Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey

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The history of the Jews in Anatolia started many centuries before the migration of Sephardic Jews. Remnants of Jewish settlement from the 4th century B.C. have been uncovered in the Aegean region. The historian Josephus Flavius relates that Aristotle "met Jewish people with whom he had an exchange of views during his trip across Asia Minor."

Ancient synagogue ruins have been found in Sardis, near Izmir, dating from 220 B.C. and traces of other Jewish settlements have been discovered near Bursa, in the southeast and along the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. A bronze column found in Ankara confirms the rights the Emperor Augustus accorded the Jews of Asia Minor.

Jewish communities in Anatolia flourished and continued to prosper through the Turkish conquest. When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1324 and made it their capital, they found a Jewish community oppressed under Byzantine rule. The Jews welcomed the Ottomans as saviours. Sultan Orhan gave them permission to build the Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) synagogue which remained in service until 50 years ago.

Early in the 14th century, when the Ottomans had established their capital at Edirne, Jews from Europe, including Karaites, migrated there. Similarly, Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France by Charles VI in September 1394, and from Sicily early in the 15th century found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1420s, Jews from Salonika then under Venetian control fled to Edirne.

 

Ottoman rule was much more tolerant than Byzantine rule had been. In fact, from the early 15th century on, the Ottomans actively encouraged Jewish immigration. A letter sent by Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (from Edirne) to Jewish communities in Europe in the first part of the century "invited his coreligionists to lease the torments they were enduring in Christendom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey".

When Mehmet II "the Conqueror" took Constantinople in 1453, he encountered an oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community which welcomed him with enthusiasm. Sultan Mehmet II issued a proclamation to all Jews "... to ascend the site of the Imperial Throne, to dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his Dine and his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle...".

In 1470, Jews expelled from Bavaria by Ludwig X found refuge in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1492, the Spanish royal couple Isabelle I and Ferdinand II ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the country - a measure that brought immediate affliction to hundreds of thousands of people rooted there for generations and whose ancestors were buried in the Spanish soil.

Faced with the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Sultan Bayazid II ordered the governors of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire "not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially". According to Bernard Lewis, "the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled".

Immanual Aboab attributes to Bayazid II the famous remark that "the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey".

The arrival of the Sephardis altered the structure of the community and the original group of Romaniote Jews was totally absorbed.

Over the centuries an increasing number of European Jews, escaping persecution in their native countries, settled in the Ottoman Empire. In 1537 the Jews expelled from Apulia (Italy) after the city fell under Papal control, and in 1542 those expelled from Bohemia by King Ferdinand found a safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. In March of 1556, Sultan Suleyman "the Magnificent" wrote a letter to Pope Paul IV asking for the immediate release of the Ancona Marranos (Jews forcibly baptized), whom he declared to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope had no other alternative than to release them, the Ottoman Empire being the "superpower" of those days.

By 1477, Jewish households in Istanbul numbered 1647 or 11% of the total. Half a century later, 8070 Jewish houses were listed in the city.

For 300 years following the expulsion, the prosperity and creativity of the Ottoman Jews rivalled that of the Golden Age of Spain. Four Turkish cities: Istanbul, Izmir, Safed and Salonika became the centres of Sephardic Jewry.

Most of the court physicians were Jews: Hakim Yakoub, Joseph and Moshe Hamon, Daniel Fonseca, Gabriel Buenaventura to name only very few ones.

One of the most significant innovations that Jews brought to the Ottoman Empire was the printing press. In 1493, only one year after their expulsion from Spain, David & Samuel ibn Nahmias established the first Hebrew printing press in Istanbul.

Ottoman diplomacy was often carried out by Jews. Joseph Nasi, appointed the Duke of Naxos, was the former Portuguese Marrano Joao Miques. Another Portuguese Marrano, Aluaro Mandes, was named Duke of Mytylene in return for his diplomatic services to the Sultan. Salamon ben Nathan Eskenazi arranged the first diplomatic ties with the British Empire. Jewish women such as Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi "La Seniora" and Esther Kyra exercised considerable influence in the Court.

In the free air of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish literature flourished. Joseph Caro compiled the Shulhan Arouh. Shlomo haLevi Alkabes composed the Lekhah Dodi, a hymn which welcomes the Sabbath according to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi ritual. Jacob Culi began to write the famous MeAm Loez. Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac Assa became known as the father of Judeo-Spanish literature.

On October 27,1840, Sultan Abdulmecid issued his famous ferman concerning the "Blood Libel Accusation" saying: "... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth...".

Under Ottoman tradition, each non-Moslem religious community was responsible for its own institutions, including schools. In the early 19th century, Abraham de Camondo established a modern school, "La Escola", causing a serious conflict between conservative and secular rabbis which was only settled by the intervention of Sultan Abdulaziz in 1864. The same year the Takkanot haKehilla (By-laws of the Jewish Community) was published, defining the structure of the Jewish community.

An important event in the life of Ottoman Jews in the 17th century was the schism led by Sabetay Sevi, the pseudo Messiah who lived in Izmir and later adopted Islam with his followers.

Efforts at reform of the Ottoman Empire led to the proclamation of the Hatti Humayun in 1856, which made all Ottoman citizens, Moslem and non-Moslem alike, equal under the law. As a result, leadership of the community began to shift away from the religious establishment to secular forces.

World War I brought to an end the glory of the Ottoman Empire. In its place rose the young Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was elected president, the Caliphate was abolished and a secular constitution was adopted.

Recognized in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne as a fully independent state within its present-day borders, Turkey accorded minority rights to the three principal non-Moslem religious minorities and permitted them to carry on with their own schools, social institutions and funds. In 1926, on the eve of Turkey's adoption of the Swiss Civil Code, the Jewish Community renounced its minority status on personal rights.

At the beginning, relations between the new republic and the Jewish community were not idyllic. Jews had been a model of loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and most were not republican. They came under criticism in the press and aroused the hostility of extremist Muslims and anti-Semitic fringe elements, while maintaining cordial relations with the mainstream Muslim society and did not face persecution.

During the years 1920 -1930 Jews were subject to criticism because they spoke Judeo-Spanish and Turkish replaced French and Hebrew in Jewish schools. A law in 1932 prohibited religious education in all schools, while language and Bible studies at Jewish schools had to be taught by lay teachers.

During the tragic days of World War II, Turkey managed to maintain its neutrality. As early as 1933 Ataturk invited numbers of prominent German Jewish professors to flee Nazi Germany and settle in Turkey. Before and during the war years, these scholars contributed a great deal to the development of the Turkish university system. During World War II, Turkey served as a safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors of Nazism. While the Jewish communities of Greece were wiped out almost completely by Hitler, Turkish Jews remained secure.

Several Turkish diplomats such as Ambassadors Behic Erkin and Numan Menemencioglu; Consul Generals Fikret Sefik Ozdoganci, Bedii Arbel, Selahattin Ulkumen; Consuls Namik Kemal Yolga and Necdet Kent helped to save the Turkish Jews in European countries from the Holocaust. Mr. Salahattin Ulkumen, Consul General in the Greek island of Rhodes in 1943 and 1944, was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile in June 1990.

The present size of the Jewish community is estimated at around 26000. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2500 in Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Canakkale, Iskenderun and Kirklareli. Sephardis make up 96% of the community, with Ashkenazis accounting for the rest. There are about 100 Karaites, an independent group who does not accept the authority of the Chief Rabbi.

Turkish Jews are legally represented, as they have been for many centuries, by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi. Synagogues are classified as religious foundations (Vakifs). There are 16 synagogues in use in Istanbul today. Three are in service in holiday resorts, during summer only. Some of them are very old, especially Ahrida Synagogue in the Balat district, which dates from mid-fifteenth century. The 15th and 16th century Haskoy and Kuzguncuk cemeteries in Istanbul are still in use today.

In recent years, this proud and ancient community has been increasingly fearful of the rise of radical Islamism in certain sectors of the Turkish society.