benny Yekutiel told Channel 10, according to the Times of Israel. “But we weren’t stressed out.”

Israelis are not allowed into Iran, because the Iranian government does not recognize Israel.

Turkish police battle protesters in Istanbul square

Turkish riot police using tear gas and water cannon battled protesters for control of Istanbul's Taksim Square on Tuesday night, hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded an immediate end to 10 days of demonstrations.

The governor of Istanbul went on television to declare that police operations would continue day and night until the square, focus of demonstrations against Erdogan, was cleared.

Police fired volleys of tear gas canisters into a crowd of thousands – people in office clothes as well as youths in masks who had fought skirmishes throughout the day — scattering them into side streets and nearby hotels. Water cannon swept across the square targeting stone-throwers in masks.

The protesters, who accuse Erdogan of overreaching his authority after 10 years in power and three election victories, thronged the steep narrow lanes that lead down to the Bosphorus waterway. Gradually, many began drifting back into the square as police withdrew, and gathered around a bonfire of rubbish.

Erdogan had earlier called on protesters to stay out of Taksim, the centre of demonstrations triggered by a heavy-handed police crackdown on a rally against development of the small Gezi Park abutting the square.

Gezi Park has been turned into a ramshackle settlement of tents by leftists, environmentalists, liberals, students and professionals who see the development plan as symptomatic of overbearing government.

Riot police fire teargas during a protest at Taksim Square, Istanbul, on June 11. Photo by Murad Sezer/Reuters

The protests, during which demonstrators used fireworks and petrol bombs, have posed a stark challenge to Erdogan's authority and divided the country. In an indication of the impact of the protests on investor confidence, the central bank said it would intervene if needed to support the Turkish lira.

Erdogan, who denies accusations of authoritarian behaviour, declared he would not yield.

“They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen here? Were we going to kneel down in front of these (people)?” Erdogan said as action to clear the square began.

“If you call this roughness, I'm sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change,” he told a meeting of his AK party's parliamentary group.

Western allies have expressed concern about the troubles in an important NATO ally bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran. Washington has in the past held up Erdogan's Turkey as an example of an Islamic democracy that could be emulated elsewhere in the Middle East.

Victor in three consecutive elections, Erdogan says the protests are engineered by vandals, terrorist elements and unnamed foreign forces. His critics, who say conservative religious elements have won out over centrists in the AK party, accuse him of inflaming the crisis with unyielding talk.

A Turkish flag is obscured by black smoke from burning barricades during clashes between police and anti-government protesters in Istanbul's Taksim square on June 11. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters


“A comprehensive attack against Turkey has been carried out,” Erdogan said. “The increase in interest rates, the fall in the stock markets, the deterioration in the investment environment, the intimidation of investors – the efforts to distort Turkey's image have been put in place as a systematic project.”

Despite the protests against Erdogan, he remains unrivalled as a leader in his AK party, in parliament and on the streets.

Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu appealed to people to stay away from the square for their own safety. “We will continue our measures in an unremitting manner, whether day or night, until marginal elements are cleared and the square is open to the people,” he said in a brief television announcement.

“From today, from this hour, the measures we are going to take in Taksim Square will be conducted with care, in front of our people's eyes, in front of televisions and under the eyes of social media with caution and in accordance with the law.”

The unrest has knocked investor confidence in a country that has boomed under Erdogan. The lira, already suffering from wider market turmoil, fell to its weakest level against its dollar/euro basket since October 2011.

Protesters run as riot police fire teargas during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 11. Photo by Murad Sezer/Ruters

The cost of insuring Turkish debt against default rose to its highest in 10 months, although it remained far from crisis levels.

The police move came a day after Erdogan agreed to meet protest leaders involved in the initial demonstrations over development of the square.

“I invite all demonstrators, all protesters, to see the big picture and the game that is being played,” Erdogan said. “The ones who are sincere should withdraw … and I expect this from them as their prime minister.”

Protesters accuse Erdogan of authoritarian rule and some suspect him of ambitions to replace the secular republic with an Islamic order, something he denies.

“This movement won't end here … After this, I don't think people will go back to being afraid of this government or any government,” said student Seyyit Cikmen, 19, as the crowd chanted “Every place is Taksim, every place resistance”.

Turkey's Medical Association said that as of late Monday, 4,947 people had sought treatment in hospitals and voluntary infirmaries for injuries, ranging from cuts and burns to breathing difficulties from tear gas inhalation, since the unrest began more than 10 days ago. Three people have died.

Erdogan has repeatedly dismissed the protesters as “riff-raff”. But Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Monday leaders of the Gezi Park Platform group had asked to meet him and Erdogan had agreed.

A meeting was expected on Wednesday.

Protesters run as riot police and water cannons returned to Istanbul's Taksim square late afternoon on June 11. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Woman in red becomes leitmotif for Istanbul’s female protesters

In her red cotton summer dress, necklace and white bag slung over her shoulder she might have been floating across the lawn at a garden party; but before her crouches a masked policeman firing teargas spray that sends her long hair billowing upwards.

Endlessly shared on social media and replicated as a cartoon on posters and stickers, the image of the woman in red has become the leitmotif for female protesters during days of violent anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul.

“That photo encapsulates the essence of this protest,” says math student Esra at Besiktas, near the Bosphorus strait and one of the centres of this week's protests. “The violence of the police against peaceful protesters, people just trying to protect themselves and what they value.”

In one graphic copy plastered on walls the woman appears much bigger than the policeman. “The more you spray the bigger we get”, reads the slogan next to it.

The United States and the European Union as well as human rights groups have expressed concern about the heavy-handed action of Turkish police against protesters.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan branded the protesters on Monday extremists “living arm in arm with terrorism”, a description that seems to sit ill with the image of the woman in red.

There were others dressed in more combative gear and sporting face masks as they threw stones, but the large number of very young women in Besiktas and on Taksim Square where the protests began on Friday evening is notable.

With swimming goggles and flimsy surgical masks against the teargas, light tasseled scarves hanging around their necks, Esra, Hasine and Secil stand apprehensively in the Besiktas district on Monday evening, joined by ever growing numbers of youngsters as dusk falls and the mood grows more sombre.

They belong, as perhaps does the woman in red, to the ranks of young, articulate women who believe they have something to lose in Erdogan's Turkey. They feel threatened by his promotion of the Islamic headscarf, symbol of female piety.


Many of the women point to new abortion laws as a sign that Erdogan, who has advised Turkish women to each have three children, wants to roll back women's rights and push them into traditional, pious roles.

“I respect women who wear the headscarf, that is their right, but İ also want my rights to be protected,” says Esra. “I'm not a leftist or an anti-capitalist. İ want to be a business woman and live in a free Turkey.”

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular republic formed in 1923 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, encouraged women to wear Western clothes rather than headscarves and promoted the image of the professional woman. Ironically, Erdogan is seen these days as, for better or worse, the most dominant Turkish leader since Ataturk.

Erdogan was first swept to power in 2002 and remains unrivalled in popularity, drawing on strong support in the conservative Anatolian heartland.

The weekend demonstrations in dozens of cities suggest however his popularity may be dwindling, at least among middle classes who swung behind him in the early years of political and economic reform that cut back the power of the army and introduced some rights amendments.

“Erdogan says 50 percent of the people voted for him. I'm here to show I belong to the other 50 percent, the half of the population whose feelings he showed no respect for, the ones he is trying to crush,” says chemistry student Hasine.

“I want to have a future here in Turkey, a career, a freedom to live my life. But all these are under threat. I want Erdogan to understand,” she adds.

Erdogan, a pious man who denies Islamist ambitions for Turkey, rejects any suggestion he wants to cajole anyone into religious observance. He says new alcohol laws, also denounced by the women, have been passed to protect health rather than on religious grounds.

Protesters are coming better prepared now than when the unrest first began. Some have hard-hats, some are dressed all in black, most wear running shoes. But many are dressed as femininely as the girl in the red dress snapped on Taksim Square.

“Of course I'm nervous and I know I could be in danger here. But for me that is nothing compared to the danger of losing the Turkish Republic, its freedoms and spirit,” said 23 year-old economics student Busra, who says her parents support her protest.

Editing by Ralph Boulton and Andrew Heavens

Ergogan disregards Kerry request to postpone Gaza visit

Turkey's prime minister will go ahead with a planned visit next month to Gaza, despite a request from US Secretary of State John Kerry to postpone.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly refused Kerry's request Sunday to postpone the visit, during a meeting between the two leaders in Istanbul. Erdogan had previously postponed his visit from this month until next, to take place after a scheduled meeting in Washington in mid-May.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also asked Erdogan to delay the visit during a meeting between the two men in Istanbul, saying it could harm relations between the West Bank and Gaza.

Erdogan reportedly plans to visit Gaza on or around May 31, the three-year anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli naval commandoes raided the ship attempting to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Israeli negotiators on Monday met in Ankara with Turkish officials to discuss paying compensation to the families of the victims of the 2010 raid.

The negotiations are part of the process of restoring diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey which were severed following the raid and which began the process of being repaired following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apology last month to Erdogan.

Hiding Israel

There are two ways to look at the Obama administration’s decision to exclude Israel from its global anti-terrorism initiative. If you recall, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul last month to convene the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the group of invitees included 29 countries and the European Union—but not Israel.

On the surface, this makes no sense: It’d be like having a global conference on social networking and not inviting Facebook. Seriously, is there any country in the world that has more experience fighting terrorism than Israel?

But if you listen to the U.S. State Department, this was all for Israel’s good.

In a calm and reasoned piece in Atlantic magazine, Zvika Krieger, senior vice president of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a Shalhevet alumni, writes: “The State Department found itself in a bind: Israel, one of the world’s foremost experts in fighting terrorism and a key U.S. ally on that front, would seem to be a natural candidate for participating in the forum. But organizers feared that Israel’s participation in the formative stages might have undermined the whole endeavor.”

He quotes a State Department official as saying: “The goal was to establish an apolitical and technical forum that included both our traditional [counterterrorism] partners and newer ones, a forum that could focus on practical issues of common concern rather than politics. We were concerned that if the central issue from the outset was whether or not Israel should be a member, that it would be difficult to pivot away from the politicized discussions happening at the U.N. and elsewhere.”

According to Krieger, the Obama administration “reasoned that the progress made by the organization would ultimately better serve Israel’s interests (not to mention those of the United States) than would the symbolic benefits of including it in a group that likely wouldn’t accomplish anything. They also concluded that once the organization was up and running, and its agenda was established, they could find ways to include Israel that would not be disruptive.”

In other words, the United States pretty much said to Israel and to its supporters: “Please don’t be offended if we consider Israel’s involvement in this forum disruptive. We have to deal with reality. Trust us: it’s better if you don’t make a big deal about this.”

It seems to be working. Krieger reports that according to his State Department source, “it is no coincidence that pro-Israel groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have been largely silent in public on the topic.”

But not everyone is keeping quiet. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wrote to me in an e-mail: “We did protest Israel’s exclusion from that conference. We met administration officials on it as well and spoke to numerous members of Congress.”

The Zionist Organization of America also released a statement strongly critical of the decision, while, as Krieger noted, U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Mark Kirk, both staunch defenders of Israel on Capitol Hill, wrote a letter to Clinton expressing their disappointment with Israel’s exclusion.

But I have not met anyone who is as upset about the decision as Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

“This is an absolute outrage, on so many levels,” he told me. “Just look at the precedent we are setting. Now, any country has permission to exclude Israel from any global forum in the future. All they have to say is: If America can do it, then we can do it.”

Hier and his staff have been on a relentless campaign to “get answers” from the Obama administration. He shared with me his letter of protest to Secretary of State Clinton and a response from a State Department official. “We can’t get a straight answer,” he told me.

Maybe the answer is simply this: The Obama administration is just not willing to stick its neck out as a matter of principle, and say to the world: “Our trusted ally Israel has enormous expertise in fighting terrorism. It’s important that countries put their personal sentiments aside and welcome Israel’s involvement, which will be critical to the success of this global initiative.”

Krieger himself, while expressing support for the U.S. decision, admits that Israel’s exclusion “could send the wrong message and have a ripple effect, with Israeli officials expressing concern that it could give an unintended U.S. imprimatur to the marginalization and de-legitimization that Israel is encountering elsewhere in the international community.”

So, when I read Edgar Bronfman in Haaretz telling us this week that President Barack Obama should be judged by his “real actions” for Israel, not by his words or his “swagger,” my immediate reaction is: “Please, Mr. President, show me some real action for Israel. Put your swagger where your mouth is.”

Israel doesn’t deserve to be treated like an ugly date that helps you with your homework but you wouldn’t dare ask to the prom. The movement to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state is itself a form of terror. A few words of swagger and support from the most powerful man in the world, not to mention a justified invitation to a prestigious global forum, are not just words—they are real, meaningful action.

Instead of hiding Israel, America should stand proudly next to her. That’s a better way to show friendship and fight terror.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Thousands in Istanbul rally against Israel

Thousands of Turks in Istanbul rallied against Israel Thursday, marking the second anniversary of an Israel Defense Forces raid on the Mavi Marmara ship that was part of a flotilla that claimed to be carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Israel had determined that the flotilla was violating its blockade of the coastal area, and found weapons aboard.

The Humanitarian Aid Foundation, known as IHH and one of the main groups behind the flotilla, organized Thursday’s rally. Israel, the United States and other nations consider the IHH to be a terrorist group.

Protesters in Turkey called for those responsible for the raid to be held accountable, AFP reported.

Earlier this week, a Turkish criminal court accepted indictments against the four top Israeli commanders who led the 2010 raid.

Turkey and Israel have not had diplomatic relations since the raid.

U.N.’s Ban Ki-moon says bold steps needed to stop Syrian violence

The escalating violence in Syria shows the urgent need for the international community to take bolder steps, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference in Istanbul on Friday.

Ban voiced fears a day earlier that any repeat of the massacre of civilians a week ago in Houla could tip Syria into a civil war, and drag neighboring countries into a bloody sectarian conflict.

“If the escalating violence shows anything, it is that we urgently need bolder steps,” Ban told a news conference at the end of an international meeting on aid for Somalia.

Created by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Iran to offer ‘new initiatives’ in nuclear talks

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator said his country was prepared to offer “new initiatives” at upcoming nuclear talks in Istanbul.

“Iran’s representatives will participate in the negotiations with new initiatives,” Saeed Jalili was quoted as saying Wednesday by the official Iranian news agency, IRNA. “We hope that the P5+1 countries will also enter talks with constructive approaches.”

Iran is scheduled to hold a fresh round of negotiations about its nuclear program with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France—plus Germany, the so-called P5+1, beginning Friday in Turkey.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the United States and Europe would open the negotiations by demanding the closing of the Fordo nuclear enrichment facility, which is buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom, and the suspension of uranium production efforts considered close to weapons-grade. President Obama has called upcoming talks Iran’s “last chance.”

World powers to meet Iran in Istanbul this week

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers will be held this week in Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced.

The talks announced Sunday are scheduled to be held April 14 in Istanbul and will include six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Also on Sunday, Iran said it will not close its Fordo nuclear power facility, which is built deep into a mountain near the holy city of Oom, and it will not give up higher-level uranium enrichment, which are reported to be key demands that the world powers will present at the meeting.

Those demands are “irrational,” the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, told ISNA news agency in an interview published Sunday.

“If they do not threaten us and guarantee that no aggression will occur, then there would be no need for countries to build facilities underground. They should change their behavior and language,” he told the official news agency.

The demands were revealed Saturday in a front-page New York Times article, which quoted anonymous United States and European Union diplomats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Iran is using the upcoming talks to “delay and deceive.”

He called for Iran to dismantle Oom, completely halt uranium enrichment and remove higher level enriched uranium from the country.

Israel soccer team playing in Turkey, despite tensions

An Israeli soccer team arrived in Istanbul to play a Turkish team, despite tensions between the two countries.

The Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team landed Wednesday night amid heavy security. Turkish protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted anti-Israel slogans outside the hotel in which the Israeli team is staying ahead of Thursday evening’s Europa League game against Besiktas at İnonu Stadium in Istanbul.

The team was instructed to remain inside the hotel and wait for armed escorts to take them to practice and the game.

Hundreds of Israeli fans had been expected to attend the game before rising tensions between Israel and Turkey came to a head in recent days. Only a handful of fans reportedly arrived in Turkey with the team.

Israelis detained in Istanbul

About 40 Israelis who arrived in Istanbul were detained and questioned.

The Israelis, mostly businesspeople, arrived Monday on a Turkish Airlines flight from Ben Gurion. They reportedly were separated from the other passengers, had their passports taken, and were questioned for about 90 minutes.

Turkish officials told Israeli media that the previous day a group of Turkish tourists who arrived at Ben Gurion airport to return home after a Ramadan visit has been detained for questioning for several hours.  The Israel Airports Authority told Haaretz that they were not aware of the extensive questioning and search.

The incidents come after Turkey threatened to take sanctions against Israel to a new level after Israel refused to apologize for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara , which ended in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens.

Historic Istanbul synagogue reborn as vibrant arts center

The Haskoy quarter of Istanbul, which overlooks the historic Golden Horn inlet of the Bosphorus, was once the site of the gardens and pavilions of the Ottoman Empire sultans. In the late 15th century, it became the refuge for thousands of Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal and who built dozens of synagogues in the area. Today, Haskoy is a gritty industrial area where barely a trace of the former synagogues remains—except for one.

Hidden behind a squalid aluminum foundry and run-down billiard hall is the abandoned Mayor Synagogue, standing as a lonely testament to the Jews of the Ottoman Empire whose descendents lived here for centuries.

While its exact origins are in dispute, historians estimate that the Mayor is between 300 and 500 years old. Unlike other historic synagogues of Istanbul, which have been restored to become centers of worship, the Mayor Synagogue was virtually forgotten—used mainly for industrial storage—before it was discovered by Esra Nilgun Mirze, a dynamic Turkish community arts advocate.

Mirze has worked for 18 years with the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which organizes international visual and performing arts festivals in Turkey. For the past few years she has been the international relations director for Istanbul 2010 – European Capital of Culture. The Council of the European Union awards the title each year to two or more cities, which then showcase their cultural life and development during a yearlong international festival. In between visits to foreign capitals to promote Istanbul 2010, Mirze has been energetically pursuing her own passion—restoring the Mayor Synagogue not simply as a place of worship, but as an arts center that reflects the diversity of Istanbul’s heritage.

Mirze’s dream is to transform the ancient synagogue into a multicultural arts center that will give young artists an international platform for their work. She aims to use her extensive international contacts throughout Europe and elsewhere to bring the work of young artists to the attention of the international art community. At the same time, she hopes to bring an international perspective to young Turkish artists, who may not have been broadly exposed to the global viewpoints on cultural and religious diversity.

At a time of economic, political and cultural transformation in Turkey, which has faced many challenges as a secular Muslim nation, both from the West and from conservative Islamic critics, Mirze believes that arts and culture may be an ideal force to meet those challenges, particularly with young people.

To promote her vision, Mirze has founded 41 29 Istanbul, a nonprofit organization to renovate the synagogue and sponsor exhibitions and events featuring young artists. (The “41 29” moniker comes from the geographical coordinates of the city of Istanbul.)

While the effort has been a labor of love—and a continual struggle—Mirze’s organization got an unexpected boost from the American artist Serge Spitzer, who visited the Mayor Synagogue and decided it would be the perfect location for an onsite installation. Born in Romania, Spitzer is an internationally renowned artist who uses site-specific installations to explore the relationship between art and locations as they exist in real life. Spitzer’s work has been exhibited in museums around the world, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, and he has participated in international exhibitions like Documenta in Germany and the Venice Biennale.

Spitzer was viscerally drawn to the historic, ruined synagogue. “The fact that it is not an isolated art space, with its desolateness and emptiness despite its real existence, drew my interest,” he said.

Spitzer’s installation at the synagogue was titled “Molecular Istanbul” and opened at the site in fall 2009. Spitzer’s work reflects the confluence of art and daily life, and in the Mayor installation he used tons of green and blue marbles that were brought to the site and deposited on the floor of the dimly lit shul. With only a small window providing a thin shaft of light, the thousands of blue and green glass balls lying on the stone floor create a vibrant and mysterious atmosphere. Critics called the installation “breathtaking,” and it drew flocks of visitors during the 2010 European Capital of Culture events.

With Turkey facing a pivotal era in its history—torn between the dynamism of economic development and the pull of traditional values—projects like the Mayor Synagogue, which remind both the Turkish people and the international community of the diverse history of Turkey, are of particular importance. Spitzer believes that although change is inevitable, “Authentic values should not be forgotten while making these changes in the city of Istanbul, which reminds one of a patchwork.”

Mirze believes that the future is bright for her dream of restoring the Mayor Synagogue and for its rebirth as an important center for the arts.

“It is a great opportunity and source of happiness for me that the work of a very significant artist like Spitzer is displayed at a place that will turn into a culture and art center in the future,” she said.

However, she added, “this gives us an even greater responsibility to fulfill the dream.”

For more information about 41 29 Istanbul, visit this article at

Hoyt Hilsman is an award-winning writer and critic. He is active in politics and international affairs, and was recently a candidate for Congress. His novel, “19 Angels,” a political thriller set in the Middle East, was published in fall 2010.

Attacks Bolster Turks’ Will to Fight Evil

Following the dastardly attacks in Istanbul targeting Turkish Jews in two synagogues on Nov. 15 that left 25 innocent people dead and several hundred Turkish Jews and Muslims severely injured (see Cover Story, p. 18), I was asked what this all means for Turkey.

It means sadness and sorrow for the lost lives and the loved ones left behind; it certainly means outrage; but it also means determination to fight against this greatest evil of terrorism. It is a terrorism that has no boundaries, that makes no distinction, but is hungry for creating fear and intimidation, and it has no respect for the central and sacred pillars of all universal principles — respect for life and the right to live.

The terror that took place last Saturday in my country should not be classified as an act against a certain group, people, religion or against political and international allies of Turkey. Rather, it should be considered an act against humanity and should be treated as terrorism, plain and simple.

Unfortunately, terrorism is not new for Turkey. For so many years, even before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Turkey repeatedly tried to emphasize the importance of fighting against this most dangerous disease.

In the Middle East, Turkey and Israel are two countries that unfortunately have similar experiences with the scourge of international terrorism. Turks and Israelis understand best how it feels to be victims of terrorism and how important it is not to give up on the fight against it.

Suicide bombers kill Israelis just because they are sitting at a cafe, going to school by bus or celebrating a Jewish holiday. And Turks understand what it means to lose loved ones for nothing. Turkey lost almost 40,000 lives to terrorism over 15 years in the ’80s and ’90s and finally emerged victorious.

But at what cost? The fate of all these innocent victims — children, women, men, teachers, civil servants and young soldiers — felled by terrorists only strengthened our determination to defy terror. Consequently, this last cowardly act will also receive the appropriate response and the hand of justice.

Turkey and Israel are the two democracies in an otherwise extremely volatile and unstable region. Both of our democracies are relatively new but sound.

Last month Turkey celebrated the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the republic by our great leader, Kemal Atatürk. Under the republic, the Turkish people take pride in their democracy and secular way of life. The Turkish republic is a living testimony to the compatibility of democracy and a progressive way of life — with a Muslim majority within a civilization that is able to combine the West and the East.

Turkey plays a strategic role at the crossroads of ancient civilizations, different regions and continents. One of Turkey’s goals is to help bridge the gap between diverse cultures and religions.

For centuries, Turkey has enjoyed a richness of diverse cultures and religions living side by side, a testimony of peaceful coexistence and tolerance. The bombings of the synagogues are horrific attacks that undermine this harmony and peace.

But we will not give up. Such events will only strengthen our resolve to ensure that Turkey remains a place where people coexist, regardless of cultural, religious or linguistic background.

What does this latest bombing mean for Americans? Before Sept. 11, 2001, I might have had a more complicated and longer answer. But in the post-Sept. 11 world, it does not need much explanation to understand how it feels when, for no good reason and totally unjustifiably, your people die as a result of cowardly terrorist attacks.

This brings us to the following conclusion: The fight against terrorism must be an international campaign. It is not a problem of one single country or a region; it is the worst problem facing the world.

Turkey, Israel and the United States have much in common: We all embrace democracy, but are losing so many victims to terrorism. When the core values of our societies are challenged, we must stand together.

When all the peace-loving countries — irrespective of whether they have experienced terror on their soil or not — unite to fight collectively against this scourge, then international terrorism can be exterminated from the face of the earth for good.

Engin Ansay, consul general of Turkey in Los Angeles, will speak at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Saturday, Nov. 22, 11 a.m.

Turkish Jews Dig Out After Bombs

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.

Jews’ Long History in Turkey

The Jewish presence in Turkey usually is dated to 1492, when the Ottoman emperor Beyazit II welcomed Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to his territory.

In fact, though, Jewish life in the area has been traced back to at least the fourth century B.C.E. During the Byzantine period, a community of Greek-speaking Jews lived in Istanbul, then called Constantinople.

But the Jewish community in what is now Turkey started truly to develop only after the arrival of the Spanish Jews in 1492, who created important centers of Jewish life in Istanbul, Izmir and Salonika, which is now part of Greece.

The Ottomans provided a sort of limited autonomy to the religious communities under their rule, which allowed Jewish life in the empire to flourish. For example, many of the Ottoman court physicians were Jewish.

At the beginning of the 20th century, just before the dissolution of the empire, the Jewish population in the area that is now Turkey numbered more than 100,000, mostly Sephardim, with sizable Jewish communities ranging from the country’s Anatolian heartland to its Aegean coast and its border with Syria.

Turkey’s Jewish population today is estimated at 25,000. Driven away by political and economic turbulence and lured by the possibility of living in nearby Israel, Turkish Jews left the country in great waves starting in the late 1940s. They left behind Jewish communities that — with the exception of Istanbul, and to a lesser extent Izmir, which has a Jewish population of around 2,000 — are either struggling to survive or have ceased to exist.

In Istanbul, the community maintains several institutions, including synagogues, a high school, old age homes and a hospital. As in Ottoman times, the community is headed by a chief rabbi known as the haham bashi.

Jews and Muslims traditionally have gotten along well in Turkey, which is officially secular and which — as a non-Arab country — has pursued policies starkly different from its Arab neighbors.

Military and economic ties with Israel are strong, and despite having earned Turkey harsh criticism in the Arab world, those ties have persevered under governments of varying ideologies.