Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Türkiye

Early Jewish Settlements and Ottoman Era (Up to 18th Century) 

What is now Türkiye has been home to a variety of different Jewish communities since antiquity. The earliest Jews in Anatolia, including the communities that built the synagogues in Sardis-Manisa and Side-Antalya, were Romaniote Jews who spoke Greek. Aramaic- and Arabic-speaking Jews lived in the eastern reaches of the country. Ashkenazi Jews began to move to the region in small numbers as early as the 13th century. Yet it was the Sephardic Jews— exiles from the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal who arrived in Ottoman cities after 1492—who make up the bulk of the Jewish community of modern Türkiye.  They settled in cities and towns across Western Anatolia and the Balkans. Upon their arrival from Iberia, they brought knowledge and connections in the domains of medicine and international trade and finance, which meant Jewish elites formed strong ties to the Ottoman palace.  

This position would erode over the coming centuries, and in the late 19th century, Jews were no longer major players in palace affairs. In fact, most of Ottoman Jewry was made up of the urban poor. Following a massive fire that destroyed the Eminönü neighborhood in 1660, most Jews in the imperial capital of Istanbul resided in the districts of Balat and Hasköy. These areas continued to be largely populated by Jews up until the 1950s. Also in that period, Sabbatai Zevi declared himself the messiah in 1665. A rabbi from Izmir, his millenarian movement attracted numerous followers in the empire and in Jewish communities around the world. When he converted to Islam (under duress), some Jews followed suit, creating a rift within the Jewish community. 

Community Transformation and Secularization (19th to Early 20th Century) 

Over time, the importance of religion in the daily life of Ottoman Jews declined as the community secularized, leaving behind many of the folk traditions and superstitions that characterized Sephardic life. A major catalyst of the change was the establishment of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) network of schools in Ottoman Türkiye. The France-based AIU’s official mission was to work for the global emancipation and moral progress of the Jews and to lend effectual support to those who suffered because of their religion. Thus, the primary objective was to liberate Jews in North Africa and the Middle East from antisemitism through “curing them of their own backwardness” and alleviating poverty through secular education and vocational training. The AIU opened secular Jewish schools in many towns and city neighborhoods, transforming the community and making French— the AIU’s language of instruction— a popular language for Ottoman Jews. Nevertheless, most Ottoman Jews continued to speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), a language they created by bringing together various Iberian dialects, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, with strong influences from Italian and increasingly French. This language would also be threatened, and eventually pushed into endangered status, by increasing state pressure to speak Turkish over the course of the 20th century.  

 Jewish middle school children playing sports at the AIU in 1963.
Jewish middle school children playing sports at the AIU in 1963.

Challenges and Emigration (Early 20th Century to Post-World War II) 

Starting with the Ottoman Empire’s reformist Tanzimat period in 1839 and into the second constitutional period from 1908 to World War I, the state kept promising but never fully delivering equal citizenship for non-Muslim subjects of the sultan. During this period, which coincided with the growth of the AIU school network, Jewish communities created newer and more efficient communal institutions or enhanced existing ones, including hospitals, orphanages, and aid societies. The most famous include the Balat Or Ahayim Hospital that functions to this day and the orphanage in Ortaköy. With state schools and some sectors of the public service opening to non-Muslims, some Jews began enrolling in state academies to study law, medicine, and dentistry or volunteered for military service. This increased Jewish presence in middle-class professions. The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw the rise of a flourishing Ladino press, including the works of Elia Karmona (1869–1931), a humorist, journalist, and author who jovially criticized anything and everything from his satirical paper El Djugueton [The Joker]. However, the period also saw increased emigration of Jews out of Ottoman lands to France, Cuba, Argentina, the Congo, the US, and some to Palestine, which was an Ottoman territory until after World War I.  The desire for an improved standard of living was the main driver of emigration while the avoidance of newly compulsory military service was an added factor for Jewish men. A small group moved to Palestine motivated by Zionist ideology. 

Modern Era Challenges and Diaspora (Post-World War II to Present) 

Following World War I, when thousands more Jews left the country, the Ottoman Empire dissolved, and the Republic of Türkiye was founded in 1923. The first census of the republic in 1927 counted only 81,872 Jews. The early republic heavily restricted the rights of non-Muslims, Jews among them. Despite being guaranteed certain communal rights by the Treaty of Lausanne, they were under heavy pressure to publicly renounce these rights, which the elite Jewish leadership quickly did. The Constitution of 1924, the first of the republic, recognized Islam as the official religion of the state, and though this was later revoked, Turkish Muslim identity was essentially a prerequisite to participation in public life in the republic. While the constitution declared all citizens Turkish “regardless of their religion and race,” other laws set out that only those who were Turkish by race or by culture were afforded specific rights, thus excluding Jews along with Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and others. The early 1920s saw the enactment of a series of anti-minority policies. A significant number of non-Muslim lawyers were disbarred for ”unethical conduct” under false pretenses. Non-Muslim employees in the public sector were fired, and the state made sure that no new ones were hired. Non-Muslims could not enter the officer college and were often refused weapons during their mandatory military service. By 1927, most Jewish educational institutions, including AIU branches, were shuttered. During this period, non-Muslims needed police approval for interprovincial travel and were barred from visiting certain areas. Jews were banned outright from residing in the province of Aydin, the birthplace of famous Jewish singer Dario Moreno (1921–1968). He became an icon of Izmir, the city to which he moved as a child. These rules sought to dislodge the remaining Armenian, Greek, and Jewish populations from their towns and concentrate them in Istanbul, where they could be controlled more directly by the Minority Affairs desk of the Istanbul police. The Jews of Thrace were a particular state concern, since they lived close to the Greek and Bulgarian borders and were viewed as a potential fifth column. The 1934 Settlement Law forced non-Turks to relocate. It was followed by the Thrace Pogrom of 1934, which led to the mass displacement of over 10,000 Jews from towns in the provinces of Edirne, Çanakkale, Kırklareli, and Tekirdağ. 

 Altaras-Zevulun wedding in Istanbul at the Zülfaris Synagogue
Altaras-Zevulun wedding in Istanbul at the Zülfaris Synagogue

During the years of Nazi rule in Germany, Türkiye became an important transit hub for Jewish refugees, and the local Jewish community was active in helping the displaced reach safety, despite the intransigence of the Turkish government. While the government accepted some 500 refugees from Germany who were deemed ”useful,” such as Jewish professors fired from German universities, thousands more were denied even transit visas. In one highly publicized instance, the Struma, a ship carrying almost 800 people escaping the Holocaust, broke down en route and passengers were not allowed off. They were forced to wait for weeks off the coast of Istanbul. Denied entry into Türkiye, the ship was pulled to the Black Sea and was likely sunk by Soviet torpedoes. There was only a single survivor. In the meantime, Turkish diplomats stripped the citizenship of hundreds of Jews who had emigrated to Europe. Without their Turkish papers, many would perish under Nazi occupation. At home, Jews were faced with the discriminatory Wealth Tax of 1942. The law intended to transfer wealth from non-Muslims to Muslim Turks by charging Armenians, Jews, and Greeks tax rates between 150% and 230% of their wealth depending on their ethnic group. Those who could not afford to give more than their total wealth—a large group—were sent to forced labor camps, mostly in Aşkale in Erzurum, where the majority of internees were Jews. Numerous non-Muslim men were also conscripted into forced labor battalions under the 20th Class Service scheme. 

It was after this difficult period that increasingly impoverished Jews began to migrate en masse to Mandate Palestine and later the State of Israel. Despite administrative roadblocks from the republic, between 1947 and 1950, almost half of the Jews in Türkiye made Aliyah, leaving less than 50,000 Jews remaining. Finding poor transition housing, the expectation to do agricultural work, and mistreatment of non-Ashkenazi Jews less than ideal, some of these early migrants returned to Türkiye. However, thousands stayed to make new lives in the fledgling State of Israel.  

Türkiye recognized Israel in March 1949. Before the 1950 elections, the ruling Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi)allowed the Jewish community to hold elections to its lay council for the first time in the republic. Yet this was not enough to win support from Jews. Hurt significantly by the discriminatory Wealth Tax and the visible Nazi tendencies of some leading Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi figures, Jews flocked to the insurgent opposition, the Democrat Party (DP). The DP won the election handily, ending the one-party rule that had begun in 1923. It was under the DP government that the first Chief Rabbi of Türkiye, Rafael Saban (1890–1960), was elected in 1953. This was thanks to the intervention of Salamon Adato (1894–1954), a Jewish MP from the DP. Until then, the republican government had prevented the election of a permanent Chief Rabbi in attempts to downgrade the institution.  

This development notwithstanding,  the DP period was not devoid of trouble. The government oversaw—and probably orchestrated—the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom on September 6-7, which targeted Greeks but engendered violent spillover effects for Jews and Armenians. One of the casualties of the pogrom was 65-year-old Jewish nightwatchman Avram Anav, who was killed as he was guarding Motola, a Jewish department store in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood. The DP period came to an end with Türkiye’s first coup, and the handful of Jewish leaders who had positions in government and in the DP were tried in  military courts. This episode scared Jewish communal leaders away from political activity for almost two decades. In the period that followed, political quietism became the order of the day: Elite Jews increasingly avoided getting entangled in political affairs, and a mindset referred to as kayades (Ladino for silence) ensued. 

Grand Synagogue of Edirne in Türkiye.
Grand Synagogue of Edirne in Türkiye.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories, already popular with various political movements in Türkiye, came to the fore with the rise of Islamist governments following the 1990s. Despite the increasing visibility of antisemitism in public life, in the 1980s and 1990s Jewish communal leaders began cooperating with the government as lobbyists in their Armenian Genocide denial campaign. Communal leaders such as Jak Kamhi (1925–2020) lobbied Western governments by incorrectly arguing that since there was no antisemitism in Türkiye, the Armenian Genocide could not have occurred. These activities culminated in the creation of the Quincentennial Foundation, the main goal of which was to celebrate the 500th year of the arrival of the Sephardim in Ottoman lands in 1992. It presented Jews as guests of the Turks and thanked fellow citizens for their tolerance of Jews.  

It was in this environment, where antisemitism purportedly did not exist, that the Jewish community suffered a major terrorist attack. In 2003, twin attacks were carried out in the Neve Şalom and Şişli synagogues, killing 20 and injuring 300. This was not the first attack on Neve Şalom—there had been a bombing without causalities in 1969, a murderous attack in 1986 that killed 22, and another attempt in 1992. The late 1990s and 2000s also saw increasing Jewish emigration to the US, Canada, and the UK, in addition to Israel. Following the 2015 citizenship restitution laws of Portugal and Spain, most Jews in Türkiye became citizens of the European Union, easing their path to emigration. The possibility of obtaining European passports coincided with a period of economic crisis in Türkiye that has worsened since 2016. Under these conditions, the gradual decline of the Jewish population continues. Today there are only 14,500 Jews in Türkiye, with the great majority living in Istanbul.  

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