Jewish Com­mu­nity in Ot­toman Em­pire

Through­out its his­tory, the Ot­toman Em­pire was a place where Jews could live with­out fear of per­se­cu­tion, a com­fort de­nied to them in most of Europe in the 19th cen­tury

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Feature & Lounge -

THE OT­TOMANS first en­coun­tered Jews in land they con­quered from the Byzan­tine Em­pire. This group of Greek-speak­ing Jews was known as Ro­man­iots. In time, the new Jewish groups be­came Ot­toman sub­jects. Groups of Jewish peo­ple ex­iled from France dur­ing the reign of Sul­tan Mu­rad II and the Ashke­nazi Jews ex­pelled by the Duke of Bavaria Louis IX in 1470 took refuge in the Ot­toman Em­pire.

Sul­tan Bayezid II ac­cepted tens of thou­sands of Sephardic Jews es­cap­ing from Spain in 1492. They set­tled in var­i­ous cities such as Salonika (Thes­sa­loniki), Smyrna (İzmir) and Con­stantino­ple in par­tic­u­lar. Like­wise, groups of Jews who man­aged to es­cape mas­sacres in Poland and Ukraine in 1660 set­tled in the Ot­toman Em­pire, as well.


Around 90 per­cent of Ot­toman Jews were of Sephardic ori­gin and lived in cities, in­clud­ing Con­stantino­ple, Salonika, Smyrna, Edirne, Bursa, Jerusalem, Safed, Cairo, Ankara, Tokat and Amasya. Dur­ing the reign of Sü­ley­man the Mag­nif­i­cent, when Con­stantino­ple had a pop­u­la­tion of 500,000, the num­ber of Ot­toman Jews was around 40,000. In Salonika, the big­gest Jewish city in the world at the time, Ot­toman Jews con­sti­tuted more than half of the pop­u­la­tion.

Un­fa­mil­iar with the anti-Semitic move­ment, the Ot­toman Em­pire was one of the few places in the world where Jews could live freely. In 19th cen­tury Europe, they lived in harsh con­di­tions, of­ten in closed quar­ters called ghet­tos, and were de­prived free­dom of re­li­gion, hold­ing public of­fice and even the right to live. They were also de­nied the rights to ac­quire prop­erty, get an ed­u­ca­tion, travel, found print­ing houses and pub­lish­ing news­pa­pers.

In the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, one of the places in which Jews lived rel­a­tively freely, the mi­nor­ity was be­stowed the rights to set­tle in cities, prac­tice the arts and re­ceive ed­u­ca­tion at a wider va­ri­ety of uni­ver­si­ties out­side of Je­suit in­sti­tu­tions. It is no won­der that these cir­cum­stances led to the French Rev­o­lu­tion, which later led to the 1782 Tol­er­ance Char­ter. How­ever, such re­stric­tions were never en­forced by the Ot­tomans in the first place.


De­spite be­ing op­pressed by limited mo­bil­ity across the Chris­tian world, many Jews be­came rich through com­merce and be­gan to loan money to gov­ern­ments, ac­cel­er­at­ing the hos­til­ity of the goyim to­ward them. Although their so­cial sit­u­a­tion in Europe im­proved with the free­dom move­ment in the 19th cen­tury, Jews could only take part in the ed­u­ca­tional, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal as­pects of life in Europe by re­lin­quish­ing their Jewish iden­tity through bap­tism and adopt­ing Chris­tian cul­ture. How­ever, they started to take part in world poli­cies over time, es­pe­cially due to the wealthy Jewish com­mu­nity in the An­glo-Amer­i­can world.

Ot­toman Jews faced many out­side ob­sta­cles, mostly im­posed by their Chris­tians neigh­bors. Chris­tians were hos­tile to­ward Jews be­cause they felt that Jews had acted against Je­sus Christ. This is the un­der­ly­ing drive be­hind all of the calami­ties Jews have faced through the cen­turies.

As a re­sult, Chris­tians be­lieved Jews added the blood of Chris­tian chil­dren to their matzo, a tra­di­tional flat­bread cooked dur­ing Passover. They of­ten claimed that Jews ab­ducted their chil­dren and put them in bar­rels of nails to har­vest their blood. In truth, even the blood of a kosher animal, i.e., meat ac­cept­able for con­sump­tion ac­cord­ing to Ju­daism, is for­bid­den by Jewish laws. De­vout Jews do not eat meat with­out wash­ing it seven times. These sto­ries about the bar­rels with nails are a com­mon theme in many of the com­plaints sub­mit­ted to Ot­toman au­thor­i­ties of the time. After the dis­ap­pear­ance of a Chris­tian child in Da­m­as­cus, the public claimed that the child was kid­napped by Jews and thrown into a bar­rel of nee­dles. This claim led to the 1840 mas­sacre and the in­ter­ven­tion of Euro­pean pow­ers, paving the way for Lebanon’s au­ton­omy.


Since Ju­daism does not use a Chris­tian-style hi­er­ar­chy, there were mul­ti­ple chief rab­bis who over­saw Ot­toman Jews. Grouped on the ba­sis of their ori­gin, prov­ince and city, every par­ish was sub­jected to its own self-cho­sen chief rabbi, cho­sen and des­ig­nated by de­cree from the cen­ter. Every par­ish had its own rabbi, syn­a­gogue, school, teacher, court, grave­yard, hos­pi­tal and news­pa­per.

The rabbi was also the chief of the re­li­gious court, called a “beth din.” He or­ches­trated and led cer­e­monies such as en­gage­ments, wed­dings, births, cir­cum­ci­sions, ac­cep­tances to the par­ish, fu­ner­als and sac­ri­fices in ad­di­tion to rul­ing over per­sonal cases in­volv­ing fam­ily and in­her­i­tance law. They were also re­spon­si­ble for col­lect­ing taxes for the gov­ern­ment.

As it was the case for them ev­ery­where else in the world, Jews were in­volved in com­merce in the Ot­toman Em­pire as well. They were so suc­cess­ful that they be­gan pro­vid­ing loans to the Ot­toman palace in the 16th cen­tury. Through these loans, Ot­toman Jews gained enough power to en­ter po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity.

In 1844, Jews con­sti­tuted 170,000 of the to­tal 35,350,000 Ot­toman pop­u­la­tion. In 1905, when the to­tal pop­u­la­tion of the Ot­toman Em­pire was 20.9 mil­lion, the num­ber of Jews was 256,000 and, when the pop­u­la­tion de­creased to 18.5 mil­lion in 1914, 187,000 of them were Jews. At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, 1.1 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion was Jewish. The change in pop­u­la­tion is re­lated to var­i­ous ter­ri­tory losses and mi­gra­tions.


The Reg­u­la­tion of Rab­binate was pub­lished in 1865, and a demo­cratic struc­ture was in­tro- duced to the Jewish com­mu­nity that al­lowed cit­i­zens to have a say in the mat­ters of the con­gre­ga­tion as much as the re­li­gious men. Ot­toman Chris­tians were strongly op­posed to giv­ing Jews sim­i­lar le­gal sta­tus as other mi­nori­ties in the em­pire. There were even ru­mors that Greeks re­acted to the case say­ing: “Shame on the Ot­toman gov­ern­ment! They con­sider us equal to the Jews. We con­sented to the supremacy of Is­lam!” as it was the gen­eral in­cli­na­tion of Ot­toman Chris­tians to look down on Jews.

Although the ma­jor­ity of non-Mus­lims in the Ot­toman Em­pire were sup­ported by Euro­pean em­pires and used as a means of op­pres­sion against the Ot­toman gov­ern­ment in the 19th cen­tury, this was not the case for the Jewish com­mu­nity. How­ever, the stream of Zion­ism fil­ter­ing in from Europe dur­ing that cen­tury caused a big calamity for the Ot­toman Em­pire.

Zion­ists, a group of Ot­toman Jews who wanted to found a gov­ern­ment in Pales­tine, had con­sid­er­able moral and fi­nan­cial sup­port. Re­gard­ing Sul­tan Ab­dül­hamid II as threat, they co­op­er­ated with the Young Turks, the group that aimed to over­throw the sul­tan. After the de­throne­ment of Ab­dül­hamid II, per­mis­sion was given for the mi­gra­tion of Jews to Pales­tine. The most prom­i­nent fi­nancier and men­tor of the Com­mit­tee of Union and Progress (CUP), which seized the gov­ern­ment in 1908, was a Jewish banker of Ital­ian ori­gin from Salonica, Em­manuel Carasso.

When Greeks, who had held a priv­i­leged sta­tus up un­til then, fell into dis­fa­vor after the Con­stantino­ple mas­sacre of 1821 tar­get­ting Greeks, Jews were hop­ing for a sec­ond chance. How­ever, with their art fa­cil­i­ties scat­tered around Ana­to­lia, Ar­me­ni­ans came in first thanks to their cap­i­tal sur­plus. As a re­sult of the Jewish lobby’s rec­om­men­da­tions, the Young Turks gov­ern­ment removed Ar­me­ni­ans from Ana­to­lia in 1915. Hence, the econ­omy of the coun­try was left in the hands of Jewish cap­i­tal. Carasso, who was a part of the com­mit­tee that in­formed Ab­dül­hamid II of his de­throne­ment, was the clos­est con­fi­dant of Talat Pasha, the fig­ure re­spon­si­ble for the de­por­ta­tion law. In fact, when Talat Pasha es­caped abroad in 1918, he en­trusted his en­tire es­tate to Carasso. To take an ac­tive role in the foun­da­tion of the Ankara gov­ern­ment, Carasso re­turned to his home­land be­fore his death.

After the foun­da­tion of the Repub­lic, Jews were vic­tim to var­i­ous pogroms. They faced prob­lems rooted in the anti-Semitic poli­cies of the 1940s. With the 1942 cap­i­tal tax, a con­sid­er­able amount of Jewish cap­i­tal was ex­tracted and na­tion­al­ized. Most Jews in the new Repub­lic fled to Is­rael, which was founded in 1948. At the mo­ment, ap­prox­i­mately 50,000 Jews re­main in Turkey.

A Sephardic cou­ple from Sara­jevo un­der the rule of the Ot­tomans in the 19th cen­tury

Ekrem Buğra Ek­inci

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