Monday, August 11, 2008

Jews, Ottomans and Turks

I just reread Philip Mansel's great study Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924, and there's an interesting point that he makes in there about Jews in the Ottoman Empire: "In Constantinople, the words pogrom, ghetto, inquisition had no meaning." The official Ottoman tolerance of "people of the book"- honestly more economic than philosophically-based- answers a question from Western European History, namely "Where did the Jews go to flee the Inquisition?" Many of them fled to Constantinople.

This is interesting for us moderns who are used to hearing about the "eternal enmity" between Jews and Muslims. Mansel notes that, while there were in fact tensions between Christians and Jews in the Empire, "The Muslim population of the city... was tolerant or indifferent towards Jews." Indeed, when Jews were expelled from places like Castille and Aragon, the Ottomans threw open their doors to them. Mansel notes a (perhaps apocryphal) comment from Bayezid II that "King Ferdinand could not be as clever as reputed, if he expelled so many industrious subjects to enrich a rival monarch." The port of Salonica, in particular, became a famed home for refugee Jews, and was often called the 'New Jerusalem.' After 1502, the Sultans also took in Arabs from Granada, and it's worth remembering (as it's often forgotten now) that the Ottomans and Arabs were quite often at odds.

In the nineteenth-century, its cosmopolitanism became a problem for the inhabitants of the empire. Following Mazzini's creed, "Every nation a state," one by one various nations took on the Ottomans, especially the Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians, Arabs and Turks. However, largely due to the time and place of Jewish national aspirations, the Jews didn't really run up against the Ottoman will in the same way as, for example, the Armenians did. We don't hear about the same pogroms at this time either, while there are bloody clashes between the authorities and other groups in the empire.

On the other hand, Mansel makes the interesting note that Jewish poverty increased greatly in Constantinople after Mahmud II abolished the Janissaries in 1826. Mansel: "Closely linked to the Janissaries, whose finances they alone had been said to understand, the Jews suffered from the 'Blessed Event'." So, while they weren't being targeted by the authorities and local mobs, as in places like Russia, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were becoming poorer.

Their safety in Constantinople didn't really decline as the Turkish nation replaced the Ottoman dynasty. The Turks aimed at forming a modern and enlightened state, although the reality often fell short of the goal. We should remember that the Armenian genocide, for example, was the work of the crumbling Ottoman state, and not the Kemalists who replaced them by 1924. Modern Turkey was to be guided by Islam, but was intended to be secular in all public functions, a goal that is still often in doubt.

It's interesting to note (and I know a scholar who notes this frequently) that many of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were taken in by Turkey and other ex-Ottoman territories, such as Greek Salonica. In the latter case, this was no protection as Salonica was occupied by the Nazis and its Jews shipped out to the death camps. Even today, Salonica (also known as Thessalonki) has not returned to its former status as a city in which at least a third of the population was Jewish.

Again, it's worth considering much of this when people talk about the eternal anti-Semitism of the Islamic Mind. In my research, it seems as if there is quite a bit of anti-Semitism in Arab countries, beginning largely in the late 1800s and the twentieth-century. However, there is not the same history in the Ottoman Empire, which was the largest Muslim empire in history. So it's worth making distinctions within the dar al-Islam because different Muslim territories tend to differ greatly.

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