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May 19, 2014 6:55 am

Only 18 Members Remain in 2,300-Year-Old Turkish Jewish Community Following Political, Economic Turmoil

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

The Turkish city of Antakya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The once thriving Jewish community of Antakya, Turkey has now dwindled to just 18 members as many locals have fled to escape unrest and violence in the area, Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday.

“When I was young, the beit knesset [synagogue] was always full. But today… everyone is gone,” Harun Cemal, a retired textiles vendor, said.

Cemal, 60, now serves as caretaker of Antakya’s 250-year-old synagogue. On weekends he gives tours of the historic venue, detailing the community’s journey and displaying its seven 500-year-old Torah scrolls safeguarded on the property. On the days when there are no visitors, the synagogue remains empty.

“I am afraid that when I die, there will be no one left to bury me,” Harun told Al Jazeera.

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Seventy years ago, Antakya’s Jews numbered 350 people, according to the report. The city’s 2,300-year-old Jewish presence now consists of the handful of relatives and friends who stayed behind while their loved ones left during waves of political and economic turmoil. Residents of the area continue to seek refuge elsewhere as the ongoing three-year-old Syrian civil war rages no more than 30 kilometers away across the border, Al Jazeera noted.

The Jewish residents of Antakya, the capital of Turkey’s Hatay province, once thrived on their ties with Syria’s large Jewish community in Aleppo, sending their children to the Syrian city for school and conducting business across the Turkish-Syrian border.

However, after the establishment of modern Israel in 1948, virtually all of Syria’s Jewish population was displaced, according to Al Jazeera. An estimated 30,000 Jews lived in Syria in 1947. By 1958, they were down to about 15,000. As the Jewish population of Aleppo dwindled, so did support for Antakya’s Jews.

The brutal war in Syria being fought no more than half an hour away from the city is also impacting its Jewish population. Some 30,000 Syrians are currently seeking refuge in the city of 200,000, according to estimates by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Given its close proximity to the border, Antakya also serves as a base and gateway into Syria for armed opposition groups.

Violent political unrest in Turkey between left and right-wing groups triggered the decline of Antakya Jewry in the late 1970s, Al Jazeera said. They moved to Turkish cities with larger Jewish populations, like Izmir and Istanbul, and today, among Istanbul’s nearly 20,000 Jews, there are some 250 native Antakyans.

“Until 1979 everything was good. We had such a wonderful life in Antakya,” former Antakya resident Isaac Somo, told Al Jazeera. He and his family fled to Israel from Antakya that year and have been living there for the last 35 years.

“I love Antakya very much. We didn’t want to leave, but we were afraid that [the violence] would come to us,” his wife Jana, said. “One day, there was a shooting at the university and they killed a woman. The police came to look for the gunmen, and one of them ran into my house to hide. We had young children. Every day there was something – bombs, killing.”

The Jews who remained in Antakya for personal or economic reasons are finding it difficult to see their community disappear.

“It makes us very sad,” Cemal said. “They leave and don’t come back.”

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