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The Dönmeh (Hebrew: דוֹנְמֶה, romanized: Dōnme, Ottoman Turkish: دونمه, Turkish: Dönme) were a group of Sabbatean crypto-Jews in the Ottoman Empire who converted outwardly to Islam, but retained their Jewish faith and Kabbalistic beliefs in secret. The movement was centered mainly in Thessaloniki. The group originated during and soon after the era of Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century Sephardic Jewish Rabbi and Kabbalist who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and eventually feigned conversion to Islam under threat of death penalty by the Sultan Mehmed IV. After Zevi's forced conversion to Islam, a number of Sabbatean Jews also falsely converted to Islam and became the Dönmeh. Part of the Sabbateans lived on until well into 21st-century Turkey as descendants of the Dönmeh.
The Turkish word Dönme ("Apostates") derives from the verbal root dön- (Ottoman Turkish: دون) that means "to turn", i.e., "to convert", but in a pejorative sense or "turncoat". They are also called Selânikli ("person from Thessaloniki") or avdetî (Ottoman Turkish: عودتی, "religious convert"). Dönme not only refers to the Jewish "untrustworthy converts" to Islam in Turkey but it is also a derogatory Turkish word for a transvestite, or someone who is claiming to be someone they are not. Members of the group refer to themselves as "the Believers" (Hebrew: המאמינים, romanized: ha-Ma'aminim), Ḥaberim ("Associates"), or Ba'ale Milḥamah ("Warriors"), while in the town of Adrianople they were known as Sazanikos (Turkish for "little carps"), in reference to the changing outward nature of the fish. An alternate explanation of this self-nomenclature is the prophecy that Sabbatai Zevi would deliver the Jews under the zodiacal sign of the fish.
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Despite their feigned conversion to Islam, the Sabbateans secretly remained close to Judaism and continued to practice Jewish rituals covertly. They recognized Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676) as the Jewish Messiah, observed certain Jewish commandments with similarities to those in Rabbinic Judaism, and prayed in Hebrew and later in Ladino. They also observed rituals celebrating important events in Zevi's life and interpreted Zevi's conversion in a Kabbalistic way.
There are several branches of the Dönmeh group. The first is the İzmirli, formed in İzmir (Smyrna). This was the original sect, from which two others eventually split. The first schism created the sect of the Jakubi, founded by Jacob Querido (ca. 1650–1690), the brother of Zevi's last wife. Querido claimed to be Zevi's reincarnation and a messiah in his own right. The second split from the İzmirli was the result of claims that Berechiah Russo (1695–1740), had inherited a soul known in Turkish as Otman Baba, who was truly next reincarnated in Zevi's soul. These allegations gained following and gave rise to the Karakashi (Turkish), or Konioso (Ladino), branch, the most numerous and strictest branch of the Dönmeh. Missionaries from the Karakashi/Konioso were active in Poland in the first part of the 18th century and taught Jacob Frank (1726–1791), who later claimed to have inherited Russo's soul. Frank went on to create the Frankist sect, a different non-Dönmeh Sabbatean group in Eastern Europe. Yet another group, the Lechli, of Polish descent, lived in exile in Thessaloniki and Constantinople.
According to some, several leading members of the Young Turk movement, a group of constitutional monarchist revolutionaries who brought down the Ottoman Empire, were Dönmeh. At the time of the population exchange in 1923, some among the Thessaloniki Dönmeh tried to be recognized as non-Muslims to avoid being forced to leave the city. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Dönmeh strongly supported the Republican, progressive reforms of Atatürk that tried to restrict the power of the religious establishment and to modernize society. In particular, the Dönmeh were instrumental in establishing trade, industry, and culture in the emerging Republic of Turkey, which is partially due to the prominence of Rumelian immigrants in general, and of Thessaloniki in particular, in the early Republic years.
One of the leaders of the assassination plot against President Atatürk in İzmir after the establishment of the Turkish Republic was Mehmed Cavid Bey, founding member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the former Minister of Finance of the Ottoman Empire, a Dönmeh. After a widespread government investigation, Cavid Bey was convicted and later executed by hanging on 26 August 1926 in Ankara.
An interesting case is the one of Ilgaz Zorlu, a Dönmeh publisher who founded Zvi Publishers in 2000 and sought recognition as a Jew, but a beth din refused to recognize his Jewishness without a full conversion. He claimed to have converted in Israel and then filed a lawsuit for changing his religion from Islam to Judaism in his registry records and identification. The court voted in his favor.
Işık University, which is the part of the Feyziye Schools Foundation (Turkish: Feyziye Mektepleri Vakfı, FMV), and Terakkî schools were founded by the Dönmeh community in Thessaloniki in the last quarter of the 19th century. There is a Dönmeh community in Yeniköy, Sarıyer.
The independent scholar Rifat Bali defines the term dönme as follows:
The term Donme is a Turkish gerund meaning ‘to turn, revolve or return' and, by extension, “to betray” (i.e., ‘go back on’) and ‘to convert’ to another religion. It has come in popular parlance to refer to religious converts in general, and, more specifically, to the seventeenth century followers of the Jewish false messiah Sabbatai Sevi and their descendants, who outwardly converted to Islam but retained their secretive religious practices over the next several centuries, maintaining close communal and blood ties and practicing strict endogamy. While the great majority of the community’s members abandoned their practices during the first quarter century, their past identity has continued to haunt them within Turkish society, and the term Dönme itself remains one of opprobrium.
The Dönmeh ideology of the 17th century revolved primarily around the Eighteen Precepts, an abridged version of the Ten Commandments in which the admonition against adultery is explained as more of a precautionary measure than a ban, likely included to explain the antinomian sexual activities of the Sabbateans. The additional commandments are concerned with defining the kinds of interactions that may occur between the Dönmeh and the Jewish and Muslim communities. The most basic of these laws of interaction was to avoid marriage with either Jews or Muslims and to prefer relations within the sect to those outside of it. In spite of this, they maintained ties with Sabbateans who had not converted and even with Jewish rabbis, who secretly settled disputes within the Dönmeh concerning Jewish law.
As far as ritual was concerned, the Dönmeh followed both Jewish and Muslim traditions, shifting between one and the other as necessary for integration into Ottoman society. Outwardly Muslims and secretly Jewish Sabbateans, the Dönmeh observed traditional Muslim holidays like Ramadan but also kept the Jewish Sabbath, Brit milah and major holidays. Much of Dönmeh ritual is a combination of various elements of Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, Jewish traditional law, and Sufism.
Dönmeh liturgy evolved as the sect grew and spread. At first, much of the Dönmeh literature was written in Hebrew. Later, as the group developed, Ladino replaced Hebrew as the prominent language and became not only the vernacular language, but also the liturgical language. Though the Dönmeh had branched into several sects, all of them held the view that Zevi was the divine messiah and that he had revealed the true "spiritual Torah" which was superior to the practical earthly Torah. The Dönmeh created and celebrated holidays pertaining to various points in Zevi's life and their own history of conversion. Based at least partially in the Kabbalistic understanding of divinity, the Dönmeh believed that there was a three-way connection of the emanations of the divine, which engendered much conflict with Muslim and Jewish communities alike. The most notable source of opposition from other contemporary religions was the common practice of exchanging wives between members of the Dönmeh.
The hierarchy of the Dönmeh was based in branch divisions. The Izmirli lay at the top of the hierarchy, composed of merchant classes and intelligentsia. Artisans tended to be mostly Karakashi while lower classes were mostly Jakubi. Each branch had its own prayer community, organized into a "Kahal," or congregation (Hebrew). An extensive internal economic network provided support for lower class Dönmeh in spite of ideological differences between branches.
Anti-Semitic canards and alleged political entanglements
Turkish antisemitism and the canards upon which it relies are centred on the mysterious figure of the Dönmeh. According to historian Marc David Baer, the phenomenon has deep roots in late-Ottoman history, and its legacy of conspiratorial accusations persisted throughout the history of the Turkish Republic and is kept alive there today. Modern antisemitism racially essentializes the Jew as a ubiquitous, homogenous unit acting undercover in the guise of diverse global groups, inexorably in pursuit of global political and economic control via secretive channels. As a crypto-Sabbatean sect, the Dönmeh were always an easy target of canards about secret, crypto-Jewish political control and social influence, whether charged with setting in motion political upheaval against the status quo, or accused of shaping an oppressive regime's grip on the status quo.
The Dönmeh’s history of Sabbatean theological and ritual secrecy grounded in Jewish tradition, coupled with public observance of Islam, make accusations of secret Jewish control convenient, according to Baer. "Secret Jew," then, takes on a double meaning of being both secretly Jewish and Jews who act secretively to exert control; their secret religious identity in the first place is compatible, for conspiracy theorists, with their secretive influence, especially when they cannot be distinguished from ordinary Turkish Muslims who reside everywhere, and, as Baer argues, when the modern antisemite sees the Jew as necessarily "everywhere." The Dönmeh's maneuverings were said to have been at the core of Young Turk Revolution and their overthrow of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the dissolution of the Ottoman religious establishment, and the founding of a secular republic. Pro-Sultan, religious Muslim political opponents painted these events as a global Jewish and Freemasonic plot carried out by Turkey's secret Jews, the Dönmeh, with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the chief revolutionary and former member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a Dönmeh himself.
Additionally, the crypto-Jewish conspiracy claim has been used throughout modern Turkish history by rightists and Islamists to undermine the legitimacy of incumbent political leadership, and, today, by leftists and secularists seeking to undermine the political legitimacy of Erdoğan and the origins of Islamism more broadly. These, like other claims of Jewish aspirations to world-domination, embodied in part by the successes of Zionism, join the ranks as examples of both the enduring nature of such canards in contemporary Turkey, and of their deep-seated relationship with pervasive, worldwide theories of political conspiracy propagated by radically different political elements often simultaneously.
Mehmet Karakaş Rüştü
In 1924, Mehmet Karakaş Rüştü, claiming to belong to the Karakaş Dönmehs,[clarification needed] made allegations about Dönmehs to the Vakit newspaper. He accused Dönmehs of lacking patriotism and not having been assimilated. Discussions spread into other newspapers. Ahmet Emin Yalman, in the newspaper (Vatan) he owned, accepted the existence of such groups, but claimed that those groups were no longer following their traditions. Then Karakaş Rüştü petitioned the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to request the abolition of some Dönmehs' ongoing immigration by population exchange unless they submit to turkification and intermarry with Turks.
- History of the Jews in Turkey
- Jewish Museum of Turkey
- Judaism and Islam
- Disputation of Paris (1240)
- Disputation of Barcelona (1263)
- Disputation of Tortosa (1413–1414)
- "Judaism - The Lurianic Kabbalah: Shabbetaianism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 23 January 2020.
Rabbi Shabbetai Tzevi of Smyrna (1626–76), who proclaimed himself messiah in 1665. Although the “messiah” was forcibly converted to Islam in 1666 and ended his life in exile 10 years later, he continued to have faithful followers. A sect was thus born and survived, largely thanks to the activity of Nathan of Gaza (c. 1644–90), an unwearying propagandist who justified the actions of Shabbetai Tzevi, including his final apostasy, with theories based on the Lurian doctrine of “repair”. Tzevi’s actions, according to Nathan, should be understood as the descent of the just into the abyss of the “shells” in order to liberate the captive particles of divine light. The Shabbetaian crisis lasted nearly a century, and some of its aftereffects lasted even longer. It led to the formation of sects whose members were externally converted to Islam—e.g., the Dönmeh (Turkish: “Apostates”) of Salonika, whose descendants still live in Turkey—or to Roman Catholicism—e.g., the Polish supporters of Jacob Frank (1726–91), the self-proclaimed messiah and Catholic convert (in Bohemia-Moravia, however, the Frankists outwardly remained Jews). This crisis did not discredit Kabbalah, but it did lead Jewish spiritual authorities to monitor and severely curtail its spread and to use censorship and other acts of repression against anyone—even a person of tested piety and recognized knowledge—who was suspected of Shabbetaian sympathies or messianic pretensions.
- Gershom Scholem (2017). "Doenmeh". Jewish Virtual Library. American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). Archived from the original on 5 November 2017.
DOENMEH (Dönme), sect of adherents of Shabbetai Ẓevi who embraced Islam as a consequence of the failure of the Shabbatean messianic upheaval in the Ottoman Empire. After Shabbetai Ẓevi converted to Islam in September 1666, large numbers of his disciples interpreted his apostasy as a secret mission, deliberately undertaken with a particular mystical purpose in mind. The overwhelming majority of his adherents, who called themselves ma'aminim ("believers"), remained within the Jewish fold. However, even while Shabbetai Ẓevi was alive several leaders of the ma'aminim thought it essential to follow in the footsteps of their messiah and to become Muslims, without, as they saw it, renouncing their Judaism, which they interpreted according to new principles. Until Shabbetai Ẓevi's death in 1676 the sect, which at first was centered largely in Adrianople (Edirne), numbered some 200 families. They came mainly from the Balkans, but there were also adherents from Izmir, Bursa, and other places. There were a few outstanding scholars and kabbalists among them, whose families afterward were accorded a special place among the Doenmeh as descendants of the original community of the sect. Even among the Shabbateans who did not convert to Islam, such as Nathan of Gaza, this sect enjoyed an honorable reputation and an important mission was ascribed to it. Clear evidence of this is preserved in the commentary on Psalms (written c. 1679) of Israel Ḥazzan of Castoria.
Many of the community became converts as a direct result of Shabbetai Ẓevi's preaching and persuasion. They were outwardly fervent Muslims and privately Shabbatean ma'aminim who practiced a type of messianic Judaism, based as early as the 1670s or 1680s on "the 18 precepts" which were attributed to Shabbetai Ẓevi and accepted by the Doenmeh communities. [...] These precepts contain a parallel version of the Ten Commandments. However, they are distinguished by an extraordinarily ambiguous formulation of the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery," which approximates more to a recommendation to take care rather than a prohibition. The additional commandments determine the relationship of the ma'aminim toward the Jews and the Turks. Intermarriage with true Muslims is strictly and emphatically forbidden.
- Kaufmann Kohler; Henry Malter (1906). "Shabbetai Ẓevi". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation.
At the command [of the sultan], Shabbetai was now taken from Abydos to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised Shabbetai to embrace Islam as the only means of saving his life. Shabbetai realized the danger of his situation and adopted the physician's advice. On the following day [...] being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head; and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan was much pleased, and rewarded Shabbetai by conferring on him the title (Mahmed) "Effendi" and appointing him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. [...] To complete his acceptance of Mohammedanism, Shabbetai was ordered to take an additional wife, a Mohammedan slave, which order he obeyed. [...] Meanwhile Shabbetai secretly continued his plots, playing a double game. At times he would assume the role of a pious Mohammedan and revile Judaism; at others he would enter into relations with Jews as one of their own faith. Thus in March, 1668, he gave out anew that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit at Passover and had received a revelation. He, or one of his followers, published a mystic work addressed to the Jews in which the most fantastic notions were set forth, e.g., that he was the true Redeemer, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Mohammedans to Judaism. To the sultan he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former coreligionists, and even to preach in their synagogues. He thus succeeded in bringing over a number of Mohammedans to his cabalistic views, and, on the other hand, in converting many Jews to Islam, thus forming a Judæo-Turkish sect (Dönmeh), whose followers implicitly believed in him [as the Jewish Messiah). This double-dealing with Jews and Mohammedans, however, could not last very long. Gradually the Turks tired of Shabbetai's schemes. He was deprived of his salary, and banished from Adrianople to Constantinople. In a village near the latter city he was one day surprised while singing psalms in a tent with Jews, whereupon the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Dulcigno, a small place in Albania, where he died in loneliness and obscurity.
- Kohler, Kaufmann; Gottheil, Richard (1906). "Dönmeh". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
A sect of crypto-Jews, descendants of the followers of Shabbethai Ẓebi, living today mostly in Salonica, European Turkey: the name (Turkish) signifies "apostates." The members call themselves "Ma'aminim" (Believers), "Ḥaberim" (Associates), or "Ba'ale Milḥamah" (Warriors); but at Adrianople they are known as "Sazanicos" (Little Carps)—a name derived either from the fish-market, near which their first mosque is supposed to have been situated, or because of a prophecy of Shabbethai that the Jews would be delivered under the zodiacal sign of the fish. The Dönmeh are said to have originated with Jacob Ẓebi Querido, who was believed to have been a reincarnation of Shabbethai.
The community is outwardly Mohammedan (following the example set by Shabbethai); but in secret observes certain Jewish rites, though in no way making common cause with the Jews, whom they call "koferim" (infidels). The Dönmeh are evidently descendants of Spanish exiles. Their prayers, as published by Danon, are partly in Hebrew (which few seem to understand) and partly in Ladino. They live in sets of houses which are contiguous, or which are secretly connected; and for each block of houses there is a secret meeting-place or "kal" ("ḳahal"), where the "payyeṭan" reads the prayers. Their houses are lit by green-shaded lamps to render them less conspicuous. The women wear the "yashmak" (veil); the men have two sets of names: a religious one, which they keep secret, and a secular one for purposes of commercial intercourse. They are assiduous in visiting the mosque and in fasting during Ramadhan, and at intervals they even send one of their number on the "ḥajj" (pilgrimage) to Mecca. But they do not intermarry with the Turks.
They are all well-to-do, and are prompt to help any unfortunate brother. They smoke openly on the Sabbath day on which day they serve the other Jews, lighting their fires and cooking their food. They work for the Turks when a religious observance prevents other Jews from doing so, and for the Christians on Sunday. They are expert "katibs" or writers, and are employed as such in the bazaars and in the inferior government positions. They have the monopoly of the barber-shops. The Dönmeh are divided into three subsects, which, according to Bendt, are: the Ismirlis, or direct followers of Shabbethai Ẓebi of Smyrna, numbering 2,500; the Ya'ḳubis, or followers of Jacob Querido, brother-in-law of Shabbethai, who number 4,000; and the Kuniosos, or followers of Othman Baba, who lived in the middle of the eighteenth century. The last named sect numbers 3,500. Each subsect has its own cemetery.
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- Abraham J. Karp (2017). ""Witnesses to History": Shabbetai Zvi - False Messiah (Judaic Treasures)". Jewish Virtual Library. American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). Archived from the original on 16 October 2017.
Born in Smyrna in 1626, he showed early promise as a Talmudic scholar, and even more as a student and devotee of Kabbalah. More pronounced than his scholarship were his strange mystical speculations and religious ecstasies. He traveled to various cities, his strong personality and his alternately ascetic and self-indulgent behavior attracting and repelling rabbis and populace alike. He was expelled from Salonica by its rabbis for having staged a wedding service with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as bride. His erratic behavior continued. For long periods, he was a respected student and teacher of Kabbalah; at other times, he was given to messianic fantasies and bizarre acts. At one point, living in Jerusalem seeking "peace for his soul," he sought out a self-proclaimed "man of God," Nathan of Gaza, who declared Shabbetai Zvi to be the Messiah. Then Shabbetai Zvi began to act the part [...] On September 15, 1666, Shabbetai Zvi, brought before the sultan and given the choice of death or apostasy, prudently chose the latter, setting a turban on his head to signify his conversion to Islam, for which he was rewarded with the honorary title "Keeper of the Palace Gates" and a pension of 150 piasters a day. The apostasy shocked the Jewish world. Leaders and followers alike refused to believe it. Many continued to anticipate a second coming, and faith in false messiahs continued through the eighteenth century. In the vast majority of believers revulsion and remorse set in and there was an active endeavor to erase all evidence, even mention of the pseudo messiah. Pages were removed from communal registers, and documents were destroyed. Few copies of the books that celebrated Shabbetai Zvi survived, and those that did have become rarities much sought after by libraries and collectors.
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