The for­ma­tion of the nar­ra­tive of Jewish loy­alty

Turkish Review - - REVIEWS - DANIEL FIELDS

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


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