Skip to main content

Turkey earthquake: Israel returns antique Jewish scrolls taken from Antakya

Israeli rescue mission says it was given the texts for safekeeping, but the issue has angered many
Israeli rescue team commander, Major Haim Otmazgin, holding up the scrolls taken from Turkey and then later returned (Photo: ZAKA)

Israeli rescue workers sent to earthquake-hit Turkey have returned a 200-year-old Jewish manuscript, with an outcry erupting over whether it should have been taken out of the country in the first place.

Israel dispatched a team of search-and-rescue workers made up of volunteers and military personnel to assist Turkey after two calamatous earthquakes struck two weeks ago, a disaster that has killed at least 41,000 in the country and another 4,000 in Syria.

The ZAKA rescue mission spent six days in southern Turkey. Among the places it offered assistance was Hatay, which has an ancient Jewish community. The head of Antakya's Jewish community in Turkey, Saul Cenudioglu, and his wife Fortuna were found dead in the ruins of their home on 10 February by Israeli rescue workers. 

When the Israeli team returned home on Thursday, it took two antique scrolls of the Book of Esther that had been stored in Antakya's synagogue, which was destroyed in the earthquake.

According to the Israeli media, an elderly man from Turkey's Jewish community approached the ZAKA rescue mission offering the scrolls for safekeeping. News of the scrolls being taken from Turkey were first reported in the Israeli press.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


"The last head of our community has now tragically passed and with our proximity to Syria, I'd hate to see the scrolls fall in the wrong hands. Please guard them and make sure our community is remembered," the Israeli military official that took the scroll quoted the Jewish man as saying.

'The Esther Scrolls were given to the Israelis by the family for safekeeping, and at the first opportunity it was returned'

- Rabbi Mendy Chitrik

However, the reaction on Turkish social media quickly became hostile, with discontent rumbling over the weekend despite the scrolls being returned on Friday. The removal of the texts tap into longstanding fears that historical items have previously been looted from the country in times of crisis, for instance during the Ottoman period.

The Turkish Chief Rabbinate Foundation quickly attempted to quell fears by addressing the issue on Twitter and assuring that the scrolls are in its possession.

"The relevant Esther scroll was received from Israel and is kept in our Chief Rabbinate. [The scroll] will return to its home in Antakya after the renovation of our synagogue," it tweeted on Friday.

Under Turkish law it is forbidden for antiquities or artefacts of important historical value more than a century old to be taken abroad. 

The Book of Esther forms an important historical document for Turkey's Jewish community. 

"The Esther Scrolls were given to them [the Israeli military] by the family for safekeeping, and at the first opportunity it was returned," the leader of Turkey's Ashkenazi Jewish community, Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, told Middle East Eye.

"The Esther Scrolls don't have the same holiness as Torah scrolls. They are personal property of individuals," said Chitrik, adding: "Religious people usually give it to a child when he becomes 13. My kids all have [them]. The whole thing is a non-issue."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.