History of the Jews in Turkey

History of the Jews in Turkey

Jewsref|name|§ have lived in the geographic area of Asia Minor (modern
Turkey) for more than 2,400 years. In the later Middle Ages,
Ashkenazi Jews migrating to the Byzantine Empire and Ottoman Empire supplemented the original Jewish population of Asia Minor. At the end of the 15th century, a large number of Sephardic Jews fleeingpersecution in Spain and Portugal settled in Asia Minor on theinvitation of the Ottoman Empire. Despite emigration during the 20th century, modern day Turkey continues tohave a small Jewish population.

Ancient, Greek and Byzantine rule

According to Jewish scripture, Noah's ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat, a mountain in the Taurus range of ancient Armenia which is now a part of Turkey near the modern borders Armenia and Iran. [Bibleref|Genesis|8:4] Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian of the first century, notes Jewish origins for many of the cities in Asia Minor, though much of his sourcing for these passages is traditional. [Flavius Josephus, "The Antiquities of the Jews" (Project Gutenberg eText, William Whiston trans., 2006), Chapter 1, Book 1.] Biblical mention of Jewish populations in Turkey is widespread: Iconium (now called Konya in modern Turkey) is said to have a synagogue in Acts 14:1, and Ephesus is mentioned as having a synagogue in Acts 19:1 and in Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. The Epistle to the Galatians is likewise directed at an area of modern Turkey which once held an established Jewish population. Based on physical evidence, there has been a Jewish community in Asia Minor since the 4th century B.C., most notably in the city of Sardis. The subsequent Roman and Byzantine Empires included sizable Greek-speaking Jewish communities in their Anatolian domains which seem to have been relatively well-integrated and enjoyed certain legal immunities. The size of the Jewish community was not affected by the attempts of some Byzantine emperors (most notably Justinian) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success. [G. Ostrogorsky, "History of the Byzantine State"] The exact picture of the status of the Jews in Asia Minor under Byzantine rule is still being researched by historians. [For a sample of views, see J. Starr "The Jews in the Byzantine Empire, 641-1204"; S. Bowman, "The Jews of Byzantium";, R. Jenkins "Byzantium"; Averil Cameron, "Byzantines and Jews: Recent Work on Early Byzantium", Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 20] Although there is some evidence of occasional hostility by the Byzantine populations and authorities, no systematic persecution of the type endemic at that time in western Europe (pogroms, the stake, mass expulsions, etc.) is believed to have occurred in Byzantium. ["The Oxford History of Byzantium", C. Mango (ed.) (2002)]

Ottoman rule

The first Jewish synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim in Bursa which passed to Ottoman authority in 1324. The synagogue is still in use, although the modern Jewish population of Bursa has shrunk to about 140 people. [ [http://www.jewishgen.org/cemetery/mem/turkey.html International Jewish Cemetery Project - Turkey ] ]

The greatest influx of Jews into Asia Minor and the Ottoman Empire, however, occurred during the reign of Mehmed's successor, Beyazid II (1481-1512), after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. The sultan issued a formal invitation to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, and they started arriving in the empire in great numbers.

The sultan is said to have exclaimed thus at the Spanish monarch's lack of wisdom: "Ye call Ferdinand a wise king he who makes his land poor and ours rich!" The Jews satisfied various needs in the Ottoman Empire: the Muslim Turks were largely uninterested in business enterprises and accordingly left commercial occupations to members of minority religions. They also distrusted the Christian subjects whose countries had only recently been conquered by the Ottomans and therefore it was natural to prefer Jewish subjects to which this consideration did not apply. H. Inalcik; The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, Phoenix Press, (2001) ]

The Spanish Jews settled chiefly in Istanbul, Sarajevo, Salonica, Adrianople, Nicopolis, Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, Egypt, and in Bursa, Tokat, Amasya in Anatolia. Smyrna was not settled by Spanish Jews until later. The Jewish population at Jerusalem increased from 70 families in 1488 to 1,500 at the beginning of the sixteenth century. That of Safed increased from 300 to 2,000 families and almost surpassed Jerusalem in importance. Damascus had a Sephardic congregation of 500 families. Istanbul had a Jewish community of 30,000 individuals with 44 synagogues. Bayazid allowed the Jews to live on the banks of the Golden Horn. Egypt, especially Cairo, received a large number of the exiles, who soon out-numbered the native Jews. Gradually, the chief center of the Sephardic Jewsbecame Salonica, where the Spanish Jews soon outnumbered their co-religionists of other nationalities and, at one time, the original native inhabitants. Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire has often been exaggerated, [B. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, PUP, (1987) 137-141] it is undeniable that the tolerance they enjoyed was unprecedented. Under the millet system they were organized as a community on the basis of religion, alongside the other millets ("e.g." Christian Orthodox, Armenian millets, etc.). In the framework of the millet they had a considerable amount of administrative autonomy and were represented by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi. There were no restrictions in the professions Jews could practice analogous to those common in Western Christian countries. [L. Stavrianos; The Balkans since 1453, NYU Press (2000) ] There were restrictions in the areas Jews could live or work, but such restrictions were imposed on Ottoman subjects of other religions as well. Like all non-Muslims, Jews had to pay the harac ("head tax") and faced other restrictions in clothing, horse riding, army service etc., but they could occasionally be waived or circumvented. [D. Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, CUP, 2005]

Some examples of Jews who reached high positions in the Ottoman court and administration include Mehmed II's minister of Finance ("defterdar") Hekim Yakup Pasa, his Portuguese physician Moses Hamon, Murad II's physician Ishak Pasha, and Abraham de Castro, the master of the mint in Egypt.During the Classical Ottoman period (1300-1600), the Jews, together with most other communities of the empire, enjoyed a certain level of prosperity. Compared with other Ottoman subjects, they were the predominant power in commerce and trade as well in diplomacy and other high offices. However, their prosperity was not a deep-rooted one. It did not rest on fixed laws or conditions, but depended wholly on the capriciousness of individual rulers. And with the waning of Ottoman power even that superficial prosperity vanished.

For example, at the same time the expelled Spanish Jews were invited to take refuge in the Empire, the forced deportation of large numbers of Jews to Istanbul, though not intended as an anti-Jewish measure, was perceived as an "expulsion" by the Jews. [J. Hacker, Ottoman policies towards the Jews and Jewish attitudes towards Ottomans during the Fifteenth Century in "Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire", New York (1982)]

During Murad IV (1623-40) the Jews of Jerusalem were persecuted by an Arab who had purchased the governorship of that city from the governor of the province.Fact|date=April 2007

During the reign of Ibrahim I (1640-49), there was a massacre of Ashkenazi Jews who were expecting the Messiah in the year 1648. The war with Venice in the first year of Ibrahim's reign disrupted commerce and caused many Jews to relocate to Smyrna, where they could carry on their trade undisturbed.

In 1660, under Mehmet IV (1649-1687), Safat was destroyed by the Arabs; and in the same year there was a fire in Istanbul in which the Jews suffered severe losses. In 1678, Mehmet IV ordered the banishment of the Jews of Yemen to the Mawza Desert, an event which, despite its brief duration, remains in the collective memory of Yemeni Jews as a great tragedy.


The history of the Jews in Turkey in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is principally a chronicle of misfortunes and decline in influence and power. An exception to this theme is that of Daniel de Fonseca, who was chief court physician and played a certain political role. He is mentioned by Voltaire, who speaks of him as an acquaintance whom he esteemed highly. Fonseca was involved in negotiations with Charles XII of Sweden.

But by 1887, there were five Jewish members of the Ottoman parliament. The minister plenipotentiary from the United States to the Ottoman Empire, Oscar S. Straus, was a Jew. Straus was again minister from 1897 to 1900. In the war of 1885, although not admitted to the army, they gave pecuniary and other aid. In Adrianople 150 wagons were placed by them at the disposal of the government for the transportation of ammunition; and in the war of 1897 the Jews of Istanbul contributed 50,000 piasters to the army fund Fact|date=April 2007.

Ottoman Jews held a variety of views on the role of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, from loyal Ottomanism to Zionism. [Michelle U. Campos, "Between “Beloved Ottomania” and“The Land of Israel”: The Struggle over Ottomanism and Zionism Among Palestine’s Sephardi Jews, 1908–13", "International Journal of Middle East Studies" 37:461–483 (2005). doi|10.1017.S0020743805374010] Emanuel Karasu of Salonika, for example, was a founding member of the Young Turks, and believed that the Jews of the Empire should be Turks first, and Jews second.

Turkish Republic

The Jewish population of Ottoman Empire had reached nearly 500,000 at the start of the 20th century. The troubled history of Turkey during the 20th century and the process of transforming the old Ottoman empire into a modern Western nation-state after 1923 had a negative effect on the size of the Jewish community. The leadership of the Young Turk movement were mostly composed of Turkish Jews.

The late Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz has claimed that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was of Spanish Jewish ancestry, his ancestors having fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Prinz also talks about about the Jewish community of Thessalonica (now in Greece)) where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born. [ [http://www.joachimprinz.com Joachim Prinz Library] ]

The planned deportation of Jews from Thrace and the associated anti-Jewish pogrom in 1934 was one of the events that caused insecurity among the Turkish Jews. [Rifat Bali, Yeni Bilgiler ve 1934 Trakya Oraylari-I, in Tarih ve Toplum 186/1999]

The effect of the 1942 Varlık Vergisi ("wealth tax") was the greatest on non-Muslims, although in principle it was directed against all wealthy Turks. The "wealth tax" is still remembered as the "catastrophe" among the non-Muslims of Turkey and it had probably the most detrimental effect on the numbers of the Jewish community. Many people unable to pay the taxes were sent to labor camps and about 30,000 Jews emigrated. [Faik Ökte, "The tragedy of the Turkish Capital Tax", Kent 1987]

On the night of 6/7 September 1955, the Istanbul Pogrom was unleashed against the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian communities of Istanbul and other major Turkish cities. Although the damage was mainly material (more than 4,000 shops and 1,000 houses were destroyed) it deeply shocked minorities throughout the country, and 10,000 Jews subsequently fled Turkey. [Dilek Güven, Nationalismus, Sozialer Wandel und Minderheiten: Die Ausschreitungen gegen die Nichtmuslime der Tuerkei (6/7 September 1955), Universitaet Bochum, 2006]

The present size of the Jewish Community is estimated at around 26,000 according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in İzmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale, Iskenderun and Kirklareli. Sephardic Jews make up approximately 96% of Turkey's Jewish population, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazic.

Turkish Jews are still legally represented by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi. Rav Izak Haleva, is assisted by a religious Council made up of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Thirty-five Lay Counselors look after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Committee of fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay Counselors, runs the daily affairs.

Turkey is one of the first countries with a Muslim majority to formally recognize the State of Israel [http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/documents/44edf1a5d337f.pdf] . Turkey and Israel have closely cooperated militarily and economically. In the book "Israel's Secret Wars", Benny Morris provides an account of how Mossad operatives based in Turkey infiltrated into Iraq and helped to orchestrate a number of Iraqi Kurdish uprisings to weaken the Iraqi government. Israel and Turkey have signed a multi-billion dollar project to build a series of pipelines from Turkey to Israel to supply gas, oil and other essentials to Israel.Fact|date=April 2007

In 2003, a bombing attack on two synagogues in Istanbul was carried out by Al-Qaeda.


The flourishing period of Jewish literature in Turkey was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,Fact|date=April 2007 after the arrival of the Spanish exiles, though there had been Jewish intellectuals before this period too.Fact|date=April 2007 Printing-presses and Talmud schools were established, and an active correspondence with Europe was maintained.

See also

* Turkey-Israel relations
* Donmeh
* Jews of Byzantium
* Jewish Museum of Turkey
* List of synagogues in Turkey
* Religion in Turkey


* Jew/Jewish: "Yahudi" or "Musevi"; the latter term coined after the former became tainted. [cite news|url=http://bianet.org/bianet/kategori/bianet/109765/azinlik-olmakta-sorun-yok-sorun-ayrimcilikta
title=Azınlık Olmakta Sorun Yok, Sorun Ayrımcılıkta
quote=Türkiyeli Yahudilerin son dönemde çocuklarına çokça Türk-Müslüman adları koyduğunu, 'pis Yahudi' sözü nedeniyle 'Musevi' sözcüğünün icat edildiğini, oysa sözcüklerden korkmamak gerektiğini söyledi.


External links

* [http://www.salom.com.tr/Default.aspx Shalom Newspaper - the main newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey]
* [http://www.musevicemaati.com/index.php?contentId=25 Chief Rabbinate of Turkey ]
* [http://www.ataa.org/ataa/ref/jewish/jew-history.html History of the Jews in Turkey]
* [http://www.sephardicstudies.org/index.html Sephardic Studies]
* [http://www.sephardiccouncil.org/torah.html New Sefer Torah for the Istanbul Community: In Memory of Jews Murdered in the 2003 Istanbul Synagogue Bombings] -- November 2006
* [http://www.pizmonim.org The Sephardic Pizmonim Project]
* [http://www.haruth.com/JewsTurkey.html Jewish Turkey]

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