By Alexandra Hudson
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's centuries-old Jewish community says it is alarmed by anti-Semitism that emerged during protests at Israel's Gaza assault, and is questioning how this reflects its status in the predominantly Muslim republic.
Although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan condemned anti-Semitism, Jews in Turkey and beyond believe the language he employed during the conflict gave some a licence to translate their outrage at Israel's action into racial hatred.
Heightened anti-Jewish sentiment comes at a time of rising nationalism in Turkey, blamed for the murders of several Christians in the last few years, as hardliners fight against those struggling for a more plural, multi-ethnic society.
Some 24,000 Jews live in Turkey, making them one of the world's largest Jewish communities in a Muslim country, and their relations with the state, like those of other minorities, are a litmus test for Turkey's readiness to join the European Union.
"I feel worried, sad and scared for myself and for my country's future, which is leaning towards racism," Turkish-Jewish academic Leyla Navaro wrote in Radikal newspaper.
While Turkey is officially presented as a mosaic of cultures and peoples, Navaro said this was an empty tourist slogan in a country where a rigid definition of Turkishness has been imposed from above since the state's inception in 1923.
Turkey's Jewish community, which issued a typically impartial statement as the Gaza conflict began, said it has never seen anything like the anti-Semitism which emerged as public fury over the plight of the Palestinians soared.
Intensifying their fear is the fact Jews have been attacked in Turkey before. In November 2003 truck bombs exploded outside two Istanbul synagogues killing 24 people, mainly Muslims. A Turkish cell with links to al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
As Turks protested en masse, many with Hamas headbands, placards showing mutilated Palestinian children or baby dolls covered in fake blood, virulently anti-Jewish articles began to appear in some Turkish newspapers, and openly anti-Semitic graffiti became common.
Erdogan called Israel's operations, launched with the aim of ending Hamas's cross-border rocket attacks, "a crime against humanity," deploring what he saw as excessive force, and he suggested Israel be barred from the United Nations.
His rhetoric shocked Israel, usually a close ally, and has been interpreted by some as an attempt to shore up support ahead of local elections in March with an electorate deeply sympathetic to Palestinians.
In a recent open letter to Erdogan a group of five U.S. Jewish organisations told him Turkish Jews felt besieged and threatened, adding: "A connection is clearly perceived between the inflammatory denunciation of Israel by Turkish officials and the rise of anti-Semitism."
While Turkey's Jewish community says the daubing of a giant swastika opposite Istanbul's Israeli Consulate or the trampling and burning of Jewish symbols is probably the work of extremist provocateurs, it adds it is particularly unnerved by the messages given by the government and the thinking this reflects.
One example they give is an Education Ministry decree that schools should hold a silence for the dead children of Gaza.
"The Education Ministry saw fit to implant the idea in children's heads that Israel is evil. Children of Turkish citizens of Jewish faith who have nothing to do with Gaza are now being targeted by other children," said a community member, who said she was too anxious to be named.
Some Jewish parents fear taking their children to school.
Turkey's ruling AK Party has Islamist roots and draws its constituency from the pious Anatolian heartland. It has incurred the wrath of the secularist establishment for what critics say is a hidden campaign to Islamise the country of 70 million.
Although the AK Party has made concessions to minority rights, including a national television station broadcasting in Kurdish, those of non-Muslim faith or non-Turkish heritage say they face discrimination.
Turkey's Jews are mainly the descendants of Sephardi Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition some 500 years ago for the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. Thousands left amid political instability as the secular Turkish Republic was founded, but those who stayed are active in all walks of life.
In Istanbul's historic Galata district, small synagogues nestle alongside mosques and churches in the warren of tiny backstreets. Muslim staff work in a kosher restaurant which has operated for 50 years.
But Jewish buildings have long had a police guard and tight security, and people are wary of drawing attention to themselves. An elderly Jewish man smiles as he demonstrates how he hides his Jewish skull cap beneath a flat cap on the street.
The allegations of anti-Semitism have stung the government.
"Since the 15th century Turkey has been a safe haven for all religious groups... there is not a single case of anti-Semitism in Turkey," Erdogan's foreign policy adviser Ahmet Davutoglu told journalists during a recent briefing on Gaza.
Yet repetitions by officials of the Ottoman Empire's welcome to Jews ring hollow to today's community.
"Am I still indebted because my ancestors were accepted by the Ottoman Sultan? Am I still a guest in this land where I grew up, fulfil my duties as a citizen and actively contribute to its development?," wrote Navaro.
The article moved Turkish President Abdullah Gul to assure Navaro he understood her anxieties and was sensitive to them.
"We love this country and would not want to be anywhere else," said a Turkish Jewish woman, adding precisely because of this emotional attachment there is such concern for the future.
"I am trying to keep my faith in the open-minded majority of the Turkish people."