Ottomans’ benefactions on the Jews

The experience of Jews in the Ottoman Empire is particularly significant because the region “provided a principal place of refuge for Jews

It was a moment of rapture for me when I found renowned historian and scholar, Prof Iftikhar Malik’s detailed comment on my Facebook page on my last column, From Basel to Balfour Declaration. Prof Malik imparted invaluable information that offers a new perspective to the modern history of the Jews. He collected this material for his forthcoming book that deals with the benefactions of the Ottomans on the Jews, which, of course, is a rather uncharted area of research.

Thus, I have decided to make his comments a part of this column. His comments will be in inverted commas and the narrative will be in the first person singular. In between I have made some interventions (read clarifications).

“During this period, especially after the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsions, the Ottoman city of Salonika (present-day Thessaloniki in Greece) became the Jewish majority city in the world, thanks to the Ottoman rescuing efforts for the Spanish Jews. Sarajevo, as I know through my own field work, has the largest Jewish cemetery in the world— often with Spanish names on the headstones. The Ottomans, through their millet system, held a totally different model of coexistence and professional space for the Jews in the Balkans.”

The experience of Jews in the Ottoman Empire is particularly significant because the region “provided a principal place of refuge for Jews driven out of Western Europe by massacres and persecution”. At the time of the Ottoman conquests, Anatolia had already been home to communities of Hellenistic and Byzantine Jews. The Ottoman Empire became a safe haven for Iberian Jews fleeing persecution. An influx of Jews into Asia Minor and the Ottoman Empire, occurred during the reign of Muhammad the Conqueror’s successor, Beyazid II (1481–1512), after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal.

This expulsion came about as a result of the Alhambra Decree in 1492, declared by the King and Queen of Spain: Ferdinand II and Isabelle I. This was part of a larger trend of anti-Semitism resurging throughout Europe that the Ottomans would take advantage of. The Spanish Jews (Sephardic 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, Ayd n, Tokat and Amasya), but also in the Mediterranean coastal regions (for example: Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, Egypt).

At the time of the battle of Yarmuk when the Levant passed under Muslim rule, thirty Jewish communities existed in Haifa, Sh’chem, Hebron, Ramleh, Gaza, Jerusalem and other cities. Safed became a spiritual centre for the Jews and the Shulchan Aruch was compiled there as well as many Kabbalistic texts. Under the millet system, non-Muslims were organised as autonomous communities on the basis of religion (viz Orthodox millet, Armenian millet, etc).

In the framework of the millet, Jews 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 comparable to those common in Western Christian countries. The first Jewish synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim, Tree of Life) in Bursa which passed to Ottoman authority in 1324. Since the Ottoman Empire was engaged in a military conflict with Christians at the time, Jews were trusted and regarded “as potential allies, diplomats, and spies”.

There were also Jews that possessed special skills in a wide range of fields that the Ottomans took advantage of. This includes David & Samuel ibn Nahmias, who established a printing press in 1493. Other Jewish specialists employed by the Empire included physicians and diplomats that emigrated from their homelands. Some of them were granted landed titles for their work, including Joseph Nasi who was named Duke of Naxos.

“Most Jews, as I discovered in my personal visit and research in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city (and historically the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, of Aristotle and possibly of Alexander), were eliminated by the Nazis during the World War II. Even Ben Gurion had been in the Ottoman troops.”

Importantly, as historical sources reveal, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi studied in the Istanbul University. Gottlieb Leitner, a Hungarian Jew, and the founding principal of Government College, Lahore, and the first registrar of the Punjab University, grew up in Constantinople; studied there and adopted a Muslim name.

“The idea behind sketching this overview is that perhaps, unlike the contemporary European empires, Jewish status amongst the Ottomans was better, even secure. According to English ambassadress Mary Montagu, as explained in my forthcoming book, Curating Lived Islam in the Muslim World: British Scholars, Sojourners and Sleuths (Routledge, 2021), almost each Ottoman Pasha had a Jewish administrator to run his financial and other enterprises. Lady Montagu (1689-1762) lived an engaging life in Constantinople and in her correspondence wrote extensively and quite positively about the Ottoman society, especially its women. Could talk about Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq but that is a different case study.”

While responding to Suniya Qureshi’s assertion that in the case of Jews, the persecuted became a persecutor, Prof Malik said, “Sadly, victimhood can often lead to all kinds of reactions but then there is a sense of triumphalism based on cultural superiority — a self-assumed white man’s burden on the part of the settlers. The conquest of Spain in 712, to a major extent, was a joint Muslim-Jewish venture. In fact, Muslims (Arabs, Berbers and the rest called Moors) were invited and assisted by Spain’s Jewish elite and in the early phase most of the regional governors after 712 in Iberia were Spanish Jews. No wonder, the celebrated Jewish Renaissance happened in Muslim Spain with Maimonides and several other luminaries wrote in Arabic and Hebrew. They both “finally” met the same fate—quite ironically. Fez is another fascinating place to study this historic Muslim-Jewish camaraderie. No wonder, Morocco protected Jews during World War II despite the pressures from Vichy France and Germany.” In the next column, I will conclude my debate on the evolution of Zionism and the establishment of Israel.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the

Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Ottomans’ benefactions on the Jews