Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Massacre: How the ‘Oasis of Peace’ Turned Into a Scene of Savagery
Thirty years ago, Neve Shalom — Istanbul’s largest synagogue, whose name means “oasis of peace” — was the target of a brutal attack at the hands of Jew-hating murderers.
On September 6, 1986, Palestinian Arab terrorists affiliated with the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) bombed and opened fire at Neve Shalom during a Sabbath service, killing 22 people.
At the time, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) called the attack “the bloodiest synagogue massacre since the Nazi era.”
Gabriel (Gabi) Saul — a survivor whose father, Dr. Moiz Saul, died in the attack — told Şalom, a Jewish-Turkish weekly newspaper, about the moment of the attack:
There were 28 people inside. We shuddered at the sounds of machine guns. I saw two people when I looked at the main gate… My father fell beside me with the first gunshot. I threw myself at the back of the seats. The terrorists were raining bullets on the dead. When the oil lamps on the prayer platform fell down, a fire broke out. Terrorists poured the [tallow] oil over the dead and set them afire. They were speaking Arabic among themselves. There was blood on me so I pretended to be dead. One of the terrorists kicked me in the foot and walked away.
On August 6 of this year, Saul, who was 20 at the time of the attack, delivered a speech at the commemorative ceremony of the massacre’s 30th anniversary:
When I set off to join the Shabbat prayer at Neve Shalom synagogue that morning, I was a hopeful youth who had plans for the future − without knowing that my entire life was about to change all of a sudden and that I would be trapped with my father right in the midst of a massacre.
While I was joining prayers with great joy, I recoiled at a sound coming from outside. I was not familiar with it. On impulse, I looked at where the sounds were coming from. Two people with automatic rifles were standing there, just a few meters away from me and were raining bullets and hand grenades on us.
While I lay on the floor in the middle of bombs and bullets in order to save my life, and while I was trying to hide myself, I saw the shadows of the murderers behind and in front of me. Those moments when I witnessed them talk and heard them vilely breathing right beside me to wantonly take the lives of all of us… I do not know how long those moments lasted.
We had often listened to informative stories in the Talmud Torah from our elderly and our teachers. I remember that in those stories, faithful pious people left this world while saying “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad.”
During those moments while we were struggling enormously between life and death at Neve Shalom, I heard our co-religionists who were about to submit their souls to God screamed with great courage – through this very sentence − our faith in and devotion to God − everywhere and under all conditions − to the faces of those vile murderers. At that moment, we were still standing our ground. We did not collapse. Those murderers could not bring us down. Even while we were passing away under very hard conditions, we were able to survive by screaming our faith in God and the nation to the faces of those who tried to destroy us. Just as we have survived in the face of our enemies who have tried wantonly to destroy us for the last 2,000 years.
On that day, I stayed alive through a miracle. But we bid farewell to 22 brave people – young and old – including my dear father, all of whom I knew well and all of whom were filled with love of God.
Jews in Turkey
It is commonly but wrongly assumed that after the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, during the time of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — the first government of modern-day Turkey, which ruled the country from 1923 to 1950 — Jews enjoyed equal rights and liberties in a secular republic.
But the scholar Rifat Bali, who is the author of several books and articles on Turkish Jewry, points out:
During that time Jews were repeatedly exposed to antisemitism, discrimination and chauvinism on the part of the intellectual elites or the authorities. They were subjected to heavy pressures toward “Turkification” − assimilation into Turkish society − from the Kemalist [Turkish republic] political and intellectual elite.
“In recent years,” wrote Bali in 2011,
the entire Jewish community has become the target of much resentment and hostile rhetoric from the country’s Islamist and ultranationalist sectors.
The ultranationalist trend was manifested in the suicide attack on the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul on 6 September 1986 by Palestinians connected to the Abu Nidal terror organization, and the Islamist trend in the two suicide attacks on Istanbul synagogues on 15 November 2003 by radical Islamist Turks and Al-Qaeda sympathizers.
Jewish parents counsel their children not to display Star of David necklaces in public, and to remain silent and if possible completely ignore the constant, hateful, often slanderous criticism of Israel in the Turkish public sphere.
Jews in Anatolia: A History of Millennia
The Turks have not treated Jews – or all other non-Muslim communities in Anatolia − in a very friendly manner, but the truth is that centuries before the Turks arrived, Jews were living in Anatolia.
Accounts on Jewish history in Anatolia often commence with the arrival of Sephardic Jews following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, but according to archeological evidence, Anatolia was home to much older Jewish communities from as early as the fourth century BC.
The New Testament mentions that Jewish populations in Anatolia were widespread. For example, Iconium (present-day Konya) and Ephesus (present-day Efes) are said to have had synagogues. The Roman and Byzantine Empires also had sizable Greek-speaking Jewish communities in their Anatolian territories before the Ottoman jihadist invasion of Byzantine lands.
According to the scholar Andrew G. Bostom, “The Jews, like other inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire, suffered heavily from the Ottoman jihad conquests and policies of colonization and population transfer (i.e., the surgun system). This explains the disappearance of several Jewish communities, including Salonica, and their founding anew by Spanish Jewish immigrants.”
Isil Demirel, an anthropologist from Turkey who wrote a master’s degree thesis and several articles on Turkish Jewry, said:
Antisemitism in this country has never ended. In the Ottoman Empire, there were rules about what Jews could and could not do. Everything, including the height of their houses and colors of their clothes, was determined by laws. So the Jew is a figure that is always reconstructed as an enemy. It is seen as a snake that lifts its head behind all evil.
But as history and current political developments prove, those who hate and target the Jews have always been inclined to target others, as well. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks puts it, “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”
Or as Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.” Or as the Islamic phrase goes, “First the Saturday people [Jews], then the Sunday people [Christians].”
Many excuse terrorism against Jews and claim that Palestinian Arabs or other Muslims murder or attack Jews because of “the occupation” or some other contrived grievance. But what was the crime of the Jews at the Neve Shalom Synagogue, other than being Jews?
Those who try to excuse, whitewash or turn a blind eye to attacks against Jewish people – both in and outside of Israel − have the blood of the victims on their own hands.