The formation of the narrative of Jewish loyalty
With “Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era,” Julia Phillips Cohen has contributed an excellent work of scholarship to our knowledge of the late Ottoman Empire. As an added bonus, the book is a pleasure to read thanks to Cohen’s clear and engaging prose. In this study, Cohen sets out to problematize the “myth” of the “special Ottoman-Jewish relationship” (4). This narrative has presented Ottoman Jews as “model citizens of the state,” to borrow the phrase used by scholar Rıfat Bali to describe this largely self-propagated status. Beginning with their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and subsequent “welcoming” to the Ottoman Empire under Bayezid II, Jews have often been positioned as the most loyal of the non-Muslim Ottoman subjects, a role they have ostensibly continued to fill as citizens of the Turkish Republic. Despite being members of a population that has significantly decreased over time, members of the Turkish Jewish community largely continue to perpetuate the notion of this special relationship. “Becoming Ottomans” is a history of the individual and collective negotiations that were part of this complicated, often problematic “process and project” leading to the trope of Jewish, especially Sephardic Jewish, allegiance to the Turkish state (4).
Although the book focuses on the Hamidian era and its immediate aftermath, opening with the proclamation of the Ottoman constitution in 1876 and concluding with Mehmet V’s visit to Macedonia in 1911, Cohen sees the Tanzimat period as crucial in the formation of the narrative of Jewish loyalty, with Ottoman Jews learning almost immediately to “speak the language of the new Tanzimat regime” (12). By the time of the constitution’s promulgation in 1876, Cohen argues, Ottoman Jews were acutely aware of both the freedoms promised by greater integration into the Ottoman body politic as well as the burdens this imperial citizenship would potentially entail.
The 1876 constitution was further incentive to “become Ottoman,” and Jewish elites in the empire took it upon themselves to instruct their coreligionists on the proper behavior befitting an Ottoman citizen, a project that acquired more urgency due to their idea that Jews needed to catch up with the other major non-Muslim groups of the empire, the Armenians and Greek Orthodox (21). A particularly interesting section of the first chapter deals with the “search for new kinds of shared spaces” that would help to close the gap between Jews and other Ottoman citizens. Cohen also shows how during the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878 the Jewish press furthered this project by identifying even more closely with the Ottoman state while depicting Russia as not only the enemy of the Ottoman Empire but also the enemy of the Jews (39-41). Although most of the first chapter tells the story of what appears to be nearly seamless progress towards an Ottoman imperial citizenship, in the closing pages Cohen speaks of the “early cracks in this narrative” when it became clear what “the true nature of friendship” between Ottoman Jews and the Ottoman state entailed (43-44). The author makes clear that the narrative of a special OttomanJewish relationship did not always match the situation on the ground, but closer attention to and more explicit examples of the “cracks in this narrative” would have served to further highlight the mythical nature of this special relationship.
In the second chapter, Cohen skillfully shows how two events -the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and a new holiday celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Sephardic Jewish presence in
COHEN SEES THE TANZIMAT PERIOD AS CRUCIAL IN THE FORMATION OF THE NARRATIVE OF JEWISH LOYALTY