History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire

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By the time of the Ottoman conquests, Anatolia had been home to centuries old communities of Hellenistic and later Byzantine Jews. The Ottoman Empire became a safe haven for Iberian Jews fleeing persecution, and in its heyday, the city of Thessaloniki had a Jewish majority.

The First and Second Aliyah brought an increased Jewish presence to Ottoman Palestine. The Ottoman successor state of modern Turkey continues to be home to a small Jewish population today

Overview[edit]

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."[1]

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.[2]

Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have been exaggerated,[3] it is undeniable that some tolerance was enjoyed. Under the millet system, the non-Muslims were organized as autonomous communities on the basis of religion, alongside the other millets (viz. 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.[4] There were restrictions in the areas Jews could live or work, as there were on Ottoman subjects of other religions.[5] 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.[6]

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)[edit]

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.[7]

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.[8] 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."[9]

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[edit]

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,[10] 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.[11] And in order to revivify Constantinople he ordered that Muslims, Christians and Jews from all over his empire be resettled in the new capital.[11] 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.[12] But at the same time the forced resettlement, though not intended as an anti-Jewish measure, was perceived as an "expulsion" by the Jews.[13] 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[edit]

The number of native Jews was soon bolstered by small groups of Ashkenazi Jews that immigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1421–1453.[12] Among these new Ashkenazi immigrants was Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (Hebrew: צרפתיSarfati, meaning: "French"), a German-born Jew whose family had previously lived in France, 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?".[14][15][14] Many had taken the Rabbi up on his offer, including the Jews expelled from the German Duchy of Bavaria by Duke Louis IX in 1470. Even before then, as the Ottomans conquered Anatolia and Greece, they encouraged Jewish immigration from the European lands they were expelled from. These Ashkenazi Jews mixed with the already large Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish communities that had become part of the Ottoman Empire as they had conquered lands from the Byzantine Empire. [16][17]

Sultan Bayezid II sent Kemal Reis to save the Sephardic Jews of Spain from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and granted them permission to settle in the Ottoman Empire.
Painting of a Jewish man from the Ottoman Empire, 1779.

An 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. This expulsion came about as a result of the Alhambra Decree in 1492, declared by the King and Queen of Spain Ferdinand II and Isabelle I. This was part of a larger trend of anti-Semitism resurging throughout Europe that the Ottomans would take advantage of. The Spanish Jews (Sephardic 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).[citation needed][18] Izmir was not settled by Spanish Jews until later.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Damascus had a Sephardic congregation of 500 families. Istanbul had a Jewish community of 30,000 individuals with 44 synagogues.[citation needed] Bayezid allowed the Jews to live on the banks of the Golden Horn.[citation needed] Egypt, especially Cairo, received a large number of the exiles, who soon out-numbered the pre-existing Musta'arabi Jews.[citation needed] Gradually, the chief center of the Sephardic Jews became Salonica, where the Spanish Jews soon outnumbered the pre-existing Jewish community.[citation needed] In fact, the Sephardic Jews eclipsed and absorbed the Romaniot Jews, changing the culture and structure of Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire. In the centuries that followed, the Ottomans reaped the benefits of the Jewish communities they adopted. In exchange for Jews contributing their talents for the benefit of the Empire, they would be rewarded well. Compared to European laws that restricted life for all Jews, this was a significant opportunity that drew Jews from across the Mediterranean.[19]

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[clarification needed] to which this consideration did not apply.[5][page needed] There were also Jews that possessed special skills in a wide range of fields that the Ottomans took advantage of. This includes David & Samuel ibn Nahmias, who established a printing press in 1493. This had been a new technology at the time and accelerated production of literature and documents, especially important for religious texts as well as bureaucratic documents. Other Jewish specialists employed by the Empire included physicians and diplomats that emigrated from their homelands. Some of them were granted landed titles for their work, including Joseph Nasi who was named Duke of Naxos. [20]

Although the Ottomans did not treat Jews differently from other minorities in the country, their policies seemed to align well with Jewish traditions which allowed communities to flourish. The Jewish people were allowed to establish their own autonomous communities which included their own schools and courts. These rights were extremely controversial in other regions in Muslim North Africa or absolutely unrealistic in Europe. These communities would prove to be centers of education as well as trade due to the large array of connections to other Jewish communities across the Mediterranean. [21]

Banking and finance[edit]

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.[22] 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.[23] The Mendès family soon acquired a dominating position in the state finances of the Ottoman Empire and in commerce with Europe.[24]

Taxation[edit]

Ottoman Jews were obliged to pay special taxes to the Ottoman authorities. These taxes included the Cizye, the İspençe, the Haraç, and the Rav akçesi ("rabbi tax"). Sometimes, local rulers would also levy taxes for themselves, in addition to the taxes sent to the central authorities in Constantinople.

17th century[edit]

Friction between Jews and Turks was less common than in the Arab territories. Some examples: In 1660 or 1662, under Mehmet IV (1649–87), the city of Safed, with a substantial Jewish community, was destroyed by Druzes over a struggle for power.[25][26][27]

18th and 19th centuries[edit]

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".[9] 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.[28] 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.[citation needed]

Some Jews thrived in Baghdad, performing critical commercial functions such as moneylending and banking.[29]

Antisemitism[edit]

Historian Martin Gilbert writes that it was in the 19th century that the position of Jews worsened in Muslim countries.[30] 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").[31]

There was a massacre of Jews in Baghdad in 1828.[32] There was a massacre of Jews in Barfurush in 1867.[32]

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.'"[33]

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.[30]

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.[34]

The overwhelming majority of the Ottoman Jews lived in the European-provinces of the Empire. As the empire lost control over its European provinces in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Jewish communities 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.

Media[edit]

During the Ottoman Empire, the following newspapers served Jewish communities:[35]

  • Ottoman Turkish with Hebrew characters:
    • Ceridei Tercüme ("Translation Journal"), began in 1876 and edited by Jozef Niego, published in Istanbul
    • Şarkiye ("The East"), began in 1867, edited by an anonymous person, published in Istanbul
    • Zaman ("Time"), began in 1872, edited by an anonymous person, published in Istanbul
  • Ottoman Turkish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish):
    • Ceride-i Lisan ("Language Journal"), began in 1899, edited by Avram Leyon
  • French:
    • L'Aurore, published beginning in 1908, by Thessaloniki (Salonika) man Lucien Sciuto; later moved to Cairo
    • Le Jeune Turc ("The Young Turk")
    • Le Journal d'Orient ("The Journal of the Orient"), 1917-1977, by the political scientist Albert Carasso (Karasu)
    • La Nasion ("The Nation"), October 1919 to 17 September 1922, edited by Jak Loria
  • Hebrew:
    • Ha Mevasir, 1909-1911, published by Nahum Solokoff

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ G.E. Von Grunebaum, "Eastern Jewry Under Islam, 1971, page 369.
  2. ^ M. J. Akbar, "The shade of swords: jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity", 2003, (p. 89)
  3. ^ B. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, PUP, (1987) 137–141
  4. ^ L. Stavrianos; The Balkans since 1453, NYU Press (2000)
  5. ^ a b H. Inalcik; The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300–1600, Phoenix Press, (2001)
  6. ^ D. Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922, CUP, 2005
  7. ^ International Jewish Cemetery Project – Turkey
  8. ^ Charles Issawi & Dmitri Gondicas; Ottoman Greeks in the Age of Nationalism, Princeton, (1999)
  9. ^ a b 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)
  10. ^ The Black Death, Channel 4 –History.
  11. ^ a b 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
  12. ^ a b Avigdor Levy; The Jews of the Ottoman Empire, New Jersey, (1994)
  13. ^ 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)
  14. ^ a b "Letter of Rabbi Isaac Zarfati". Turkishjews.com. Retrieved 2012-10-16. 
  15. ^ B. Lewis, "The Jews of Islam", New York (1984), pp. 135 –136
  16. ^ "Jewish Community in Ottoman Empire". DailySabah. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  17. ^ "Holocaust | Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey". www.projetaladin.org. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  18. ^ "Jewish Community in Ottoman Empire". DailySabah. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  19. ^ "Jewish Community in Ottoman Empire". DailySabah. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  20. ^ "Turkey Virtual Jewish History Tour". www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  21. ^ "The Sephardic Exodus to the Ottoman Empire | My Jewish Learning". My Jewish Learning. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  22. ^ Dumper, Michael; Stanley, Bruce E. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: a historical encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 185. 
  23. ^ İnalcık, Halil; Quataert, Donald (1994). An economic and social history of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914. Cambridge University Press. p. 212. 
  24. ^ Bosworth, Clifford Edmund (2007). Historic cities of the Islamic world. BRILL. p. 207. 
  25. ^ 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..."
  26. ^ 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. 
  27. ^ 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. 
  28. ^ 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/s0020743805052165
  29. ^ 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. 
  30. ^ a b Gilbert, Martin. Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith, HarperCollins, 2002, pp 179–82.
  31. ^ Mark Cohen(2002), p.208
  32. ^ a b Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–2001. Vintage Books, 2001, pp 10–11.
  33. ^ Lewis (1999), pp. 136–137; Gerber (1986), p. 86
  34. ^ Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. Vintage Books, 2001
  35. ^ Shaw, Stanford J. The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. NYU Press, 1992. ISBN 0814779581, 9780814779583. p. 182.

External links[edit]