(JTA) Rabbis from across the world filled the halls of Istanbul’s Conrad hotel this week for the inaugural conference of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS). They were expecting two days of networking, discussions of Jewish law and simple camaraderie over their shared experience of supporting Jewish life in Muslim-majority countries.
What they weren’t expecting was to be whisked off to the Turkish capital of Ankara, on a private plane sent by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or to have dinner with him at his presidential palace.
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Turkey and director of ARIS, only got the news that the Turkish president would receive them hours before the conference was set to begin.
According to Chitrik, Erdogan stayed with the rabbis for two hours discussing a variety of topics.
“The president has listened very gracefully to all of the rabbis, has spoken in very strong terms against antisemitism and Islamophobia and has reiterated the Turkish stance that denying the Holocaust is a crime against humanity,” Chitrik told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, adding that Erdogan also voiced his support for the construction and renovation of synagogues in Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Another topic addressed was the state of Turkish-Israeli relations.
“I value our renewed dialogue with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett,” Erdogan noted to the rabbis, according to the government-aligned outlet Daily Sabah.
Though the country was once a strong ally of Israel, Turkish-Israeli relations have soured under Erdogan’s nearly 20-year rule. 2010’s Mavi Marmara Incident, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, ushered in a low point (and several years of Turkish legal battles), as did the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem in 2018. Erdogan has called Israel a “terrorist state” and accused it of “genocide.”
Despite continuing trade relations with Israel, the Turkish government also hosts the leadership of Hamas on its soil, and is a major funder of Palestinian causes in Gaza and the West Bank.
The Turkish president reiterated that position, but called on the rabbis to be part of the solution.
“We all have to strive for peace in the Middle East,” he said. “We do not want to see any conflicts in this geography that is home to three Abrahamic religions.”
“I believe that a solution that prioritizes the sensitivities of all religious groups living in Jerusalem can be achieved,” he added.
Erdogan’s relations with the global Jewish community have also not always been so rosy.
In May, he was castigated by U.S. President Biden for statements, considered to be trading in antisemtic tropes, which Erdogan made during Israel’s flare-up of tensions with Gaza.
“They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood,” Erdogan had said at the time. “”It is in their nature.”
The meeting concluded with Turkey’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Isak Haleva, gifting the Turkish president an ornate menorah.
All in all, the level of dialogue the rabbis shared with Erdogan was precisely one of the reasons Chitrik founded ARIS.
The idea came to him while at another conference, the Kinus HaShluchim – an international conference of emissaries – when he found himself seated at a table with colleagues from Azerbaijan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re all rabbis from Muslim countries. Why isn’t there a session here at this conference for rabbis of Muslim countries?’” Chitrick recalled. “There are things that we can help each other with. So it grew from there.”
A century ago, there were well over one million Jews living in the Muslim world. Though most were expelled or fled, they haven’t all entirely emptied.
Around a hundred thousand Jews still live in Muslim-majority countries, Chitrick estimated. The largest Jewish populations can be found in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.
This week’s conference in Istanbul was the first time many of the rabbis got to finally meet in person. In attendance were rabbis representing more than ten counties, including Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Albania, Kosovo, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Kazakhstan, and Russia as well as Turkey whose chief rabbinate served as hosts to the conference.
Gerami ultimately left the conference with a brand new Torah scroll to bring back to his community in Iran.