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Kemalist Turkey: Good for the Jews?

HDN | 9/2/2011 12:00:00 AM |

I read the Israeli press occasionally and especially when there is some opinion column about Turkey.

I read the Israeli press occasionally and especially when there is some opinion column about Turkey. What is striking in most of those pieces is nostalgia for the military-dominated, fiercely secular “Atatürk Republic,” and concern about the “neo-Ottomanism” of today. It sounds as if many Israelis are great fans of Kemalism, and great opponents of Ottomanism, which not just preceded the former, but seems to be superseding it as well.

But shouldn’t Jews know better? Isn’t their very history a testimony to the virtues of Ottoman pluralism and the troubles of Kemalist monism?

[HH] Peace and freedom

The Ottoman story with Jews began in the mid-15th century, when the Sephardim of Spain were exiled from their homeland because of Catholic intolerance. Many of them found safe havens in Muslim lands, and especially the Ottoman Empire, in which, according to Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati of Edirne, every Jew “lived in peace and freedom.”

The Ottoman tolerance for Jews was an outcome of the Islamic doctrine on “protected people” (dhimmis). Jews and Christians, accordingly, were given religious freedom, although still deemed second class when compared to Muslims. But the Ottoman state, in the mid-19th century, improved that status as well, and made its Jews and Christians equal citizens. “All Ottomans are equal before the law,” declared the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, “they have the same rights . . . without prejudice to religion.” Hence many Jews and Christians appeared in the late Ottoman bureaucracy and parliament – something that would be unthinkable in Republican Turkey.

Thanks to this acceptance they found under the Ottomans, Ottoman Jews always remained loyal to the empire. Prayers were raised in Istanbul synagogues for the victory of the Ottoman armies against Balkan nationalists. “In Fear of Greeks, Jews Plead for Aid,” read a telling 1913 New York Times headline. The Greek nationalists, the story reported, were “punishing [the Jews] for being friendly with the Turks.”

This Turkish-Jewish friendship was tainted later not because that Turks went too Islamic, but they went too nationalist. This nationalism, which hurt the Ottoman Christians as well, was partly a reaction to the real events that happened during the fall of the empire. But it was also an ideological construct, introduced by none other than the Kemalist single party regime (1925-50), which has marked the character of the Turkish Republic until recently.

Two dark episodes from that dictatorial era are worth remembering. The first one is the Thrace Pogroms of 1934, in which some 15,000 Jews in northwestern Turkey were displaced following the hate propaganda of not just Hitler-admiring demagogues but also the Kemalist party organization that helped them.

The second episode, the infamous Wealth Tax of 1942, was even worse, for it clearly carried out an official plunder of “non-Turkish” citizens. Especially Jews and “Dönmes” (the crypto-Jewish sect that followed the doctrine of the 17th century messiah-hopeful Sabbatai Zevi) were targeted. Many among them who were unable to pay the unbelievably high “special tax” were sent to labor camps, in which some of them died.

[HH] Restoring pluralism

That’s why Marc David Baer, a historian at the University of California, believes that the Ottoman Empire was more hospitable to Jews than the Turkish Republic. In a recent interview he gave to Turkish daily Radikal, Baer specifically recalls that “the greatest enemies of the Dönmes were secular Republican Turks.”

All this history should explain to you why the non-Muslim properties that were usurped in 1936 by the Kemalist regime are now being returned to their rightful owners – by the government of the Ottoman-minded Justice and Development Party. (Hopefully, the Halki Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, too, will be free soon, as it was under Ottoman rule.)

All this history should also remind Israelis that the black-and-white picture their media often presents with regards to Islam and secularism in Turkey is wrong. They just need to check their own past to get some nuance.

PS: I wrote this piece before the announcement of Turkey’s strong measures against Israel, but that delayed response to the killings on the Mavi Marmara does not change much. The Turkey of the new century is not anti-Semitic, but it is proud and confident, and killing its citizens has serious consequences.

* For all of Mustafa Akyol’s works, including his recent book on Islamic liberalism, visit his blog, TheWhitePath.com

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