News / Europe

Turkey Marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Turkey's Chief Rabbi Izak Haleva (C) and Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu (L) light candles, in memory of holocaust victims, during a commemoration to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, January 26, 2012.
Turkey's Chief Rabbi Izak Haleva (C) and Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu (L) light candles, in memory of holocaust victims, during a commemoration to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, January 26, 2012.
Dorian Jones

Turkey marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day by becoming the first predominantly Muslim country to screen the iconic holocaust documentary, Shoah.

The screening of the legendary nine-hour documentary on the Jewish Holocaust on Turkish state TV was a key part of Turkey's observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

By video link-up from Paris, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann addressed a ceremony in Istanbul's Neve Shalom Synagogue on Thursday, the eve of the Holocaust commemoration. The meeting was attended by high-level state officials, who joined members of the Jewish community. Lanzmann says the screening in Turkey of Shoah has special significance.

"This is [a] pioneering event, the consequences that Turkey will be followed by other Arab countries and one day by Iran, I am sure," said  Lanzmann. "And I want to salute the determination, [the] courage of the people of Turkish television."

It is the first time the film is being shown on state television in a predominantly Muslim country. The screening is part of the French-based Aladdin project that seeks to build greater understanding through culture between Muslims and Jews.

Aladdin director Abraham Radkin says the film is important in raising awareness among Muslims about the Holocaust.

"Over the past 60 years, the Muslim world [has] been excluded from history learning in other parts of the world," said Radkin. "So we are trying to fill a gap, a knowledge gap, and we hope we can promote relations between Jews and Muslims and remove some of the misunderstanding."

That view is shared by Turkish Jews attending Thursday night's ceremony to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This woman says Turkish people are not sufficiently aware about the Holocaust.

"I don't think so. If you think about the whole of Turkey, I don't think so," she said. "So everybody should know about it, because it should not repeat again."

In 2003, the Neve Shalom Synagogue, where the Thursday-night ceremony was held, was hit along with another synagogue by simultaneous truck bombs, killing 27 people. The attacks were blamed on a Turkish al-Qaida cell. The synagogue was also attacked by gunmen in 1986. Twenty-two Jews were killed.

Observers say anti-Semitism in Turkey, fueled by Israel's treatment of Palestinians, remains a concern.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University was instrumental in persuading Turkish state TV to screen Shoah. He says the broadcast is important for Turkey.

"There [are] a lot of misjudgments about Judaism, about the lack of knowledge about European Jews, what happened to them in the Second World War," said Aktar. "Turkey was a neutral country and didn't know about much about all of this. Turkish public needs to be informed about atrocities of the 20th century."

Turkey's broadcast of Shoah comes as diplomatic tensions between Ankara and Israel remain high. Israeli commandos in 2010 killed nine Turkish citizens seeking to break by sea Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. Turkey's decision to screen Shoah is seen as part of its policy to separate its differences with the Israeli government from the Jewish people.

The documentary's screening also comes as Ankara is embroiled in a diplomatic fight with France over Turkey's denial that its Ottoman rulers committed a genocide against the country's Armenian population during World War I. Earlier this week, the French Senate passed a bill that makes it a crime to deny Armenian genocide claims.

Shoah's French director Lanzman, who condemns the law, believes the screening of films like his is effective in helping countries to face up to their past.

"I [am] absolutely sure that this is [a] first step and that the day when [they] will decide to deal themselves with their own past, they will do it, and they don't need anybody with a gun behind them," he said.

Turkey's broadcast of Shoah has already drawn praise both at home and abroad. The move is seen as an important step in supporting Turkey's small Jewish community but also, observers say, a shrewd diplomatic move by the government.

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