Engraving after Nicolas de Nicolay, Jewish Merchant of Turkey, 1568. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris.

In the beautiful synagogue of Ahrida, one of the oldest in Istanbul, the tevah assumes the shape of a caravel symbolizing not only Noah’s Ark but also the vessels that in 1492 transported the Jews banished from Spain to the shores of the Ottoman Empire. A royal edict issued in Granada, only recently recaptured from the Arabs, gave the Jews no choice but conversion to Catholicism or exile. Five years later, the Portuguese nobility followed the example of their counterparts in Madrid. A millennium of Jewish presence on the Iberian Peninsula was thus swept away. Sephardic Judaism, one of the most splendid manifestations of Judaism at the end of the Middle Ages, was dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin as far north as the United Provinces.

Many Jews chose to accept the hospitality of Sultan Bajazet II, who “had heard about the wrongs that the Spanish sovereign had inflicted upon the Jews and learned the Jews were looking for a safe haven”. The sultan was also said to have declared, “Can you call such a sovereign wise and intelligent? He impoverishes his country and enriches mine”. Such sympathetic tales from Jewish historiography such as the chronicle of Rabbi Elijah Capsali (sixteenth century), are not corroborated by Ottoman sources, but in any case, they attest to the Jews’ enormous gratitude toward the sultans of their adopted homeland. The Jews prospered for many years under the sultans’ protection and remained loyal subjects until the end of the Ottoman Empire.

“In contrast to their counterparts in the west or northern Africa, the Sephardim of the Balkans overwhelmed the native community. They introduced Judeo-Hispanic culture to such a degree  that cities such as Istanbul, Andrianopolis, Smyrna, Thessaloniki, and Sarajevo absorbed these influences and in them a sort of Sepharad was transplanted and re-created”, notes an important study on Ottoman Judaism, The Jews of Balkans: the Judeo-Spanish Community, 15th to 20th Centuries. Today, however, traces of a Jewish presence in Turkey before the arrival of the Spanish exiles are literally concealed by the cities themselves. The remains of a classical synagogue, dating from the third century C.E., for example, was discovered in the ruins of Sardis, near Izmir. A bronze column found at Ankara lists the rights the emperor Augustus conferred upon the Jewish communities of Asia Minor. These hellenistic Jewish communities, called Romaniotes, settled particularly in the large coastal cities of the Aegean.

The Jewish communities persisted during the Byzantine period despite numerous persecutions. Byzantine emperors simultaneously wielded both political and religious power. A a result, the severity of discrimination against the Jews quickly escalated in Byzantium as compared with the West. Humiliated, restricted to certain economic activities, and confined to living in specially designated neighborhoods, the Jews no longer event had the right under Justinian (527-65) to say in their prayers, “our God is the only God”, a phrase considered an insult to the Holy Trinity.

In 422, the Jews were thrown out of Byzantium by Theodosius II.  They returned to the capital only in the ninth century, settling along the southern banks of the Golden Horn, close to the Marmara Sea and the defensive walls of the city. The anti-Semitism of the Byzantine authorities never weakened. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the patriarch Athanasius I complained about the presence of a synagogue in the capital to the emperor Andronicus II Paleologue: “Not only are the masses allowed to continue to live in ignorance, but they are being contaminated by the presence of the Jews”.

At the same time, the inexorable advance in the fourteenth century of the Ottomans across Anatolia, and later through the Balkans, was enthusiastically welcomed by the Romaniote Jewish communities. “It meant an immediate liberation not only from oppression, persecution, and humiliation, but even from slavery”, writes Stanford J. Shaw, who emphasizes that, in 1324, many Jews from the city of Bursa helped Sultan Ohran capture this large city in northwestern Anatolia, which would become the first Ottoman capital. From the beginning, however, the tolerance of the Ottomans toward the Jews was dictated by reasons of a vested interest. The Ottomans were a society of warriors and peasants whose burgeoning state bureaucracy left them little time for other activities. Commerce, most notably, was left to Christians and Jews. As in other Islamic lands, the Ottomans had a policy of dhimmi, or protected people, found both in the Koran and in the sunna (the “tradition”) that provided for governing peoples of the Book who could not be converted by force. This policy guaranteed the security of individuals and their property, but non-Muslims were required to pay a tax to the state. And although non-Muslim communities were permitted self-governance under the authority of their religious leaders, the policy made non-Muslims second-class citizens subject to a number of discriminatory measures. These were mostly of a symbolic nature relating to clothing or domestic architecture, the forbidding of nonbelievers to bear arms or keep certain esteemed animals -all practices meant to show the superiority of the true believers. The policy could be applied in a more or less humiliating fashion. In the main, however, the Ottomans sultans were open and pragmatic. From the fourteenth century onward, European Jews streamed in from the lands that had expelled them, from Hungary in 1376 and France in 1394. Others arrived from Sicily at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Most of them settled in Adrianopolis (present-day Edirne), then capital of the empire. “I assure you, Turkey is a country of abundance where, if you wish, you will find rest”, wrote the rabbi Isaac Zarfati in a famous letter to his fellow believers still living in Christian lands.

Map of Constantinople, sixteenth century.

The Ottoman authorities forced small Jewish Romaniotes communities to resettle in conquered areas in order to supply their cities with artisans and merchants. This policy was implemented for example in 1453 for colonizing Istanbul. The surgün, as the deported peoples were known, were differentiated from the kendi gelen, or people coming of their own free will, such as the Jewish exiles coming from the west. Jewish exiles remained an active group for many years. The steady stream of Jews arriving from Spain lasted for several decades. Some of them arrived directly, while others only after long journeys, notably by way of Italy. Either way, the trend was set. Censuses undertaken by the Ottoman authorities in 1520-30 counted 1647 Jewish households in Istanbul, some 10% of the city’s population, and 2645 households in Thessaloniki, of a population of 4863 family units. Thirty years earlier there had not been any Jews in this large Balkan port city that was to remain the capital of the Judeo-Spanish world until the end of the Ottoman Empire. In Istanbul, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula did not become a majority in the local community until the seventeenth century, but they had a major role there due to their energy and prestige. They could also count on the goodwill of the Ottoman authorities’ vested interest in their prosperity. As the historian Bernard Lewis explains, “From the Turkish point of view, the Jews, especially those that came from Europe, presented a number of advantages…Abreast of European affairs but relatively uninterested in them, the Jews were able advisers in the relations the Ottoman Empire maintained with western powers…Finally, and above all, the Ottomans had no a priori reason to suspect treason or suspicious sympathies with their primary enemy, the Christian Occident”.

Jacket, Ottoman Empire. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris.

Pillars of the empire, the Jews opened the first printing presses in Istanbul and Thessaloniki in the fifteenth century. However, Turkish authorities forbade them to use the Arabic alphabet in order to keep it from being profaned, and so that Turkish scribes and calligraphers would not be deprived of work. Jews introduced theater to the Ottoman Empire, which until then had been totally ignored. They brought with them new techniques of navigation and weapons production, as well as capital. Nonetheless, it was in the economic sphere where Jewish contributions were most significant. Jews had key roles in tax administration, in the Empire’s finances, in the textile industries, and in banking. For example, the sultan benefited from the management skill and immense wealth of the rich Portuguese Jew Jospeh Nassi, who, by the end of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign, had distinguished himself in his diplomatic activities with Poland, Italy, and Spain.

After Nassi’s death in 1579, Jews were no longer to occupy such elevated government positions. However, two professions allowed Jewish influence to persist in the life of the empire: as doctors for political figures and, above all, as attendants in Turkish harems. As keeper of the jewels, clothing, or perfume of the sultan’s favorites or their powerful mothers, such women as Esther Handali or Esperanza Malchi secured close friendships with the influential women of the harem.

Pillars of the empire

Jews occupied a crucial place in the flourishing Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth century. This fact was noted by numerous western chroniclers, such as Michel Febure (quoted by Robert Mantran), who lamented “They are so adroit and industrious they make themselves indispensable to everyone. There is not a single wealthy family among the Turks and foreign merchants where one does not find a Jew in their employ, whether to appraise merchandise, or to serve as an interpreter and to give advice about everything that happens. Regarding any location in the city they are able to recount in detail everything that is available for sale, its quality and quantity…Other Oriental nationalities, such as the Greeks or Armenians, lack this talent and would not know how to attain such shrewdness: this is what obliges merchants to make use of the Jews, despite the slight aversion that one feels”.

Robert Mantran, Istanbul au temps de Soliman le Magnifique (Istanbul Under Suleiman the Magnificient) (Paris: Hachette, 1994).

The decadence of Ottoman Judaism in the seventeenth century accompanied and anticipated that of the Empire. One of the causes of this phenomenon was the end of Jewish immigration from Europe that had afforded the Ottoman administration contact with the western world. Christian minorities, beginning with the Greeks and Armenians, began at this time to fulfill the roles of intermediaries between these two worlds. The marginalization and withdrawal of the Jewish community from secular functions were accelerated by the crisis of the false messiah Sabbataï Zevi that so shook Judaism within the Ottoman Empire.

Sabbataï Zevi

Sabbataï Zevi (1626-78) and the Deunmés

The hot-headed Kabbalist Sabbataï Zevi was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir) in 1626 into a family of drapers hailing from Peloponnese. Convinced that he was the Messiah, he created upheaval in the Jewish community that led to its persecution by the Ottoman Empire. According to Gershom Sholem, the most penetrating modern commentator on Zevi, this religious and insurrectional movement developed out of a background of Kabbalist mysticism, the dominant form of Jewish piety of the period. From the time of their exile from Spain, Jewish thinkers sought answers to the tragedy of the expulsion, a catastrophe they likened to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. A rabbi in Rhodes proposed in 1495, “I think these trials are the birth pains of the coming of the Messiah”. One can thus understand the enthusiasm and hopes the sudden messianic movement in Smyrna aroused, despite Zevi excommunication by the rabbis of Jerusalem. In 1665, Sabbataï Zevi departed for Istanbul. He was arrested by the Ottoman authorities and forced to choose either martyrdom or conversion to Islam. The false Messiah chose to submit. Some considered this apostasy as an indispensable step in the realization of his mission and also converted to Islam, all the while maintaining their Jewish faith and practicing its rites in secret. The community of deunmés (those who turned) resigned themselves to going to Turkey at the empire’s end. Even today, certain great deunmé families occupy an important place in publishing or industry. Hiding for many years and continuing their low profile during the first seventy years of Kemal’s secular republic, Turkey deunmés have begun to openly reclaim their identity and history.

In the traumatized and despaired communities, the rabbis took on enourmous power and effectively precluded any possibility of more liberal tendencies to develop/ The Ottoman authorities began to regard the Jewish minority, which until then had attracted no particular concern, with growing suspicion. By the next century, when the Ottoman Empire was forced by western powers to begin modernization, the Jews of the Levant had become a scorned and impoverished minority. Far from the great intellectual debates around haskalah, religious reform, Zionism, or the renaissance of the Hebrew language, Jews had fallen into obscurity. Western travelers who passed through the Jewish quarters of Istanbul of the Golden Horn recounted a miserable reality, totally opposite to what voyagers had described two centuries before. Turkish Jews kept to themselves in their communities, earning their living as shop owners, artisans, or low-level employees. Worse, an anti-Semitism encouraged by Christian minorities such as the Greeks began to develop: the first accusation of ritual murder suddenly occurred in Damascus in 1840.

The pariahs

“I never saw the curse denounced against the children of Israel more fully brought to to bear than in the East […] Where they are considered rather as a link between animals and human beings, than as men possessed of the same attributes, warmed by the same sun, chilled by the same breeze, subject to the same feelings, and impulses, and joys, and sorrows, as their fellow-mortals.

There is a subdued and spiritless expression about the Eastern Jews, of which the comparatively tolerant European can picture to himself no possible idea until he has looked upon it…It is impossible to express the contemptuous hatred in which the Osmanlis hold the Jewish people; and the veriest Turkish urchin who may encounter one of the fallen nation on his path, has his meed of insult to add to the degradation of the outcast and wandering race of Israel.”

Julia Pardoe, in a description of The City of the Sultan (1836).

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Salvation came from outside. Western governments increased their pressure of the sultan’s regime to accelerate its liberal reforms intended to guarantee the Ottoman Empire’s integrity but also western economic interests. The 150000Jews living in Ottoman territories in the middle of the nineteenth century benefited from these initiatives, as did other minorities. In 1856 and later in 1869, decrees specifying and amplifying the first reforms of 1839 guaranteed the equality of all citizens before the law. The concern of Occidental Jewish communities over the welfare of their fellow believers in the Levant gradually awakened Turkish Judaism from its stupor. A small group of elite Jews played an essential part as intermediaries . They supported the francos, Jews from foreign origin who benefited from the privileges accorded to western expatriates by the sultans. The conflict between the Conservative rabbis and the small modernist elite first crystallized over the opening of a new school in 1858 under the patronage of banker Abraham de Camondo, “the Rothschild of the Orient”. Two years later Reform sympathizer Jacop Avigor was elected the grand rabbi of the empire. Conservatives countered with the support of much of the working class. Violent upheavals in 1862 prevented authorities from intervening. Soon after, the traditionalists came back into power and excommunicated Abraham de Camondo. Three years later the Ottoman administration reversed its previous position and imposed on Jewish communities a more liberal policy that limited the power of the rabbis. But resistance continued and the francos established their own so-called “Italian” community. This community worked actively to introduce the schools of the Universal Israelite Alliance, based in Paris, into the lands of Levant. The first such schools opened in Istanbul in 1870. French replaced Ladino, first among the elites and, gradually, among the majority of the empire’s Jewish population. By 1912, every Ladino community of more than 1000 persons had been granted and Alliance school. This organization increasingly replaced the weakened existing community institutions. In 1908, and Alliance supporter, Haim Nahum, became the head of Judaism in an empire where the triumph of the Young Turks Revolution had installed a constitutional monarchy. One of the centers of the movement was the great city of Thessaloniki. Nonetheless, its Jews played only a marginal part in the new democratic regime. The first Ottoman assembly elected in 1908 included only four Jews. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Greece conquest of Thessaloniki, the First World War, and the crumbling of the empire marked the end of Ottoman Judaism. Thereafter, Judaism in Turkey was divided among several hostile, if not rival, nation-states. The First World War and the war of independence devastated other minorities. The Armenians were massacred in 1915 and the Greeks hunted down in the context of the great migration of populations that followed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

According to a census taken in 1927, 81872 Jews lived within the boundaries of the Turkish republic claimed by Mustapha Kemal, most concentrated in the cities os Istanbul and Izmir. Traumatized by the defeat of 1918 and the crumbling of the empire, the Turks attempted to forge a specific national identity, regarding minorities with suspicion. The new republican political system, directly inspired by the Jacobin model, had a major effect on the living conditions of the Jewish community. The new republic was above all determined to encourage the formation of a national middle class. The Universal Israelite Alliance schools were forced to break their foreign ties, and Turkish was made the language of instruction. The militant secularism of the Kemalist institutions suffocated the last Jewish community schools. The Jews were reminded that they were “guests” and that it behooved them to show their gratitude by integrating as quickly as possible.

Although in principle Jews were guaranteed full equality under the law, reality was otherwise. Public posts of a certain level remained off limits to Jews until the years 1945-50. As Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue have observed, “This authoritarian, non-liberal nation-state left the Jewish community deprived of its own institutions while not permitting it to integrate into social and public spheres”. This discriminatory policy toward minority populations intensified during the Second World War. It is true that Kemalist Turkey which remained neutral during the war welcomed a number of Jews affiliated with German universities after they were forced out by the Nazis in 1933, and it permitted refugees furnished with an entry visa for Palestine to travel across its territories. Nonetheless, in 1942 in instituted an “exceptional tax” that in fact was conceived to bring about the economic ruin of its minority populations. They were divided into four groups (foreign residents, non-Muslims, Muslims, deunmés) and taxed accordingly. The official estimate of individual means was most often completely arbitrary. On average, the tax was 5% for Muslims and 150-200% for Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Most had no way to pay such exorbitant taxes and were forced to sell their belongings. Those unable to pay were then condemned to work camps in the far reaches of Anatolia. The tax was finally abolished in March 1944. But its effect on Turkish Jews was traumatic and prepared the way for a massive emigration to Israel beginning in 1948 and continuing during the years 1950-60. Emigration increased with each nationalist initiative despite the reinstallation of a multiparty system and the democratization of republican institutions.

Today about 26000 Jews live in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul. Good relations between Ankara and Israel, the only two democracies of the region and both faithful allies of Washington, permit this community to live without major problems. It is the only significant Jewish community resident in an Islamic nation. Friendly to the west and secular, Turkey is Islamic but not Arab. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, it has obvious strategic interests in common with Israel, which led in 1998 to the signing of a military agreement. The authorities in Ankara have willingly reclaimed traditional Ottoman hospitality toward the Jews. Turkey celebrated the 500-year anniversary of the welcoming of Spanish Jews with great pomp. Still, Turkey’s Jews remain concerned by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in their country and fear being the target of terrorist attacks, such as on 6 September 1986 at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, which left twenty-three dead.