by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

The Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 31 March 2012



The 500th anniversary in 1992 of the wholesale expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella of the Spanish Jews highlighted one thing if nothing else: how infinitely better documented is the history of the western, or Ashkenazi ('German'), than that of the Oriental, or Sephardic ('Spanish') Jews.

Ironically, as the author of this admirably concise, lucid, readable and intelligent survey observes, a key reason for the neglect of Sephardic history is that western Jewish scholars have tended to absorb the prejudices current in Christian Europe (where the Jews have been regularly persecuted) regarding the supposed 'barbarism' of the Ottoman Empire (where the Jews were offered sanctuary and consistently well treated), consequently seeing the latter sphere as less worthy of serious investigation. Happily, this book - which draws on the researches of nearly 30 scholars, who came together at Brandeis University in 1987 - indicates that the mists are clearing, revealing a fruitful area of study, which not only illuminates the story of the Jews, but expands and deepens our knowledge of the Ottomans.

Tolerance of religious minorities and the granting of a high level of autonomy in the running of their own affairs were pillars of the entire Ottoman system. The Jews, however, developed a unique rapport with their rulers. The very act of offering displaced Jews a safe haven clearly predisposed the immigrants to be thankful to their new masters. But their gratitude was greatly reinforced by the fact that, unlike in Europe, the Jews found themselves free to travel and follow any trade or profession - an opportunity they seized with both hands, exercising almost every conceivable calling from medicine to mining, and weaving to wine-making . Often faced with the hostility of the Empire's Christian subjects, the Sephardim, notes Levy, 'generally preferred to settle near or within Muslim neighbourhoods, where they felt more secure.' Equally, Jews not infrequently chose to appeal to Turkish state courts to settle disputes, even in matters of family law (despite the fierce opposition of their rabbis to the practice).

The extent to which Jewish communities' very survival depended on Muslim protection is vividly illustrated by the case of Belgrade, a scenario repeated in other places in the Balkans, as the borders between Christendom and the far more reliously heterodox Ottoman Empire shifted to and fro. When the Austrians took Belgrade in 1688 they slaughtered the Jews; when the Ottomans regained the city in 1690, the Jews returned to rebuild their lives - only to flee the Austrians again in 1717, and come back with the Ottomans in 1739. Jewish fears of what might befall them at the hands of the Empire's native Christians should Turkish protection ease proved well-founded. When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, during the savage 'ethnic cleansing' of the Peloponnese the revolutionaries butchered the defenceless Muslim civilian population and the Jews with equal enthusiam.

The Ottoman state's reaction to the Shabbatai Tzevi affair, 'the most widespread messianic movement in Jewish history', is especially interesting. Proclaimed the Messiah in 1665, Shabbetai Tzevi, a charismatic rabbi, soon recruited a large number of followers throughout the Empire and sailed from Izmir with the avowed intention of overthrowing the Sultan, as a prelude to the end of the world, which he declared would occur on 18 June 1666. It was only this direct 'assault' on the capital that prompted the authorities, who had been discreetly monitoring events for some time, to act by intercepting the ship. The would-be Messiah eventually embraced Islam, causing dismay and confusion among his followers, and was pensioned off into provincial retirement. Despite the subversive nature of the movement no form of punitive retribution was visited on even the movement's most ardent and vocal supporters.

The whole affair was profoundly disorientating and embarrassing for Turkish Jewry, and the Porte's response was notable for its tact and humanity. Indeed, the Turkish government's handling of the incident is indicative of a wider point: that the Empire's centuries-long survival relied ultimately as much on the subtlety and skill of the Ottoman political establishment - frequently put to the test in its dealings with a complex patchwork of diverse, and not uncommonly mutually antagonistic, subject peoples and faiths - as on sheer military might.


by Avigdor Levy

196pp. Darwin Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 1993

First published:

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023