Turkish-Jewish Community

Turkish Jews - Brief History

Preface

The article below was written in 2001. Since then much has changed in Turkey. After the election of Tayyip Erdogan as the Prime Minister, Turkish government has shifted its policy, turning against Israel and aligning itself with Iran and radical Arab regimes, including terrorist organization Hamas. Erdogan has been erasing the reforms of Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey. Under Erdogan Turkey has become an islamist country, where the Jewish minority lives in fear. There were several incidents of murder of Jews solely because of their religion and some synagogues in Istanbul were bombed by terrorist groups.

The population of the country under the encouragement of Erdogan and his party has started pursuing very strongly a radical Islamist lifestyle. Istanbul that used to be a European style cosmopolitan city is turning in certain neighborhoods into an Islamic province.

In 2010, the major ship that headed the Gaza flotilla ("Mavi Marmara") was supported by the Prime Minister Erdogan. This was the most extreme anti-Israel action of the Turkish government. Considering that Israel is daily subject to rocket and missiles launched from Hamas controlled Gaza, Israeli navy patrols control sea traffic to Gaza to prevent delivery of armaments into Gaza. The response of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was much milder than that of Turkey in Cyprus. In 1974, Turkish army invaded Cyprus because of relatively minor events establishing there an independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Originally, these pages were titled "Turkish-Jewish Friendship Over 500 Years". Erdogan government has put an end to this friendship. So this title was removed from this site.


A shorter version of this article was published in Turkish Times, May 1, 2001.

In 70 C.E. the Roman army invaded Jerusalem and expelled the Jews from Judea and Samaria (see brief history of the Jewish people). Some of these Jews reached Spain and established thriving communities there. The most famous person to emerge from Spanish Jewry is Moshe Ben Maimon (Rambam), a scientist, physician and a Torah Scholar.

In the 15th century the Jews in Spain faced strong pressures to convert to Christianity and many yielded to this pressure and became Christians. In 1492 the king of Spain, Ferdinand, issued an edict to expel from Spain all remaining Jews who did not convert to Christianity.

welcome.jpg Sultan Beyazit II welcoming Jews to Ottoman Empire in 1492
(painting by Mevlut Akyildiz).

When the news of expulsion reached the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan (Emperor) Beyazit II issued a decree to welcome the Jews. A significant portion of those expelled thus came to Ottoman Empire and settled mostly in European parts of the Empire. The Turkish Jews are also identified as Sephardic Jews. This derives from the word Sepharad which in Hebrew means Spain.

Since 1492, through five centuries, the Ottoman sultans and the modern day Turkish Republic, welcomed the Jews and offered them a safe haven from persecution in the European countries. The Ottoman Empire at its zenith became one the largest empires in World History covering most of Mediterranean basin region extending from North Africa to Eastern Europe. It has been suggested that one of the characteristics that extended the domination of the Ottoman Empire was its allowance of religious freedom for the different nationalities and minorities under its rule. While many European nations expelled, persecuted or tried to convert the Jews under their dominion, the Turkish people of the Ottoman Empire, remained as an outstanding example of tolerance of different nationalities with different religions.

The presentation above sometimes sounds unusual to strangers who may have heard Turkey only in the context of conquests of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed Turkish people have been throughout history a nation with a strong army and strong national feelings. Yet, the Turkish history is also full of stories of humanity and tolerance. In war time they are a strong nation to avoid confrontation with, but they also know to become friends beyond the war times and zones. This, in my personal opinion is a consistent pattern of Turkish behavior in all of their extensive history through centuries.

The history of the Ottoman Jews is rich with mutual complementary cultural influences. The Jews coming from Spain established the first printing presses that had just emerged as a most important tool of the modern culture. Many Jewish doctors served in the courts of Ottoman sultans and in the Ottoman army (see Sephardic house archives for detailed lists with names). Jews engaged in commerce enhanced trade between countries of the region for the benefit of all. The religious freedom allowed the flourishing of famous rabbis that produced outstanding works of comments on the Old Testament.

Until World War I the Land of Israel also known as Palestine, remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. During this period the Jewish population in this region lived as loyal subjects of the greater Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the British Empire gained control of Transjordan and Palestine which ended in 1948 with the declaration of independence of the State of Israel.

In pre World War II times Turkish government issued a decree prohibiting entry visas to Jews escaping the Nazi regime (for one of the best accounts of this period see Bali's book in the books section). Yet some Turkish diplomats in foreign countries worked hard to help Jews escape from deportation to concentration and death camps. Yad VaShem, Holocaust Memorial Institute in Israel awarded the medal of "The Righteous Among the Nations" to the Turkish ambassador Mr. Selahattin Ulkumen, for saving Jews of the Greek island Rhodes while risking his own life. One of the tragic cases took place in 1942. A ship named Struma carrying 769 Jewish refugees arrived in Istanbul. Its passengers were not granted permit to land and had to sail back to the Black and it was sunk by an explosion probably by a submarine (see full story).

In contrast to the policy of entry prohibition against refugees, the Turkish government decree left the doors open to Jewish scientists who came to Turkey. By first hand account I have heard stories of Turkish scientists honoring their German Jewish teachers who escaped to Turkey and taught in universities in Istanbul.

During World War II, the Sephardic communities in Turkey and Bulgaria were the only communities that did not suffer the Nazi Holocaust, thanks to the wisdom of the leaders of these countries. In contrast, nearly the entire Sephardic Jewish community of Greece was killed during World War II by the Nazi death machine.

After World War II, while the British rule tried to prevent the movement of the Jewish refugees into Israel, the modern day Turkish republic allowed its Jewish citizens freely to emigrate to Israel. The current population of Turkish-Jews in Israel is estimated as about 100,000, though a precise figure is difficult to obtain. This represents a relatively small community in the general population of about 6 million in Israel. The major wave of emigration from Turkey to Israel took place between 1940-1950. This migration from Turkey was not a result of a desire to escape from Turkey but rather emanated from the national desire to return to the homeland of our forefathers as each day three times a day we prayed to return to Jerusalem.

My own personal appreciation of Turkish attitude to Jews was shaped slowly. Like any minority in any country, sometimes isolated events of differential treatment are raised. Yet, as I became more knowledgeable and could compare cultures and countries around the globe with the passing of age and experience, we became much more appreciative of the benevolence of the Turkish people who harbored the Jewish people through incredibly barbaric times in the annals of European history. In retrospect of what we know of European history today, we owe Turkish people a great debt of gratitude for saving the lives of thousands of Jews. As Turkish-Jews we preserved our national identity as the descendants of the Biblical Israelites, yet to this day we also feel ourselves as Turkish and identify with the Turkish People.

Today Turkey is one of the most favorite countries for Israeli tourists, thanks to its natural beauty and famous hospitality of its people. The number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey each year is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. This tourist travel has extended the ties of friendship between Israel and Turkey to the general population, outside of the small community of Turkish Jews. Concomitantly, the trade between Turkey and Israel has greatly expanded in all spheres of economic activity from food commodities to hi-tech products. There are also many joint scientific and commercial activities between the two countries.

Both Turkey and Israel are unique in the Middle-East as the only countries with democratic regimes and democratic culture with multi-party systems. As it is well known, Middle-East is highly volatile with intra-Arab (Iran-Iraq war, Iraq-Kuwait Gulf War, Lebanese civil war, etc.) and Arab-Israeli conflicts. I hope that continuing the centuries old tradition of strong ties between Jews in Israel and Turkey may help promote greater stability in this region. The close ties of friendship and tolerance between the Turkish and Jewish People throughout the centuries is proof that Moslems and Jews can live together with mutual respect, and should serve as an example for our Arab neighboring countries with whom we yearn for a peaceful coexistence.

From a complementary perspective, the Arabs want to project the Israeli-Arab conflict as a religious conflict. We as Turkish Jews know that this is an improper use of religion in the fight of Arabs against Israel. In all the generations of Jewish life in Turkey we never saw a single Moslem Turk trying to kill a Jew in the name of Allah, whereas this is a common occurrence here. As the recent events show this conflict is not going to end anytime soon.

For further information about the history of Sephardic and Turkish Jews see bibliography and links page.