|By Roderick Conway Morris|
LONDON 7 August 1992
The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic
by Stanford J. Shaw
'You call Ferdinand a wise king,' said Sultan Bayezid II, or so tradition relates, 'he, who by expelling the Jews, has impoverished his country and enriched mine.'
The Sultan's invitation to the Jewish refugees driven en masse from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, to settle in Ottoman domains, continued, if on a grander scale, the policy of his father Mehmed II, who, after his conquest of Istanbul in 1453, brought Jewish communities to the city to help repopulate it and revive its shattered economy. The same philojudaic policy was followed by subsequent Sultans: Suleyman the Magnificent, to take but one example, after his capture of Rhodes in 1522, offered Jewish immigrants free housing, mining concessions, 100 years' tax exemption and price-controlled kosher meat to induce them to come to the island.
Jewish gratitude, consistently reflected in contemporary texts, at discovering a safe haven is well represented by the famous Edirne letter, apparently written in the first half of the fifteenth century, in which one Isaac Zarfati, who describes himself as of Franco-German origin, exhorts his fellow Jews to abandon Christendom: 'I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land where nothing is lacking, and where, if you will, all shall be well with you... Here every man may dwell in peace under his own vine and fig tree... O Israel, wherefore sleepest thou? Arise!'
Turkish conquests in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Arabia and North Africa brought into the empire many more Jewish subjects, who had not, like those from northern Europe, Italy and the Iberian peninsula (both before and after 1492) emigrated to seek the Sublime Porte's protection, and for a long time also assured Middle Eastern Jews a secure existence.
The Ottomans' favourable attitude to Judaism, which was in stark contrast to that of the Christians or for that matter of the rest of Islam, derived in part, no doubt, from the circumstances of the birth of the empire, which emerged in the 14th century in the ethnically- and religiously-mixed freebooting no-man's-land of western Anatolia, between the Byzantine and Mongul empires. Small but ancient Jewish communities were present in the nascent Ottoman state - and when they found themselves better treated by their Turkish masters than by their previous overlords, they seem to have reciprocated with a loyalty that established them as valued allies of the Ottoman enterprise.
Nor was this early acceptance of a Jewish role ever seriously upset by notions of purity of blood or race: the devshirme, or gathering, of non-Muslim boys who, once converted to Islam, were raised and trained to fill the ranks of the Janissaries, the navy and the administration, amply illustrates Ottoman indifference to racial origin as a barrier to promotion, even to the highest positions in the land. Equally, the Ottoman state maintained its heterogeneous nature to the last, and neither Christian nor Jewish communities were ever subjected to widescale forced conversion outside the devshirme system - any zealot's dreams on this score having to contend with the exchequer's reluctance to see any dimunition in revenues from the poll tax, which only non-Muslims had to pay.
Ottoman tolerance was carried over into the Turkish Republic, where Muslims are vastly in the majority but there is still a sizeable Jewish population. (Turkey was also for decades the only Muslim-majority state to recognise Israel.)
A convincing analysis of such key questions as to what underlay Ottoman and Republican Turkey's steady aversion to anti-semitism, or why, despite the absence of persecution and discrimination, the Jewish community sank into such profound economic and cultural decline in the 18th and 19th centuries, are just two vital elements lacking from Professor Shaw's book.
Furthermore, although the author has amassed a considerable body of material, vague, not to say wild, generalisations severely undermine confidence in the soundness of the entire edifice. We are informed, for example, that in the 18th century: 'All the urban conglomerates of the empire in consequence [of fires, plagues etc.] turned into the [sic] anarchical collections of poverty-stricken inhabitants...'; and, of the complex, financially variegated patchwork of foreign trading and diplomatic communities of the 19th century: 'Together the protected foreigners and their local proteges... gathering around their churches and consulates, developed into large and wealthy colonies, living off the fat of the land, with huge houses and many servants... living lives of luxury and plenty, with vast entertainments, balls and parties.'
The book contains serious internal contradictions: so that of the struggle between conservative and reformist forces within the Jewish community over the election of the progressive Haim Nahum to the rejigged Grand Rabbinate, Professor Shaw writes: 'The conservatives reacted by getting the powerful guild of kosher butchers to go on strike, depriving the Grand Rabbinate of the gabelle revenues needed to conduct its normal activities...', whilst, on the following page, he argues that much of Nahum's 'difficulty was financial, due to a great extent to the long years in which Kaymakam Levi [Nahum's predecessor] had allowed the reigns [sic] of power to loosen, including in particular his abandonment of the collection of the gabelle, the traditional tax on meat sales... Part of the reason for the strike of kosher butchers against Nahum's elections had been his declaration that he would impose the gabelle once again.'
Other passages are slipshod to the point of meaninglessness: thus, of Ottoman Jewish musicians, Shaw writes that they left 'Jewry throughout the world with a mass of rich melody which never can be exhausted even if no more are composed'; and of a Jewish musician of the Republican era, that he 'performed for Ataturk at the Cankaya presidential palace, and later... at the Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul, often joining other Turkish musicians and intellectuals in spending hours with Ataturk to encourage and elaborate on his ideas.'
A comprehensive study of Ottoman and Turkish Jewry, amplifying such pioneering works as Bernard Lewis's The Jews of Islam (1984) and volume 18 of Salo Wittmayer Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1983) is still eagerly awaited, but Shaw's book falls far short of the mark.
Its price, moreover, is outrageous - all the more so seeing the publishers, as may have become evident from the quotations above, could not even be bothered to have it properly copy-edited, let alone proof-read. Ludicrous inconsistencies and typographical errors occur on nearly every page.
First published: Times Literary Supplement
© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022