History of the jews in turkey

Turkish Jews
Türkiye Yahudileri
יהודים טורקים
Djudios Turkos
Total population
Ca. 150,000 to 200,000
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 77,000[1]
 Turkey 17,000[2]
 United States 8,000
Turkish, Ladino, Hebrew (in Israel), English, French, Yevanic (extinct)
Related ethnic groups
Sephardi Jews, Romaniote Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews.

The history of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey (Turkish: Türkiye Yahudileri, Turkish Jews; Hebrew: יהדות טורקיה‎, Ladino: Djudios Turkos) 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 5th 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.


Biblical era

The ancient Israelites were known to have imported honeybees from what is modern day Turkey. A team of Israeli archaeologists found 30 intact hives made of straw and unbaked clay, and evidence that there had been over 100-200 more, on the site of the joint Israelite-Canaanite city of Tel Rehov. According to some evidence, the bees were probably imported from the region after the local bees proved easier to handle than Israeli bees, which had proved to be extremely aggressive.[3]

Roman and Byzantine rule

According to Jewish scripture, Noah's Ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat, a mountain in the Taurus range in the Republic of Turkey, near the modern borders Armenia and Iran.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] The exact picture of the status of the Jews in Asia Minor under Byzantine rule is still being researched by historians.[7] 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.[8]

Ottoman era

Main article: History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire

The first Jewish synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim (Hebrew: עץ החיים Lit.Tree of Life) 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.[9]

The status of Jewry in the Ottoman Empire often hinged on the whims of the Sultan. So, for example, while Murad III ordered that the attitude of all non-Muslims should be one of "humility and abjection" and should not "live near Mosques or tall buildings" or own slaves, others were more tolerant.[10]

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,[11] 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.[12] And in order to revivify Constantinople he ordered that Muslims, Christians and Jews from all over his empire be resettled in the new capital.[12] Within months most of the Empires Romaniote Jews, from the Balkans and Anatolia, were concentrated in Constantinople, where they made up 10% of the city's population.[13] But at the same time the forced resettlement, though not intended as an anti-Jewish measure, was perceived as an "expulsion" by the Jews.[14] 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.[13] Among these new Ashkenazi immigrants was Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati, a German-born Jew of French descent[15] (Hebrew: צרפתיSarfati, 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?".[15][16]

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, Portugal, South Italy and Sicily. The Sultan issued a formal invitation to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal and they started arriving in the empire in great numbers.

A key moment in Judeo-Turkic relations occurred in 1492, when more than 150,000 Spanish Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition, many to the Ottoman Empire. At that point in time, Constantinople's population was a mere 70,000 due to the various sieges of the city during the Crusades and the so-called Black Death of the 14th century, so this historical event was also significant for repopulation of the city. These Sephardic Jews settled in Constantinople as well as Salonika.

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!".[17][18] 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.[19]

The Sephardi 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.

Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have often been exaggerated,[20] it is undeniable that they enjoyed tolerance. 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.[21] There were restrictions in the areas Jews could live or work, but such restrictions were imposed on Ottoman subjects of other religions as well.[19] Like all non-Muslims, Jews had to pay the harac ("head tax") and faced other restrictions in clothing, horse riding, army service etc., but they could occasionally be waived or circumvented.[22]

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 arguably be the appointment of Joseph Nasi to Sanjak-bey (governor, a rank usually only bestowed upon Muslims) of the island of Naxos.[23] 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 performαnce that counted."[24]

Friction between Jews and Turks was less common than in the Arab territories. Some examples: 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 remains in the collective memory of Yemeni Jews as a great tragedy.[25]

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.

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".[24] 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.

Ottoman Jews held a variety of views on the role of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, from loyal Ottomanism to Zionism.[26] 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.

Turkish Republic

The Jewish population of Ottoman Empire had reached nearly 200,000 at the start of the 20th century.[27] 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 into a modern Western nation state after 1923, however, had a negative effect on the size of all remaining minorities, including the Jews.

After 1933, a new law put into effect in Nazi Germany for mandatory retirement of officials from non-Aryan race. Thus, the law required all the Jewish scientists in Germany to be fired. Unemployed scientists led by Albert Einstein formed an association in Switzerland. Professor Schwartz, the general secretary of the association, met with the Turkish Minister of Education in order to provide jobs for 34 Jewish scientists in Turkish universities especially in Istanbul University.[28]

However, the planned deportation of Jews from East Thrace and the associated anti-Jewish [[1]] in 1934 was one of the events that caused insecurity among the Turkish Jews.[29]

The effect of the 1942 Varlık Vergisi ("Wealth Tax") was the greatest on non-Muslims – who still controlled the largest portion of the young republic's 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.[30] The tax was seen as a racist attempt to diminish the economic power of minorities in Turkey.[31]

World War II

Turkey served as a transit for European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s.[32][33]

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.[34] Stanford Shaw claims that Turkey saved 100,000,[35] while another historian Rifat Bali claims Turkey saved 15,000 and another historian Tuvia Friling, an Israeli expert on the Balkans and the Middle East 20,000.[36] In his book Arnold Reisman, accepts a figure of 35,000 comprising 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and approximately 20,000 Jews from Eastern Europe.[37]

A memorial stone with a bronze epitaph was inaugurated in 2012, as the third of individual country memorials (after Poland and the Netherlands) at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for eight Turkish citizens killed during the Nazi regime in the said camp. The Turkish Ambassador to Berlin, Hüseyin Avni Karslıoğlu stated in an inauguration speech that Germany set free 105 Turkish citizens, held in camps, after a mutual agreement between the two countries, and these citizens returned to Turkey in April 1945, although there is no known official record for other Turkish Jews who may have died during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.[38]

According to Rifat Bali, Turkish authorities bear some responsibility for the Struma disaster, killing about 781 Jewish refugees and 10 crew, due to their refusal to allow the Jewish refugees on board to disembark in Turkey.[39][40] William Rubinstein goes further, citing British pressure on Turkey not to let Struma's passengers disembark, in accordance with Britain's White Paper of 1939 to prevent further Jewish immigration to Palestine.[41][42]

Emigration from Turkey to Israel

When the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Aliyah was not particularly popular amongst Turkish Jewry; migration from Turkey to Palestine was minimal in the 1920s.[43] Emigration increased whens incident reflecting hostility towards Jews occurred. Thus, discrimination was one of the main "push" factors that encouraged emigration from Turkey to Palestine.

After the 1934 Thrace pogroms, immigration to Palestine significantly increased; it is estimated that 521 Jews left for Palestine from Turkey in 1934 and 1,445 left in 1935.[44] Immigration to Palestine was organized by the Jewish Agency and the Palestine Aliya Anoar Organization. The Varlik Vergisi, which occurred in 1942, was also significant in encouraging emigration from Turkey to Palestine; between 1943 and 1944, 4,000 Jews emigrated.[45]

The Jews of Turkey reacted very favorable to the creation of the State of Israel. After it was established in 1948, emigration from Turkey increased substantially. In fact, the migration of Jews to Israel is the second largest mass emigration wave out of Turkey, the first being the Population exchange between Greece and Turkey.[46] The Jewish emigration is unique in that they did not leave in a government-mandated exchange of populations, but rather of their own free will. Between 1948 and 1951, 34,547 Jews immigrated to Israel, nearly 40% of the Jewish population at the time.[45] Immigration was stunted for several months in November 1948, when Turkey suspended migration permits as a result of pressure from Arab countries. In 1949, the suspension was removed when Turkey officially recognized Israel, and emigration continued.

After 1951, emigration of Jews from Turkey to Israel slowed, and a new synagogue, the Neve Şalom was constructed in Istanbul in 1951. In the mid 1950s, 10% of those who had moved to Israel returned to Turkey. Generally, Turkish Jews in Israel have integrated well into society and are not distinguishable from other Israelis.[47] However, they maintain their Turkish culture and connection to Turkey, and are strong supporters of close relations between Israel and Turkey.[48]

Democratic Party Period

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.[49][50]


The present size of the Jewish Community was estimated at 23,000 according to the World Jewish Congress.[51] The vast majority, approximately 95%, live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in İzmir and other much smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale, Iskenderun and Kirklareli. Sephardi Jews make up approximately 96% of Turkey's Jewish population, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazi Jews. There is also a small community of Romaniote Jews.

The city of Antakya is home to ten Jewish families, many of whom are of Arab Jewish extraction, having originally come from Aleppo, Syria, 2,500 years ago. Figures were once higher but families have left for Istanbul, Israel and other countries.[52]

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.[53]

The Turkish-Jewish population is experiencing a population decline, and has dwindled to 17,000 in a few years from an original figure of 23,000. This is due to both large-scale emigration to Israel out of fear of antisemitism, but also because of natural population decline. Currently, the community's death rate is twice that of its birth rate. Between September and April 2011, for example, 129 Turkish Jews died and only 60 were born.[54]


Most antisemitism is manifested in books, newspapers, and magazines, with extremely antisemitic propaganda appearing in Islamist newspapers. According to researchers at Tel Aviv University, antisemitism in the media and books was creating a situation in which young, educated Turks formed negative opinions against Jews and Israel.[55] However, violence against Jews has also occurred. In 2003, an Istanbul dentist was murdered in his clinic by a man who admitted that he committed the crime out of antisemitic sentiment. In 2009, a number of Jewish students suffered verbal abuse and physical attacks, and a Jewish soldier in the Turkish Army was assaulted.

The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul has been attacked three times.[56] First on 6 September 1986, Arab terrorists gunned down 22 Jewish worshippers and wounded 6 during Shabbat services at Neve Shalom. This attacked was blamed on the Palestinian militant Abu Nidal.[57][58][59] 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",[57] with a senior Israeli government source saying: "the attack must have been at least coordinated with international terror organizations".[59]

Traditionally, aliyah from Turkey to Israel has been low since the 1950s. Despite the antisemitism and occasional violence, Jews felt generally safe in Turkey. In the 2000s, despite surging antisemitism, including antisemitic incidents, aliyah remained low. In 2008, only 112 Turkish Jews immigrated, and in 2009, that number only rose to 250.[60] However, in the aftermath of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, antisemitism in Turkey increased and became more open, and it was reported that the community was also subjected to economic pressure. A boycott of Jewish businesses, especially textile businesses, took place, and Israeli tourists who had frequented the businesses of Turkish Jewish merchants largely stopped visiting Turkey. As a result, the number of Turkish Jews emigrating to Israel increased.[2] By September 2010, the Jewish population of Turkey had dropped to 17,000, from a previous population of 23,000[51] Currently, the Jewish community is feeling increasingly threatened by extremists. In addition to safety concerns, some Turkish Jews also emigrated to Israel to find a Jewish spouse due to the increasing difficulty of finding one in the small Turkish Jewish community. In 2012, it was reported that the number of Jews expressing interest in moving to Israel rose by 100%, a large number of Jewish business owners were seeking to relocate their businesses to Israel, and that hundreds were moving every year.[61]

In October 2013, it was reported that a mass exodus of Turkish Jews was underway. Reportedly, Turkish Jewish families are immigrating to Israel at the rate of one family per week on average, and hundreds of young Turkish Jews are also relocating to the United States and Europe.[62]

Turkey and Israel

Turkey is among the first countries to formally recognize the State of Israel.[63] Turkey and Israel have closely cooperated militarily and economically. 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.[64] 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. In 2004, the Ülkümen-Sarfati Society was established by Jews and Turks in Germany. 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.[65][66]


The various migrations outside of Turkey has produced descendants of Turkish Jews in other parts of Europe, Israel and the Americas. Today, there are still various synagogues that maintain Jewish-Turkish traditions.

The Sephardic Synagogue Sephardic Bikur Holim in Seattle, Washington was formed by Jews from Turkey, and still uses Ladino in some portions of the Shabbat services. They created a Siddur called Zehut Yosef, written by Hazzan Isaac Azose, to preserve their unique traditions.

Turkish Jews

See also


External links

  • Chief Rabbinate of Turkey
  • History of the Jews in Turkey
  • Desperate Hours (Docementary film on Turkish diplomats who risked their lives to save Turkish Jews from the Shoah)
  • The Jewish Virtual Library Entry for Turkey
  • Jewish Turkey
  • Şalom – the main newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey
  • Sephardic Studies
  • New Sefer Torah for the Istanbul Community: In Memory of Jews Murdered in the 2003 Istanbul Synagogue Bombings – November 2006
  • The Sephardic Pizmonim Project
  • "Hayalet Evler: Türk-Yahudi Mimarisinden Örnekler", Beyaz Arif Akbas,Ekim 2012, YGY, isbn: 978-1480206502

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