The Jewish People between the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic

As a Turkish citizen with a conscience, I am longing for days when the Jewish minority will become an accepted part of society.

TURKISH FLAGS hang on the facade of the restored Great Synagogue before a re-opening ceremony in Edirne, in 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
TURKISH FLAGS hang on the facade of the restored Great Synagogue before a re-opening ceremony in Edirne, in 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The relationship between the Jewish nation and the Turkish people is a very old one, stretching back to pre-Ottoman times. In this article we will examine the historical changes and roots of the relationship between the two nations.
Sultan Bayezid II, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1481 to 1512, welcomed the Jews expelled from Spain under the Alhambra Declaration, resettling them throughout his empire in Edirne, Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Izmir, Manisa and many other center cities. To ensure their safety he issued a decree stating that those who ill-treated or harmed the Jews would be sentenced to death. The sultan famously said of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: “You venture to call [Spanish king] Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” At that time, the Jewish nation was seen by the Ottoman ruler as a driving force of economic development, and this indeed turned out to be the case. The benefits of the Jews to the empire were numerous. The establishment of the first printing house in the empire, by brothers David and Samuel ibn Nahman in Istanbul, is but one example.
In many parts of the empire, moreover, the Jews found positions, some quite high ones, in the imperial bureaucracy as well as private doctors to the sultan..
Sabbatai Zevi, born on August 1, 1626 in Izmir, declared that he was the messiah, basing his idea on some kabbalistic theories. Zevi, who was complained about to the sultan, Mehmed IV, by the Jews of Istanbul, was given the choice of death or conversion to Islam and chose the latter, with many of his followers also converting.
However, this was not a true conversion. Zevi and the Jewish minority who followed him continued to adhere to Judaism. Today, there is still a significant Sabbatean-descendant population in Turkey.
Over time however, the Jews came to be regarded in a much poorer light, until in the last days of the Ottoman Empire they had become the targets of Muslims and Turkish hatred. The dialogue between Theodor Herzl and Sultan Abdul Hamid II (the sultan refused Herzl’s offer to pay down 150 million pounds sterling of the Ottoman debt in exchange for a charter allowing the Zionists to settle in Palestine) put the Jewish nation in the crosshairs, being blamed as for liquidating the Ottoman monarchy.
The secular Turkish nation state that emerged after the fall of the empire adopted the Turkification of all ethnic minorities as the primary state policy. The Greeks, Armenians and Jews, who were seen as “minority status” under the Lausanne peace treaty with the allies, were perceived at first as members of the Turkic community.
At a press conference held in Izmir in 1923 founder of the modern Turkish Republic Mistafa Kemal Ataturk said: “We have some loyal citizens who have combined their fate with the fate of the Turks who ruled them. Especially since the Jews proved their loyalty to this nation and their homeland, they have lived in prosperity and prosperity to this day, and will continue to live in prosperity and happiness.”
Yet, Ataturk, however, did not prevent the discriminatory policies later implemented by the republic. For example, the 1934 Thrace pogroms, a series of violent attacks against Jewish citizens of Turkey in June and July 1934, was condemned but not stopped by the government.
Jews were assaulted in Tekirda, Çanakkale, Kırklareli and Edirne, with many rapes, looting and and murders reported.
15,000 Jews abandoned were forced to flee Turkey as a result. National writers such as Nihal Atsiz wrote anti-Jewish articles.
The Varlik Vergisi (“wealth tax”), which was declared on November 11, 1942, was ostensibly devised to raise funds against the eventuality of Nazi or Soviet invasion, but in actuality was intended to nationalize the Turkish economy by reducing the influence of minority populations on the country’s economy. It was imposed on all citizens, but inordinately higher rates were imposed on the country’s non-Muslim inhabitants. Those who suffered most severely were non-Muslims like the Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and others, though it was the Armenians who were most heavily taxed. The winds of nationalism blowing from Europe affects these policies against minorities. Following these events and the creation of the State of Israel, Jewish immigration from Turkey to Israel increased markedly.
The most important ideologies that influence Turkish politics are Islamism, Turkism and Kemalism, a secular ideology.
Now, let’s examine their differing’ views on Judaism For an Islamist, Jews ar e seen as the cause of all unfortunate events in the hadith, the greatest living enemy, and the “son of the devil.”
To Islamists, calling someone a “Jew” is an insult. A poem by Necip Fazıl Kisakürek, a Turkish poet and Islamist who died in 1983 condemned Jews as “Satan.” He also wrote “Chief among these treacherous and insidious elements to be cleansed are the Dönmes [Sabbateans] and the Jews.”
The Turkish left also have anti-semitic atittudes. Yalçın Küçük, a writer and socialist, accused bureaucrats in the government of being “Sabetaycilik” or Sabateans. Being of Jewish origin was seen as a kind of great danger within these leftist circles. Some said that Jews “established two states, the first was [modern] Turkey.” Moiz Cohen, who was born Jewish but changed his name to Munis Tekinalp became a leading Kemalist, the founding ideology of modern Turkey. He recommended a process of voluntary assimilation of Jews into Turkey.
Following the Gaza Flotilla raid in 2010, the Jewish minority became a target of social anger which escalated rapidly. There had been attacks before such as the 1986 shootings at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul in which 22 people were murdered on Shabbat. In 2003 a truck bomb targeted the same synagogue killing 57. Israel aided Turkey after the 1999 earthquake, but today the Jewish population is declining rapidly. Especially after the events of the Mavi Marmara, anger raises a serious threat to the safety of life and property. As a Turkish citizen with a conscience, I am longing for days when the Jewish minority will become an accepted part of society.
From Istanbul with peace.
The author is a student at Kocaeli University active in a group that defends Jewish rights.