ISTANBUL (JTA) – Rabbis from around the world filled the halls of Istanbul’s Conrad Hotel this week for the inaugural conference of the Alliance of Rabbis of Islamic States (ARIS). They expected two days of networking, discussing Jewish law, and simple fellowship around their shared experience of supporting Jewish life in majority Muslim countries.
What they did not expect was to be taken to the Turkish capital of Ankara, in a private plane sent by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to have dinner with him in his presidential palace.
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, Turkey’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi and director of ARIS, only learned that the Turkish president would receive them hours before the conference began.
According to Chitrik, Erdogan stayed with the rabbis for two hours to discuss various topics.
“The president listened very graciously to all the rabbis, spoke out in very strong terms against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and reiterated the Turkish position that denying the Holocaust is a crime against humanity,” said Chitrik to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, adding that Erdogan also expressed his support for the construction and renovation of synagogues in Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Another topic discussed was the state of Turkish-Israeli relations.
“I appreciate our renewed dialogue with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett,” Erdogan told the rabbis, according to the government newspaper Daily Sabah.
Although the country was once a strong ally of Israel, Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated under Erdogan’s nearly 20-year rule. The 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli soldiers were attacked as they boarded a Turkish ship trying to break through the blockade of Gaza, and 10 Turkish militants were killed, marked time (and several years of Turkish legal battles), as did the US Embassy moved to Jerusalem in 2018. Erdogan called Israel a “terrorist state” and accused it of “genocide”.
Despite continuing trade relations with Israel, the Turkish government also harbors the Hamas leadership on its soil and is a major funder of Palestinian causes in Gaza and the West Bank.
The Turkish president reiterated this position but called on the rabbis to be part of the solution.
“We must all fight for peace in the Middle East,” he said. “We don’t want to see any conflict in this geography which is home to three Abrahamic religions. “
“I believe that a solution which prioritizes the sensitivities of all religious groups living in Jerusalem can be found,” he added.
Erdogan’s relationship with the global Jewish community has not always been so rosy.
In May, he was slammed by US President Joe Biden for statements, seen as trading in anti-Semitic tropes, that Erdogan made during the soaring tensions between Israel and Gaza.
“They are murderers, to the point that they kill five or six year old children. They are only satisfied by sucking their blood, ”Erdogan said at the time. “It’s in their nature.”
At a rally in 2015, the authoritarian leader also lashed out at Western media, saying the “Jewish capital” was behind the New York Times.
Nonetheless, the rabbis welcomed the meeting.
“We are forward-looking rabbis. We work in communities across the Muslim world and seek to strengthen Jewish life. There is a lot in the past, but we are looking to the future, working on the present and working for the future, ”said Chitrik.
The meeting ended with Turkey’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva offering the President of Turkey an ornate menorah.
Overall, the level of dialogue the rabbis shared with Erdogan was precisely one of the reasons Chitrik founded ARIS.
The idea came to him at another conference, the Kinus HaShluchim – an international conference of Chabad emissaries – when he found himself sitting at a table with colleagues from Azerbaijan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and from Nigeria.
“We looked at each other and thought, ‘Wait a minute, we’re all rabbis from Muslim countries. Why is there no session here at this conference for rabbis from Muslim countries? ‘ Chitrick recalled. “There are things we can help each other out. So we started a WhatsApp [group], then created a Twitter account, and it grew from there. “
About 100,000 Jews still live in predominantly Muslim countries, up from over a million a century ago, Chitrick estimated. The largest Jewish populations are found in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey.
“People say, ‘Wow, are there 100,000 Jews in Islamic countries?’ Yes, there is, ”he said. “They have lived in this Islamic world for thousands of years, and they continue to live here, continue to call this place home. Often they are very patriotic towards the places where they live. Most of them are not looking for other places to move.
When he founded ARIS, Chitrik was adamant that it could not be just an organization of Chabad rabbis. It should bridge the gap between all the different Jewish communities served in the Muslim world, including post-Soviet countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan; the historic communities of the Middle East and North Africa such as Turkey, Iran, Tunisia and Morocco; and the rapidly growing communities in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain following the Abrahamic Accords.
“The agenda of the Alliance of Rabbis is to normalize Jewish life in Muslim countries,” said Chitrik. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to people. “
During their years of working in their countries, what Chitrik and many rabbis have discovered is that while Jewish life is not necessarily discouraged, foreign intervention, whether it comes from Israel or of Jewish citizens of Western powers like the United States or the United Kingdom, often complicates it.
“Many rabbis are realists and know that in the places we live, international interference is not always viewed in a positive way,” Chitrik said. “When a rabbi in Turkey or Iran needs help, whether in communication, by providing tefillin, by sending matzot Where etrogim, it’s so much easier to do it from Istanbul than anywhere else.
Thanks to the alliance’s coordination, they were able to deliver matzah to Jews in countries ranging from Libya to Lebanon and Syria last year. It also helped push some of Afghanistan’s last Jews out of the country after the Taliban resurgent, one in Istanbul and another in Albania.
This week’s conference in Istanbul was the first time many rabbis have finally met in person. In attendance were rabbis representing more than ten countries, including Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Albania, Kosovo, United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Kazakhstan and Russia as well as Turkey whose chief rabbinate hosted the conference.
For many participants, one of the most important things they felt was the feeling of not being alone in their work.
“When you come and meet people from so many different Muslim countries, and wherever you see a Jewish community, you feel stronger and calmer,” said Rabbi Elchanan Cohen, who serves a community in Almaty, in Kazakhstan.
“We have our own sensibilities living in Muslim countries, and that’s what puts all the rabbis here in [a] common situation, ”said Rabbi Shnuer Segal of Azerbaijan. “We all face challenges, and the idea that we can solve them together is something our alliance supports.”
The rabbis are comforted by “the idea that we have someone to support us, in case we need a connection with the government or with others,” said Rabbi Chaim Azimov of the Republic of Turkey. Northern Cyprus.
So, in addition to the philosophical conversations about the future of Jewish life in the Muslim world, the conference also included more hands-on sessions on fundraising and social media techniques.
The surprise meeting with Erdogan replaced a visit to the Jewish Museum in Istanbul and a gala dinner at Neve Shalom, the flagship synagogue of the Turkish rabbinate.
But by the second day of the conference, the rabbis were back with a halachic symposium in Istanbul, led by Iranian Chief Rabbi Yehuda Gerami and dedicated to their predecessor, Maimonides.
Gerami eventually left the conference with a brand new Torah scroll to take back to his community in Iran.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.