Jews in the Ottoman Empire
By EYAL GINIO
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
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
“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.