|The History of Turkish Jews|
|Written by © Naim A. GÜLERYÜZ|
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The Life of Ottoman Jews
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 Salonica 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.
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, Alvaro Mendes, was named Duke of Mytylene in return of 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-Muslim 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.
Equality and a New Republic
Efforts at reform of the Ottoman Empire led to the proclamation of the Hatt-ı Humayun in 1856, which made all Ottoman citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, equal under the law. As a result, leadership of the community began to shift away from the religious figure 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-Muslim 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.
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 the Nazism. While the Jewish communities of Greece were wiped out almost completely by Hitler, the Turkish Jews remained secure. Several Turkish diplomats, Ambassadors Behic Erkin and Numan Menemencioglu; Consul-Generals Fikret Sefik Ozdoganci, Bedii Arbel, Selahattin Ulkumen; Consuls Namik Kemal Yolga and Necdet Kent, just to name only few, made every effort to save the Turkish Jews in the Nazi occupied countries, from the Holocaust. They succeeded. Mr. Salahattin Ulkumen, Consul General at Rhodes in 1943-1944, was recognized by the Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile "Hassid Umot ha'Olam" in June 1990. Turkey continues to be a shelter, a haven for all those who have to flee the dogmatism, intolerance and persecution.