Don't blame anti-Semitism for the bombs

It's like arguing that the Omagh bomb was anti-Protestant because it was placed in a street
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The Independent Online

One can sympathise with the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' anguished concern that anti-Semitism is on the rise around Europe. In purely factual terms, regarding the number of attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools and institutions, he may well be right. But in lumping together the bombing of the two synagogues in Istanbul with the daubing of cemeteries in Germany and Britain and the firebombing of a school in Paris, he's in danger of fuelling the very conflict between Islam and Judaism which the perpetrators want.

The synagogue bombings can't be political, or directed at Israel, he argued on Monday, because they were aimed at religious meeting places, not buildings specifically associated with Israel. But this is to misunderstand the purpose. The objective was not primarily to hurt a particular section of society. The real aim was to undermine a political process and produce a reaction which would ensure a chasm between communities. It's a bit like arguing that the Omagh bombing was a religious assault on Protestantism because the bomb was placed in a street not at a barracks or police station.

The particular poignancy of the latest outrage is that it should be in Istanbul, for, of all countries, the Turks have proved to be most tolerant and protective of other religions. Sultan Beyazit II, whose mother was Jewish, reportedly sent the Ottoman fleet to Spain in 1492 to take the Jews and Muslims expelled by the "Catholic monarchs", Ferdinand and Isabella. In the 19th century, the number of Jews in Istanbul had reached some 300,000 and accounted for more than 20 per cent of the population. The Neve Shalom synagogue, where most of the casualties occurred last weekend, was in the heart of the Galata area where the refugees from Spain first settled.

Their numbers have declined dramatically since, of course. This may owe something to religious tensions. The centuries-old Jewish communities of the Islamic world have now been reduced to mere hundreds in North Africa, Syria and Iran. But contraction also owes not a little to economic pressures and the lure of substantial financial inducements to resettle in Israel. In India barely a handful of families now sustain one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world at Cochin, and it isn't anti-Semitism that has driven the others out.

Even so, the 27,000 still remaining in Istanbul form a substantial community, the largest in a majority Muslim country, which is presumably why they were picked as a target for terrorist action this time. It's not just Turkey's past record that is at stake. Turkey, along with Morocco (which has also suffered a bloody assault on a synagogue), is a country which could yet prove that a moderate Islamic state is both possible and actually in process. Amidst all the talk about "democracy" in the Middle East, here is a democratic nation with a new avowedly Islamic government that is determined to enter the European Union and seems ready to make the changes to its judicial processes, freedom of speech and treatment of minorities to do so.

The bombs at the two synagogues were there to give a message to the Ankara government; to induce it to clamp down on the mosques in response and thus arouse popular ire against its pro-Western policies. The fact that the two suicide bombers now appear to have been Turks rather than outsiders, as the government at first preferred to believe, doesn't alter the point. Across the globe we are facing a relatively sophisticated campaign, using local extremists, to force an East-West conflict. The extremists don't want co-existence, they want confrontation.

In this context it is no use saying that the bombers in Istanbul killed more Turkish Muslims than Jews. It's irrelevant. It is even more damaging, as the Israeli government does, to use the attacks as evidence of a general assault on Jewish people which justifies Israel's stance as an embattled people entitled to use whatever weapons at their disposal to protect themselves. That is precisely the reaction the men of violence want.

Dr Sacks is absolutely right to say that governments must clamp down on the language of ethnic insult, in the Islamic world as much as the Western one (ironically it is the much-abused Saudi Arabian government that is trying hardest to do this at the moment). He is not helping anyone, however, in retreating to the language of general victimhood and persecution, which only reinforces the sense of a wideningchasm between cultures just when we need leaders to fight for the centre ground of mutual tolerance and coexistence.

There are two possible responses to the anti-Jewish attacks we have been witnessing. One can be seen in France, where President Jacques Chirac this week called an emergency cabinet meeting on racism and followed it by announcing more than £4bn of aid to deprived areas, with a particular emphasis on areas of Muslim deprivation. The other can be seen in the occupied Palestinian territories, where the Israelis regularly resort to incursions and the bulldozing of homes every time there is an act of terrorism.

Of course the two situations aren't the same. But they have become linked in the Muslim mind, and general accusations of "anti-Semitism" will only bring them more closely together.