History of the Jews in Turkey: Wikis


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Turkish Jews
יהודים טורקית
Türkiye Yahudileri
Total population
Ca. 150,000 to 200,000
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 77,000 [1]
 Turkey ~17,000 to 26,000 [2]
 United States

Turkish, Ladino, Hebrew, Yevanic



Related ethnic groups

Sephardi Jews, Romaniot Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Donmeh

The history of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey covers the 2,400 years that Jews have lived in what is now Turkey. There have been Jewish communities in Asia Minor since at least the 4th century BCE and many Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from Spain were welcomed to the Ottoman Empire (including regions part of modern Turkey) in the late 15th century. Despite emigration during the 20th century, modern day Turkey continues to have a small Jewish population.


Roman and Byzantine rule

Sardis Synagogue was a section of a large bath-gymnasium complex, that was in use for about 450–500 years.

According to Jewish scripture, Noah's Ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat, a mountain in the Taurus range of the Armenian Highlands which is now a part of Turkey, near the modern borders Armenia and Iran.[3] Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian of the first century, notes Jewish origins for many of the cities in Asia Minor, though much of his sourcing for these passages is traditional.[4] New Testament mention of Jewish populations in Anatolia is widespread: Iconium (now: Konya) is said to have a synagogue in Acts 14:1, and Ephesus is mentioned as having a synagogue in Acts 19:1 and in Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. The Epistle to the Galatians is likewise directed at an area of modern Turkey which once held an established Jewish population. Based on physical evidence, there has been a Jewish community in Asia Minor since the 4th century BCE, most notably in the city of Sardis. The subsequent Roman and Byzantine Empires included sizable Greek-speaking Jewish communities in their Anatolian domains which seem to have been relatively well-integrated and enjoyed certain legal immunities. The size of the Jewish community was not greatly affected by the attempts of some Byzantine emperors (most notably Justinian) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success.[5] The exact picture of the status of the Jews in Asia Minor under Byzantine rule is still being researched by historians.[6] Although there is some evidence of occasional hostility by the Byzantine populations and authorities, no systematic persecution of the type endemic at that time in western Europe (pogroms, the stake, mass expulsions, etc.) is believed to have occurred in Byzantium.[7]

Ottoman rule


Romaniotes and Early Ottoman Jewry (1299-1492)

The interior of the Ahrida Synagogue of Istanbul, which was founded by the Romaniotes of Ohrid, who were resettled to his capital by Sultan Mehmed II, well before the arrival of the Sephardi Jews after 1492.

The first Jewish synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim (Hebrew: עץ החיים) 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.[8]

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,[9] 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.[10 ] And in order to revivify Constantinople he ordered that Muslims, Christians and Jews from all over his empire be resettled in the new capital.[10 ] Within months most of the Empires Romaniote Jews, from the Balkans and Anatolia, were concentrated in Istanbul, where they made up 10% of the city's population.[11] But at the same time the forced resettlement, though not intended as an anti-Jewish measure, was perceived as an "expulsion" by the Jews.[12] Despite this interpretation however, the Romaniotes would be the most influential community in the Empire for a few decades to come, until that position would be lost to a wave of new Jewish arrivals.

The number of native Jews was soon bolstered by small groups of Ashkenazi Jews that immigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1421-1453.[11] Among these new Ashkenazi immigrants was Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati, a German-born Jew of French descent[13] (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?".[13][14]

Sephardi Settlement (late 15th, early 16th century)

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.

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.

The Sultan is said to have exclaimed thus at the Spanish monarch's lack of wisdom: "Ye call Ferdinand a wise king he who makes his land poor and ours rich!".[15][16] 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.[17]

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 Ottomans at their Apogee (15th century - 17th century)

Painting of a Jewish man from the Ottoman Empire, 1779.

Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have often been exaggerated,[18] it is undeniable that the tolerance they enjoyed was unprecedented. 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.[19] There were restrictions in the areas Jews could live or work, but such restrictions were imposed on Ottoman subjects of other religions as well.[17] Like all non-Muslims, Jews had to pay the harac ("head tax"), which corresponds to the charity tax Zakat which is paid by Muslims, and faced other restrictions in clothing, horse riding, army service etc., but they could occasionally be waived or circumvented.[20]

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.

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 were the most prominent 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.[21] 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 performence that counted."[22]

But generally speaking, friction between Jews and Turks was uncommon, some incidents however did take place in the Arab territories: During 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, under Mehmet IV (1649-1687), Safat was destroyed by the Arabs. In 1678, Mehmet IV ordered the banishment of the Jews of Yemen to the Mawza Desert, an event which, despite its brief duration, remains in the collective memory of Yemeni Jews as a great tragedy.

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.

Ottoman Stagnation and Decline (18th century - 20th century)

The history of the Jews in Turkey in the eighteenth and nineteenth century 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"[22]. 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.

But by 1908, there were five Jewish members of the Ottoman parliament. The minister plenipotentiary from the United States to the Ottoman Empire, Oscar S. Straus, was a Jew. Straus was again minister from 1897 to 1900. In the war of 1885, although not admitted to the army, they gave pecuniary and other aid. In Adrianople 150 wagons were placed by them at the disposal of the government for the transportation of ammunition; and in the war of 1897 the Jews of Istanbul contributed 50,000 piasters to the army fund.

Ottoman Jews held a variety of views on the role of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, from loyal Ottomanism to Zionism[23]. 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.

As mentioned before, 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. The greatest loss to the Ottoman Jewry however, would be the loss of Thessaloniki, with its population of over 60.000 Jews after the First Balkan War. The Jewish communities in these new Balkan states were completely annihilated during the Holocaust, whereas the relatively small amount that remained in Turkey were able to survive the horrors of World War II, due to Turkeys neutrality in the conflict.

Turkish Republic

Establishment of the Nation-state and the Single-party period

The Jewish population of Ottoman Empire had reached nearly 500,000 at the start of the 20th century. The territories lost between 1829 - 1913 to the new Christian Balkan states, significantly lowered this number. The troubled history of Turkey during the 20th century and the process of transforming the old Ottoman empire - the Sick Man of Europe - into a modern Western nation state after 1923 however, had a negative effect on the size of all remaining minorities, including the Jews.

The planned deportation of Jews from East Thrace and the associated anti-Jewish pogrom in 1934 was one of the events that caused insecurity among the Turkish Jews.[24]

The effect of the 1942 Varlık Vergisi ("Wealth Tax") was the greatest on non-Muslims - who still controlled the largest portion of the young republics wealth - even though in principle it was directed against all wealthy Turkish citizens. The "wealth tax" is still remembered as the "catastrophe" among the non-Muslims of Turkey and it had probably the most detrimental effect on the numbers of the Jewish community. Many people unable to pay the taxes were sent to labor camps and about 30,000 Jews emigrated.[25] The tax was seen as a racist attempt to diminish the economic power of minorities in Turkey.[26]

On the night of 6/7 September 1955, the Istanbul Pogrom was unleashed. Although primarily aimed at the city's Greek population, the Jewish and Armenian communities of Istanbul were also targeted to a degree. The damage caused was mainly material (a complete total of over than 4,000 shops and 1,000 houses - belonging to Greeks, Armenians and Jews - were destroyed) it deeply shocked minorities throughout the country, and 10,000 Jews subsequently fled Turkey.[27]

During World War II

Despite the harsh policies of ethnic homogenization during the early republican period, the Turkish stance towards Jews in German-occupied Europe remained relatively positive. Even though Turkey remained neutral during World War II (until its symbolic declaration of war on Nazi Germany on 23 February 1945) and officially forbade granting visas to German Jews, individual Turkish diplomats (such as Necdet Kent, Namık Kemal Yolga, Selahattin Ülkümen and Behiç Erkin) did work hard to save Jews from the Holocaust.[28] According to Prof. Stanford J. Shaw "some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and even of some 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe" were saved because of Turkish efforts.[29] On the other hand, Turkey has been implicated in the Struma disaster, due to its refusal to allow the Jewish refugees on board to disembark in Turkish territory.

Current Situation of Jews in Turkey

Neve Shalom Synagogue, completed in 1951 in the Galata district of Istanbul, Turkey.

The present size of the Jewish Community is estimated at around 26,000 according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in İzmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale, Iskenderun and Kirklareli. Sephardic Jews make up approximately 96% of Turkey's Jewish population, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazi Jews.

Turkish Jews are still legally represented by the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Ishak Haleva, is assisted by a religious Council made up of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Thirty-five Lay Counselors look after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Committee of fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay Counselors, runs the daily affairs.

In 2001, the Jewish Museum of Turkey was founded by the Quincentennial Foundation, an organisation established in 1982 consisting of 113 Turkish citizens, both Jews and Muslims, to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire.[30]


Even though historically speaking populist Antisemitism was rare in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey,[31] since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, there has been a rise in Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism. The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul has been attacked by Islamic militants three times.[32] First on the 6th of September 1986, Arab terrorists gunned down 22 Jewish worshippers and wounded 6 during Sabbath services at Neve Shalom. This attacked was blamed on the Palestinian militant Abu Nidal.[33][34][35] In 1992, the Lebanon-based Shi'ite Muslim group of Hezbollah carried out a bomb against the Synagogue, but nobody was injured.[33][35] The Synagogue was hit again during the 2003 Istanbul bombings alongside the Beth Israel Synagogue, killing 20 and injuring over 300 people, both Jews and Muslims alike. Even though a local Turkish militant group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, claimed responsibility for the attacks, police claimed the bombings were "too sophisticated to have been carried out by that group"[33], with a senior Israeli government source saying: "the attack must have been at least coordinated with international terror organizations".[35]

Turkey and Israel

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's Monument on the Arkadas Association grounds, in Yehud, Israel.

Turkey is among the first countries to formally recognize the State of Israel.[36] Turkey and Israel have closely cooperated militarily and economically. In the book Israel's Secret Wars, Benny Morris provides an account of how Mossad operatives based in Turkey infiltrated into Iraq and helped to orchestrate a number of Iraqi Kurdish uprisings to weaken the Iraqi government. Israel and Turkey have signed a multi-billion dollar project to build a series of pipelines from Turkey to Israel to supply gas, oil and other essentials to Israel.[37]

In 2003 the Arkadas Association was established in Israel. The Arkadas Association is a Turkish-Jewish cultural center in Yehud, aiming to preserve the Turkish-Jewish heritage and promote friendship (Arkadaş being the Turkish word for Friend) between the Israeli and Turkish people.

Another event worth mentioning, is the establishment of the Ülkümen-Sarfati Society by Jews and Turks in Germany in 2004. The Society, named after Selahattin Ülkümen and Yitzhak Sarfati, aims to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue and wants to inform the public of the centuries of peaceful coexistence between Turks and Jews.[38][39]


The flourishing period of Jewish literature in Turkey was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, after the arrival of the Spanish exiles, though there had been Jewish intellectuals before this period too. Printing-presses and Talmud schools were established, and an active correspondence with Europe was maintained.

See also

Turkish-Jewish relations and history

Key Figures

Turkic Jews


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Jewish Virtual Library.
  3. ^ Genesis 8:4
  4. ^ Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews (Project Gutenberg eText, William Whiston trans., 2006), Chapter 1, Book 1.
  5. ^ G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State
  6. ^ For a sample of views, see J. Starr The Jews in the Byzantine Empire, 641-1204; S. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium;, R. Jenkins Byzantium; Averil Cameron, "Byzantines and Jews: Recent Work on Early Byzantium", Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 20
  7. ^ The Oxford History of Byzantium, C. Mango (ed.) (2002)
  8. ^ International Jewish Cemetery Project - Turkey
  9. ^ The Black Death, Channel 4 - History.
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ a b Avigdor Levy; The Jews of the Ottoman Empire, New Jersey, (1994)
  12. ^ 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)
  13. ^ a b http://www.turkishjews.com/history/letter.asp
  14. ^ B. Lewis, "The Jews of Islam", New York (1984), pp. 135 - 136
  15. ^ http://binsalaam.tripod.com/
  16. ^ http://globond.blogspot.com/2009/07/what-you-may-not-know-about-turkey.html
  17. ^ a b H. Inalcik; The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, Phoenix Press, (2001)
  18. ^ B. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, PUP, (1987) 137-141
  19. ^ L. Stavrianos; The Balkans since 1453, NYU Press (2000)
  20. ^ D. Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, CUP, 2005
  21. ^ Charles Issawi & Dmitri Gondicas; Ottoman Greeks in the Age of Nationalism, Princeton, (1999)
  22. ^ 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)
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ Rifat Bali, Yeni Bilgiler ve 1934 Trakya Oraylari-I, in Tarih ve Toplum 186/1999
  25. ^ Faik Ökte, "The tragedy of the Turkish Capital Tax", Kent 1987
  26. ^ A Jewish Voice for Turkish democracy
  27. ^ Dilek Güven, Nationalismus, Sozialer Wandel und Minderheiten: Die Ausschreitungen gegen die Nichtmuslime der Tuerkei (6/7 September 1955), Universitaet Bochum, 2006
  28. ^ http://www.science.co.il/hi/Turkish/
  29. ^ http://www.sefarad.org/publication/lm/043/6.html
  30. ^ http://www.musevicemaati.com/index.php?contentId=10
  31. ^ http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/02/turkeys_prime_minister_leads_h.html
  32. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/dozens-killed-as-suicide-bombers-target-istanbul-synagogues-735840.html
  33. ^ a b c http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/16/world/20-in-istanbul-die-in-bombings-at-synagogues.html
  34. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/mystery-surrounds-suicide-of-abu-nidal-once-a-ruthless-killer-and-face-of-terror-640464.html
  35. ^ a b c http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,103157,00.html
  36. ^ http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/documents/44edf1a5d337f.pdf
  37. ^ http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1145961328841&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
  38. ^ http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-478/_nr-491/i.html
  39. ^ http://www.ulkumen-sarfati.de/

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