Jews in the Ottoman Empire


The following piece is adapted from New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age.

The Ottoman Empire was home to many large and vibrant Jewish communities. This empire, founded in the 14th century, was a Muslim state committed to Islamic law and ruled by a sultan who perceived himself as the caliph (the religious leader) of the entire Muslim world. For hundreds of years Jews lived here protected by their dhimmi (protected) status.

The 18th century signalled the beginning of Ottoman military decline, the Empire's inability to compete with European powers, and the adoption of European models of modernization and secularization. These developments brought rapid changes to the Jewish community’s culture and life. The Ottoman elite's growing openness to the West led to the absorption of European political and cultural products, and to their incorporation into the existing cultures in Istanbul and other major cities. This caused the development of a lively press, theater, sports clubs, cultural societies, translations of European literature, and the adoption of European urban architecture, clothing styles, table manners, and tastes. All of this with a distinctly Ottoman flavor. One example of this cultural adaptation was the accepted attire of the Ottoman gentleman, which comprised of a European suit and tie together with a tarbush as head covering.

One of the most important changes was the new ideology, known as Ottomanism, which offered equal citizenship to all individuals in the Ottoman state. This obviously affected the Jewish minority, which numbered 150,000 in the 19th century and over 250,000 in the 20th century. Until this period of reform, which granted equal citizenship in the 19th century, Jews held dhimmi status, meaning that they were a protected group but were required to pay a yearly poll tax, and accept limitations and distinctive markings that emphasize the dhimmi's inferiority to Muslims.

The Jewish communities were mostly urban, generally lived in their own overcrowded neighborhoods, and, until the period of reform, were self-governing. With citizenship reforms the Ottoman government gained greater control over the affairs of all non-Muslims, including the Jews. One reform created a religious-administrative framework for each religious community. The Ottoman authorities appointed a leader for each community (the Hakham Bashi in the case of the Jews). Every non-Muslim community was also required to adopt internal constitutions that would regulate their conduct, and to appoint a mixed council of religious functionaries and "secularists" to administer the community's everyday affairs. The authorities hoped that this committee would serve as a counterweight to the religious establishment.

The standing of both the community and of individual Jews was greatly influenced by these changes. With the legal reforms, Jews were now subject to the commercial and criminal laws that applied to the entire population. And, for the first time, the state also intervened in the education of Jews. Turkish, the official language since the 1876 constitution, was introduced to all the non-Muslim schools. In response, in 1900, Istanbul Jews founded the "Society for the Dissemination of the Ottoman Language," and a year later, with the approval of the Education Ministry, a Turkish-Ottoman-language textbook was published for Jewish students. Despite these integrated efforts, in most Jewish schools Turkish remained only the third language (after French and Hebrew). Even after the "Young Turk" revolution, the efforts to inculcate Turkish yielded very meagre results.

With secularization and modernization reforms, the state desired to increase governmental supervision and control of the non-Muslims, and to demonstrate, both domestically and to the foreign powers, its determination to maintain equality of all its citizens before the law. Equality for non-Muslims had been proclaimed in 1856, and the tax for non-Muslims was abolished. The practice of the Ottoman bureaucracy to add insulting expressions to the names of non-Muslims was similarly done away with—the administration refrained from using the term "Jew," which was deemed pejorative, and replaced it with the new term "Musavi" (of the Mosaic religion). In 1909, many Jews were even drafted into the Ottoman army for the first time.

The most striking cultural change for Ottoman Jewry was the absorption of French culture, especially French language, into everyday life. Interestingly, and in the colonial spirit, it was mainly Jews from Western Europe who enthusiastically took upon themselves the mission of "improving" the situation of the Ottoman Jews. The school system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle was chiefly responsible for this. Established in France in 1860, the Alliance aimed at raising the standing of the “Eastern” Jews by means of secular French culture. They assumed that French “progressive” Jewish education would enable Ottoman Jews to modernize and become contributing citizens. 

The intimate knowledge of French language and culture brought about many changes for the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman state. Rather than totally abandon their traditional Jewish language, Ladino, the Ottoman Jews transformed their language and used it as a vehicle of secularization. The most marked change was in the Ladino press, which was the outstanding secular cultural product of the period. La Buena Esperansa, the first newspaper in Ladino, was published in Izmir in 1846. Other periodicals appeared in Istanbul, Salonica, Edirne, and other major urban centers. Most of them highlighted education and Westernization as tools to bring advancement to Ottoman Jewry. The writers aspired to disprove superstitions and spread modern ideas in diverse fields, such as education, science, nutrition, sports, hygiene, and the women’s role in society.

The secularization and modernization of the Ottoman Empire and its Jewish community continued until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, after which, the Jews of the region became citizens of the various new nation-states. By the mid-20th century, many immigrated to Israel and elsewhere. However, Istanbul is still home to a sizeable and prosperous Jewish community, which enjoys the legacy of the secularization and modernization of the region. The processes of secularization in the Ottoman Empire still effect Jewish life in the region today; Turkish Jews are still legally represented by the Hakham Bashi, and a committee of secular and religious leadership still looks after the secular affairs of the community. Though secularization was introduced by European powers, and influenced by French Jews, it was not imposed on Ottoman Jewry. Rather, local Ottoman Jews embraced it because of the high esteem in which they held Western civilization. Former Ottoman Jews also maintained aspects of their local customs, which, can be seen in the distinctly Sephardic and Mizrahi modern Jewish culture of the community today.

“Jews in the Ottoman Empire” was adapted from Eyal Ginio’s entry in New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age—An Encyclopedic View; in 5 volumes; Editor in Chief: Yirmiyahu Yovel; Initiator, director, and, editor: Yair Tzaban; General Editor: David Shaham. Keter Publishing House, Israel—2007. Prepared by Lamda—Association for Modern Jewish Culture with the participation of the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute; Financed mainly by The Posen Foundation and supported also by The Keshet Foundation, The Ministry for Science Culture & Sport, The Rabinovitch Foundation Tel Aviv, The National Lottery. The English-language version of New Jewish Time is underway; a Russian version is planned.