Recent developments in world politics have once again brought the Middle East to the fore. The new balances shaped around Gaza have once again made the Jews and Judaism a central point. When Judaism is mentioned, mysteries, secrets, wars and tragedies are the mental images that are evoked. With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s historical speech in Davos, one question began being asked: is there an enmity of Jews in Turkey, and did it occur before? The Jews in Turkey are the least researched of the world’s Jewish communities. Today, there are unfortunately very few resources in existence.
The Jews, who have existed in Ottoman administrations since the 16th Century and reached effective positions within the Ottoman State, have proved unable to compile enough information and documents about their own history. Shlomo Rozanes’ six-volume book Divrey Yamey Israel be Togarma (later updated with the title “Korot ha Yehudim be Turkia ve Artsot ha Kedem”) is an important document.
There is also Avrahama Galante and Moshe Sevilla-Sharon. Where did the Jews and Turks first meet, and what happened? It is not possible to answer these questions with the information at hand. What we do know is the Turks began fighting the Byzantines in Anatolia frmo the 11th Century. Historians believe that in this period the Jews experienced a transition period from Byzantine persecution to the softer Turkish understanding of politics.
Glanate writes that there was a Jewish community in Karaman and that one of the Karaman beys, a doctor, was also a Jew. During the Seljuk period, there were Jewish communities in Ankara, Antalya and other towns. Jewish communities rescue from Byzantine oppression in the Aegean and Black Sea region continued their lives in the Seljuk period. This situation did not change much in the Ottoman period. For instance, when Orhan Bey conquerored Bursa, the Jews who left the town alongside the Christians returned not so long afterwards.
The Ets Ahayim Synagogue, which is still open today, was built upon the order of Orhan Bey. Jewish sources write that Orhan Bey invited those Jews who had escaped to neighbouring countries back to Bursa. History books also write that the Ottoman conquest of Edirne – Adrianople – was seen by the Jewish community there as a rescue and was celebrated. Many Balkan communities too, in the words of Franco, settled “in the lands of the crescent flag, which brought justice and wellbeing.
Another important detail is that Izmir, where the Jewish population had been close to nothing, many Jews moved here to make it an important centre of theirs. Another striking detail is that Sheikh Bedrettin, who rose up with 3000 dervishes for a socialist system, had a right-hand man called Torlak Kemal who was also known as “Samuel of Manisa”. Samuel, like Sheikh Bedrettin, was executed, but this development showed that the Jews and the Turks had experienced an integration of sorts. That the dervishes moved together with Samuel, and that their demands, struggle and execution was together all demonstrate that Turks and Jews had fused and did not look upon one another as “the other”.
There is an important fact about Turkish-Jewish relations during the reign of Murat II. According to what Rozanes and Moshe Sevilla-Sharon tell us, Murat II formed military units made up of non-Muslims. Those who did not want to participate were exempted in exchange for a fee – but the Jews did participate. According to a quote by the same source from the Guerta de la Istoria newspaper, “all the time and for centuries, Turkey’s Jews participated in war and spent much money so that the Ottoman State succeeded in its European campaigns. They knew that, under this administration, they could fulfil the requirements of their religion in comfort and that the Turkish state would protect them from any possible attack on their Jewishness”.
The Jews that were exiled from France in the 16th Century too took refuge in Turkey. This development also points to the fact that the Turks and the Jews accepted each other’s identity and presence with respect. Ishak Pasha, who had Jewish roots, was appointed the lead physician during the time of Murat II and his entire family exempted from tax, which demonstrates that this situation occurred not out of necessity but out of a knowledgeable choice. This arrangement was later to become a tradition up to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When Mehmet II leaned on the walls of Istanbul, the Jewish community was largely settled in Galata.
Many sources write that these Jews remained neutral during the blockade and contributed to Byzantium’s downfall. Even though it has never been proven, it is also said that this particular Jewish community made a secret agreement with Mehmet II. It is possible that these claims have substance, because after he conquered Istanbul he granted all the Jews of Istanbul a privileged status, which was later confirmed in 1604 by Mehmet III. According to Galante, Mehmet III published an edit which “confirmed and repeated the agreement with and rights granted to the Jews by Mehmet II 150 years ago”.
After he took Istanbul, Mehmet II granted the Jews freedom of religion and conscience. The right to repair existing synagogues was granted. He did not allow new ones to be built, but did allow existing buildings to be converted into synagogues. And that was not all: he invited other Jews to settle in Istanbul, and they brought with them homes, fields and vines. These Jews, who came from many a place including Edirne and Safed, lived good lives. Mehmet II’s personal physician and finance minister Yaakov, who was also known as Nurse Yakup and Maestro Iacopo, and those who followed Mehmet II all continued the process.
For instance, Beyazid II invited the Iberian Jews, who were under great pressure, to the Ottoman Empire. After a long, difficult and dangerous journey where they were exposed to much theft, the Iberian Jews reached Anatolia and made a great contribution to the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan wrote to all provinces warning that anyone who harmed the Jews would be executed. The Ottoman State also avoided taking sides in internal congregational issues. For instance, even with the Sabetay Sevi matter, it expected an internal resolution. And with judicial and administrative decisions it behaved not according to ethnic roots, religious awareness and national identity, but the stability and sustenance of the system.
Put another way, if a Jew broke the law he was punished, but never simply because he was a Jew. Another point that should be mentioned in the context of Turkish-Jewish relations is the “Vienna congregation”. The Ottomans and Austrians signed agreements at Pasarofcha in 1718 and Belgrade in 1739. Under their terms, the citizens of both states would be allowed to settle in the other freely and trade there. This situation allowed the Jews of Austria to enter the realm of Istanbul. Many Austrian Jews converted to Ottoman citizenship in order to live more comfortable lives in Vienna and Austria. In the same period, when the Empress Marie Therese wanted to expel the Jewish community of Vienna, Istanbul expressed its readiness to accept the community in question.
The 19th Century was a stormy one for the Ottomans, and this was a situation that affected the Jews too. The Middle East became increasing important and Jerusalem became a problem. As a result of weakening state authority, the Jewish community – like the Turks – began to experience problems. As the Ottomans increasingly weakened, the Jews began to seek ways of building their own state. Many Jews recognised that the Ottomans were heading for collapse and wanted a safer nation for themselves.
But even though the lands upon which the future State of Israel would be established were still in Ottoman hands, they did not start a Zionist movement in Istanbul. They supported the Ottomans during World War One. And they protested Istanbul becoming an American mandate during the war and wanted the city to remain under Turkish administration. This approach continued after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Republic. For instance, they did not accept the minority status and the privileges this brought to them. In the same way that the Turks helped the Jews in their bad days, the Jews helped the Turks.
Aside from this, many Jews who experienced persecution in the Europe switched to Turkish citizenship during the early years of the Republic. Great importance was attached to them in Turkey and they made great contributions to the Republic. Just about the only problem in Turkish-Jewish relations was the Assets Tax. This measure, which seriously affected the Jewish community, was largely and strangely inspired by Spain. Its application lasted nearly 1.5 years.
The tax was subsequently lifted, the debts revoked, and financial and moral compensation paid to solve the problem. But when one considers the problems experienced in Europe and the world at the same time, this tax could be seen as a temporary, one-and-a-half year problem in the context of far longer lasting, far more fruitful Turkish-Jewish relations. As can be seen, there is no historical background or socio-cultural foundation for there to be enmity of the Jews within Turkey.
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According to Turkish Foreign Ministry sources, there are around 25.000 Jews living in Turkey. Around 22.000 Turkish Jews live in Istanbul, 2.000 in Izmir and the rest of them live in Ankara and Adana. %96 of the Jewish community are Sephardic Jews. The remaining %4, which amounts to 1000 are Ashkenazi Jews. Though they are small in number, there are also some Jews that are the followers of Karaim Judaism in Istanbul. Ladino language is spoken by people over the age of 65. There are 19 Synagogues in Istanbul.
The oldest one is the Balat Ahrida Synagogue that has been in use since the conquest of Istanbul and has been restored by the 500th Year Foundation in 1992. The biggest and major one is the famous Neve Shalom Synagouge. Zulfaris Synagogue that was built in 17th century in Karaköy, has been restored as the Turkish Jews Museum by the 500th Year Foundation, in order to “present the summary of the 500 year long history of Jews in this country and how they lived and interacted peacefully to the world public. On November 2001, it was launched as the 500th Year Foundation Turkish Jews Museum.
The Jewish community has 2 hospitals in Istanbul and 1 in Izmir, numerous foundations, charities, Ulus Private High School that also has an elementary and middle school within its premises in Istanbul, and the Turkish-Jew press (Shalom daily with a 5000 circulation) with a long and dazzling history dating back to 1543. They also have a big publishing house called Gözlem Kitap. Other than the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews there are also the Jews of Turkish origin. Although they are small in number, they are important as being the followers of a religion that does not welcome people other than the Hebrew race.
After the Caspian Empire adopted this religion, it spread among the Karaim Turks. Karaim Turks living in Turkey are quite small in number. Other than that there are Turkish Jews living in Crimea, Dagestan, and various parts of East Europe. Also there are the Romaniote Jews from the Roman era, but as they mixed with the Jews who came in the Bayezid II period, generally Jews are considered to have come some 500 years ago.

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