History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire
Jews lived in the geographic area of Asia Minor (modern Turkey, but more geographically either Anatolia or Asia Minor) for more than 2,400 years. Initial prosperity in Hellenistic times faded under Christian Byzantine rule, but recovered somewhat under the rule of the various Muslim governments which displaced and succeeded rule from Constantinople. For much of the Ottoman period, Turkey was a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, and it continues to have a small Jewish population today.
At the time of the Battle of Yarmuk when the Levant passed under Muslim Rule, thirty Jewish communities existed in Haifa, Sh’chem, Hebron, Ramleh, Gaza, Jerusalem, and many in the north. Safed became a spiritual centre for the Jews and the Shulchan Aruch was compiled there as well as many Kabbalistic texts. The first Hebrew printing press, and the first printing in Western Asia began in 1577.
The situation where Jews both enjoyed cultural and economical prosperity at times but were widely persecuted at other times was summarised by G.E. Von Grunebaum :
"It would not be difficult to put together the names of a very sizeable number of Jewish subjects or citizens of the Islamic area who have attained to high rank, to power, to great financial influence, to significant and recognized intellectual attainment; and the same could be done for Christians. But it would again not be difficult to compile a lengthy list of persecutions, arbitrary confiscations, attempted forced conversions, or pogroms."
The status of Jewry in the Ottoman Empire often hinged on the whims of the Sultan. So, for example, while Murad III ordered that the attitude of all non-Muslims should be one of "humility and abjection" and should not "live near Mosques or tall buildings" or own slaves, others were more tolerant.
Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have often been exaggerated, it is undeniable that the tolerance was enjoyed. Under the millet system they were organized as a community on the basis of religion, alongside the other millets (e.g. Orthodox millet, Armenian millet, etc.). In the framework of the millet they had a considerable amount of administrative autonomy and were represented by the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi. There were no restrictions in the professions Jews could practice analogous to those common in Western Christian countries. 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.
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.
Classical Ottoman period (1300-1600)
The first Jewish synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim (Hebrew: עץ החיים Lit. Tree of Life) 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.
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. In the 16th century especially, the Jews rose to prominence under the millets, the apogee of Jewish influence could arguable be the appointment of Joseph Nasi to Sanjak-bey (governor, a rank usually only bestowed upon Muslims) of the island of Naxos. Also in the first half of the 17th century the Jews were distinct in winning Tax farms, Haim Gerber describes it as: "My impression is that no pressure existed, that it was merely performαnce that counted."
An additional problem was the lack of unity among the Jews themselves. They had come to the Ottoman Empire from many lands, bringing with them their own customs and opinions, to which they clung tenaciously, and had founded separate congregations. Another tremendous upheaval was caused when Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed to be the Messiah. He was eventually caught by the Ottoman authorities and when given the choice between death and conversion, he opted for the latter. His remaining disciples converted to Islam too. Their descendants are today known as Donmeh.
Resettlement of the Romaniotes
The first major event in Jewish history under Turkish rule took place after the Empire gained control over Constantinople. After Sultan Mehmed II's Conquest of Constantinople he found the city in a state of disarray. After suffering many sieges, a devastating conquest by Catholic Crusaders in 1204 and even a case of the Black Death in 1347, the city was a shade of its former glory. As Mehmed wanted the city as his new capital, he decreed the rebuilding of the city. And in order to revivify Constantinople he ordered that Muslims, Christians and Jews from all over his empire be resettled in the new capital. Within months most of the Empire's Romaniote Jews, from the Balkans and Anatolia, were concentrated in Constantinople, where they made up 10% of the city's population. But at the same time the forced resettlement, though not intended as an anti-Jewish measure, was perceived as an "expulsion" by the Jews. Despite this interpretation however, the Romaniotes would be the most influential community in the Empire for several decades, until that position would be lost to a wave of new Jewish arrivals.
Influx of Sephardi Jews from Iberia
The number of native Jews was soon bolstered by small groups of Ashkenazi Jews that immigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1421–1453. Among these new Ashkenazi immigrants was Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati, a German-born Jew of French descent (Hebrew: צרפתי–Sarfati, meaning: "French"), who became the Chief Rabbi of Edirne and wrote a letter inviting the European Jewry to settle in the Ottoman Empire, in which he stated that: "Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking" and asking: "Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than under Christians?".
The greatest influx of Jews into Asia Minor and the Ottoman Empire, occurred during the reign of Mehmed the Conquerors'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. A key moment in Judeo-Turkic relations occurred in 1492, when more than 150,000 Spanish Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition, many to the Ottoman Empire. At that point in time, Constantinople's population was a mere 70,000 due to the various sieges of the city during the Crusades, the so-called Black Death of the 14th century, and the Ottoman's military conquest of Constantinople, so this historical event was also significant for repopulation of the city. These Sephardic Jews settled in Constantinople as well as Salonika. The Sultan is said to have mocked the Spanish monarch's lack of wisdom: "Ye call Ferdinand a wise king he who makes his land poor and ours rich!". The Spanish Jews were allowed to settle in the wealthier cities of the empire, especially in the European provinces (cities such as: Istanbul, Sarajevo, Salonica, Adrianople and Nicopolis), Western and Northern Anatolia (Bursa, Aydın, Tokat and Amasya), but also in the Mediterranean coastal regions (for example: Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, Egypt). Izmir 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 16th 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. Bayezid 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 Jews became Salonica, where the Spanish Jews soon outnumbered their co-religionists of other nationalities and, at one time, the original native inhabitants.
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.
Banking and finance
In the sixteenth century, the leading financiers in Istanbul were Greeks and Jews. Many of the Jewish financiers were originally from Iberia and had fled during the period leading up to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Many of these families brought great fortunes with them. The most notable of the Jewish banking families in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire was the Marrano banking house of Mendès, which moved to and settled in Istanbul in 1552 under the protection of sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent. When Alvaro Mendès arrived in Istanbul in 1588, he is reported to have brought with him 85,000 gold ducats. The Mendès family soon acquired a dominating position in the state finances of the Ottoman Empire and in commerce with Europe.
Friction between Jews and Turks was less common than in the Arab territories. Some examples: During the reign of 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. In 1660 or 1662, under Mehmet IV (1649–87), the city of Safed, with a substantial Jewish community, was destroyed by Arabs. In 1678, Mehmet IV ordered the banishment of the Jews of Yemen to the Mawza Desert, an event which remains in the collective memory of Yemeni Jews as a great tragedy.
18th and 19th centuries
The history of the Jews in Turkey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is principally a chronicle of decline in influence and power, they lost their influential positions in trade mainly to the Greeks, who were able to "capitalize on their religio-cultural ties with the West and their trading diaspora". 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.
Ottoman Jews held a variety of views on the role of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, from loyal Ottomanism to Zionism. 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.
Some Jews thrived in Baghdad, performing critical commercial functions such as moneylending and banking.
Historian Martin Gilbert writes that it was in the 19th century that the position of Jews worsened in Muslim countries. According to Mark Cohen in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, most scholars conclude that Arab anti-Semitism in the modern world arose in the nineteenth century, against the backdrop of conflicting Jewish and Arab nationalism, and was imported into the Arab world primarily by nationalistically minded Christian Arabs (and only subsequently was it "Islamized").
In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of having murdered a Christian monk and his Muslim servant and of having used their blood to bake Passover bread. A Jewish barber was tortured until he confessed. Two other Jews who were arrested died under torture, while a third converted to Islam to save his life. Throughout the 1860s, the Jews of Libya were subjected to what Gilbert calls punitive taxation. In 1869, 18 Jews were killed in Tunis, and an Arab mob looted Jewish homes and stores, and burned synagogues, on Jerba Island. In 1891, the leading Muslims in Jerusalem asked the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople to prohibit the entry of Jews arriving from Russia. In 1897, synagogues were ransacked and Jews were murdered in Tripolitania.
In 1865, when the equality of all subjects of the Ottoman Empire was proclaimed, Cevdet Pasha, a high-ranking official observed: "whereas in former times, in the Ottoman State, the communities were ranked, with the Muslims first, then the Greeks, then the Armenians, then the Jews, now all of them were put on the same level. Some Greeks objected to this, saying: 'The government has put us together with the Jews. We were content with the supremacy of Islam.'" Throughout the 1860s, the Jews of Libya were subjected to what Gilbert calls punitive taxation. In 1864, around 500 Jews were killed in Marrakech and Fezin Morocco. In 1869, 18 Jews were killed in Tunis, and an Arab mob looted Jewish homes and stores, and burned synagogues, on Jerba Island. In 1875, 20 Jews were killed by a mob in Demnat, Morocco; elsewhere in Morocco, Jews were attacked and killed in the streets in broad daylight. In 1891, the leading Muslims in Jerusalem asked the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople to prohibit the entry of Jews arriving from Russia. In 1897, synagogues were ransacked and Jews were murdered in Tripolitania.
Benny Morris writes that one symbol of Jewish degradation was the phenomenon of stone-throwing at Jews by Muslim children. Morris quotes a 19th-century traveler: "I have seen a little fellow of six years old, with a troop of fat toddlers of only three and four, teaching [them] to throw stones at a Jew, and one little urchin would, with the greatest coolness, waddle up to the man and literally spit upon his Jewish gaberdine. To all this the Jew is obliged to submit; it would be more than his life was worth to offer to strike a Mahommedan."
The overwhelming majority of the Ottoman Jews lived in the European-provinces of the Empire. As the Empire declined however, the Jews of these region found themselves under Christian rule. The Bosnian Jews for example came under Austro-Hungarian rule after the occupation of the region in 1878, the independence of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia further lowered the number of Jews within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.
- G.E. Von Grunebaum, "Eastern Jewry Under Islam," 1971, page 369.
- M. J. Akbar, "The shade of swords: jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity", 2003, (p. 89)
- B. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, PUP, (1987) 137–141
- L. Stavrianos; The Balkans since 1453, NYU Press (2000)
- H. Inalcik; The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300–1600, Phoenix Press, (2001)
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- International Jewish Cemetery Project – Turkey
- Charles Issawi & Dmitri Gondicas; Ottoman Greeks in the Age of Nationalism, Princeton, (1999)
- Studies in Ottoman Social & Economic Life, Heidelberg, (1999); the essay is entitled:Muslims & Zimmis in the Ottoman cultur and society by Haim Gerber, Jerusalem, (1999)
- The Black Death, Channel 4 –History.
- Inalcik, Halil. “The Policy of Mehmed II toward the Greek Population of Istanbul and the Byzantine Buildings of the City.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23, (1969): 229–249.pg236
- Avigdor Levy; The Jews of the Ottoman Empire, New Jersey, (1994)
- 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)
- "Letter of Rabbi Isaac Zarfati". Turkishjews.com. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
- B. Lewis, "The Jews of Islam", New York (1984), pp. 135 –136
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- What You May Not Know About Turkey
- Dumper, Michael; Stanley, Bruce E. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: a historical encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 185.
- İnalcık, Halil; Quataert, Donald (1994). An economic and social history of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914. Cambridge University Press. p. 212.
- Bosworth, Clifford Edmund (2007). Historic cities of the Islamic world. BRILL. p. 207.
- Sidney Mendelssohn.The Jews of Asia: especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. (1920) p.241. "Long before the culmination of Sabbathai's mad career, Safed had been destroyed by the Arabs and the Jews had suffered severely, while in the same year (1660) there was a great fire in Constantinople in which they endured heavy losses..."
- Isidore Singer; Cyrus Adler (1912). The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Funk and Wagnalls. p. 283.
- Franco, Moïse (1897). Essai sur l'histoire des Israélites de l'Empire ottoman: depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours. Librairie A. Durlacher. p. 88. Retrieved 13 July 2011. "Moins de douze ans après, en 1660, sous Mohammed IV, la ville de Safed, si importante autrefois dans les annales juives parce qu'elle était habitée exclusivement par les Israélites, fut détruite par les Arabes, au point qu'il n' y resta, dit une chroniquer une seule ame juive."
- Necati̇ Alkan, "Dissent and heterodoxy in the late Ottoman Empire: reformers, Babis and Baha'is", Press Isis, 2008.
- 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
- Black, Edwin (2004). Banking on Baghdad: inside Iraq's 7,000-year history of war, profit and conflict. John Wiley and Sons. p. 335. "Under Ottoman rule,during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews continued to thrive, becoming part of the commercial and political ruling class. Like Armenians,the Jews could engage in necessary commercial activities, such as moneylending and banking, that were proscribed for Moslems under Islamic law."
- Gilbert, Martin. Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith, HarperCollins, 2002, pp 179–82.
- Mark Cohen(2002), p.208
- Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–2001. Vintage Books, 2001, pp 10–11.
- Lewis (1999), pp. 136–137; Gerber (1986), p. 86
- Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. Vintage Books, 2001