The History of Turkish Jews
Written by © Naim A. GÜLERYÜZ   

Foreword

On the midnight of August 2nd 1492, when Columbus embarked on what would become his most famous expedition to the New World, his fleet departed from the relatively unknown seaport of Palos because the shipping lanes of Cadiz and Seville were clogged with Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain by the Edict of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain.

Musevilerin İspanyadan Kovma Fermanı In the faraway Ottoman Empire, one ruler extended an immediate welcome to the persecuted Jews of Spain, the Sephardim. He was the Sultan Bayazid II. In 1992, the Discovery year for all those connected to the American continents - North, Central and South - world Jewry was concerned with commemorating not only the expulsion, but also seven centuries of the Osmanlı Padişahı II. BayezıdJewish life in Spain, flourishing under Muslim rule, and the 500th anniversary of the official welcome extended by the Ottoman Empire in 1492.

This humanitarianism demonstrated at that time, was consistent with the beneficence and goodwill traditionally displayed by the Turkish government and people towards those of different creeds, cultures and backgrounds. Indeed, Turkey could serve as a model to be emulated by any nation which finds refugees from any of the four corners of the world standing at its doors.

Afrodisias  
Photo:

In 1992, Turkish Jewry celebrated not only the anniversary of this gracious welcome, but also the remarkable spirit of tolerance and acceptance which has characterized the whole Jewish experience in Turkey. The events being planned - symposiums, conferences, concerts, exhibitions, films and books, restoration of ancient Synagogues etc - commemorated the longevity and prosperity of the Jewish community. As a whole, the celebration aimed to demonstrate the richness and security of life Jews have found in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic over seven centuries, and showed that indeed it is not impossible for people of different creeds to live together peacefully under one flag.

Sardis
Photo: Izzet Keribar


A History Predating 1492

The history of the Jews in Anatolia started many centuries before the migration of Sephardic Jews. Remnants of Jewish settlements 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."

Fatih Sultan MehmetAncient synagogue ruins have been found in Sardis, Miletus, Priene, Phocee, etc. 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 1326 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 nineteen forties.

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.

Münyatür  
 "Hoşgörü ve Karşılama",
Leman Diçtürk (1987)

Ottoman rule was much kinder than Byzantine rule had been. In fact, from the early 15th century on, the Ottomans actively encouraged Jewish immigration. Alettersent by Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (from Edirne) to Jewish communities in Europe in the first part of the century "invited his co-religionists to leave the torments they were enduring in Christiandom 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 Ludvig X found refuge in the Ottoman Empire.

A Haven for Sephardic Jews

Sultan Bayazid II's offer of refuge gave new hope to the persecuted Sephardim. In 1492, the Sultan 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".

Welcome Tablosu  
 "Welcome" painting by Mevlut Akyildiz.

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 Sephardim 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, 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, which he declared to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope had no other alternative than to release them, the Ottoman Empire being the "Super Power" 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.

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.

Sultan Abdülaziz in Kan İftirasına İlişkin FermanıOn 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

Mustafa Kemal AtatürkEfforts 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.

Lozan Antlaşması - Musevilerin Azınlık Haklarından Feragat Metni Lozan Antlaşması - Musevilerin Azınlık Haklarından Feragat İmzaları

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

Selahattin Ülkümen Yad Vashem Müzesinde
 Selahattin Ülkümen
at Yad Vashem

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.


Turkish Jews Today

The present size of Jewish Community is estimated at around 25.000. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2.500 in Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Antakya, Bursa, Canakkale, Kirklareli etc. Sephardim make up 96% of the Community, with Ashkenazim 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. He is assisted by a religious Council made up of five Hahamim. Fifty Lay Counsellors look after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Committee of fourteen runs the daily matters. Representatives of Jewish foundations and institutions meet four times a year as a so-called ??think tank?? to exchange opinions on different subjects concerning the Turkish Jewry.

Synagogues are classified as religious foundations (Vakifs). There are 18 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 area, which dates from middle15th century. The 15th and 16th century Haskoy and Kuzguncuk cemeteries in Istanbul are still in use today.

The Museum of Turkish Jews (Türk Musevileri Müzesi), the first such Museum in Turkey, has been inaugurated on November 25, 2001. (Details at the end of this article).

Neve Şalom Sinagogunda Bir Düğün Ahrida Sinagogu Tevası Hasköy Maalem Sinagogu
A wedding ceremony at Neve Shalom
Ahrida Sinagogunun Tevası  Hasköy Maalem Sinagogunda Dua
 Foto:Izzet Keribar

Education, Language and Social Life

Türk Musevi Basını İlk Gazetesi: La Buena Esperansa Most Jewish children attend state schools or private Turkish or foreign language schools, and many are enrolled in the universities. Additionally, the Community maintains in Istanbul a school complex including elementary and secondary schools for around 700 students. Turkish is the language of instruction, and Hebrew is taught 3 to 5 hours a week.

While younger Jews speak Turkish as their native language, the over-70-years-old generation is more at home speaking in French or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). A conscious effort is spent to preserve the heritage of Judeo-Spanish.

Türk Musevi Basını BaşlıklarıFor many years Turkish Jews have had their own press. La Buena Esperansa and La Puerta del Oriente started in Izmir in 1843 and Or Israel was first published in Istanbul ten years later. Now one newspaper survives: SALOM (Shalom), a fourteen to sixteen pages weekly in Turkish with one page in Judeo-Spanish.
A Community Calendar (Halila) is published by the Chief Rabbinate every year and distributed free of charge to all those who have paid their dues (Kisba) to the welfare bodies. The Community cannot levy taxes, but can request donations.

Two Jewish hospitals, the 98 bed Or-Ahayim in Istanbul and the 22 bed KaratasHospital in Izmir, serve the Community. Both cities have homes for the aged (Moshav Zekinim) and several welfare associations to assist the poor, the sick, the needy children and orphans.

Social clubs containing libraries, cultural and sports facilities, discotheques give young people the chance to meet.

The Jewish Community is of course a very small group in Turkey today, considering that the total population - 99% Muslim - exceeds 67 million. But in spite of their number the Jews have distinguished themselves. There are several Jewish professors teaching at the Universities of Istanbul and Ankara, and many Turkish Jews are prominent in business, industry, liberal professions and journalism.

References

  1. Mark Alan Epstein, "The Ottoman Jewish Communities and their role in the 15th and 16th centuries"
  2. Joseph Nehama, "Histoire des Israelites de Salonique"
  3. Bernard Lewis, "The Jews of Islam"
  4. Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 16 page 1532
  5. Avram Galante, "Histoire des Juifs d'lstanbul", Volume 2
  6. Abraham Danon, Review Yossef Daath No.4
  7. Immanual Aboab, "A Consolacam as Tribulacoes de Israel, III Israel"
  8. H. Graetz, History of the Jews