Dönme’s Jewish origins posed no problems for Ottoman rulers
04 September 2011, Sunday / YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL
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Ottoman authorities never investigated the religious identity of the Dönme as they were accepted as Muslims and never questioned about it, said history professor Marc Baer, whose research concentrates on Islamic and Jewish history with particular interest in religious and cultural conversion.
“They were religious people who lived according to their own moral and religious principles. They neither promoted secularism nor Turkish nationalism,” said Baer answering our questions by email from Berlin, where he is currently writing about Turks in Weimar and Nazi-era Berlin. “They did not choose to leave Salonika and were among the last to be settled in Turkey during the population exchange. It was only in the Turkish Republic that their Jewish origins were considered a problem. Expelled from Greece because they were Muslim, the Dönme were greeted in Turkey as if they were Jews! … It was feared these ‘secret Jews' would destroy Turkish society from within,” Baer said.
Author of “The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks” (Stanford 2010), translated into Turkish this year and published by Doğan Kitap, Baer presents insightful and well-researched answers into the question of the Dönme, who have been the subject of endless conspiracy theories and myths.
I'd like to start with some of the questions that you tried to find answers to in your book. First, how correct is it to describe people who converted from being Jewish to Muslim simply as Jewish?
After the Jewish messianic claimant Shabbatai Tzevi converted to Islam in 1666, some of his Jewish followers also converted. They gathered in Ottoman Salonika, where over the course of the following two centuries they created a new form of ethno-religious belief, practice and identity, which made them distinct, while promoting a morality, ethics and spirituality that reflected their origins at the intersection of Jewish Kabbalah and Islamic Sufism. Their syncretistic religion, along with a rigorously maintained, distinct ethnic identity, meant that they were neither Jews nor orthodox Muslims. Yet many people in Turkey today wrongly consider them Jews. Jews did not consider them Jews. They did not consider themselves Jews. According to Islamic and secular Ottoman law, they were not Jews because their ancestors had converted to Islam. If Jews, the group in question, and the Ottoman administrative and religious authorities did not consider them Jews, why should we?
Why did they find or create a distinct category for themselves?
The descendants of the followers of Shabbatai Tzevi established what we can consider a new religion. Shabbatai Tzevi believed God revealed the truth to him. His followers sought to implement his principles, and in the process they developed a unique religious calendar, liturgy, prayers, prayer books and beliefs, which were shared by neither Muslims nor Jews. The rhythms of their religious life were based upon events in the life of Shabbatai Tzevi. These included his conception, birth and circumcision and his messianic calling -- its beginning, the first receiving of revelations, the coronation as messiah and subsequent conversion. The yearly cycle was also rooted in the holidays he instituted, such as making the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av a day of celebration of the messiah's birthday, rather than mourning the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. Whereas Jews mark the day by tearing their clothes, fasting and solemn prayers, members of this group dressed in their finest clothes, ate sweets and danced and sang. Their dietary customs further illustrate their divergence from Judaism and Islam. They purposely violated the laws of kashrut, cooking meat in butter and ate offal forbidden to Muslims.
What was their perception of themselves?
In Ottoman Salonika, like other followers of monotheistic religions, members of this group considered themselves to practice the true interpretation of religion. The 18 commandments of Shabbatai Tzevi admonished his followers not to have any relations with other Muslims and to marry only among themselves. In practice, they also avoided relations with Jews, never intermarrying. They actively maintained their separate identity, keeping detailed genealogies to ensure endogamous marriage and burying their dead in distinct cemeteries, walled off from others.
‘Some prefer to label the group Sabbateans today'
The topic of “dönme” is quite controversial in Turkey and the word has a negative connotation. Why did you choose to name this group of people “dönme” even though they call themselves something else -- “ma'aminim,” meaning “the believers” in Hebrew?
True, the people in question referred to themselves as the “believers.” But very few people recognize that this term refers to this group. Many other religious groups also call themselves “the believers.” In the 20th century in Turkey these people became known mainly as the Dönme, which can best be translated as “apostate” into English, so this is the term I chose to use. Some prefer to label the group the “Sabbateans” today, but this was not a term used often in the past. Moreover, “Sabbateans” actually refers to the Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries who did not convert to Islam but believed that Shabbatai Tzevi had been the messiah.
Apparently, the subjects of your topic were quite hesitant to speak with you about their past and identity or even if they were not hesitant at the beginning, they became so. First, would you explain the reasons for that?
From 1908 to the present Islamists in the Ottoman Empire and then Turkey have published conspiracy theories claiming the Dönme are really secret Jews plotting the destruction of society. In the past decade secular neo-nationalists have published similar conspiracy theories that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In such an environment, the Dönme are understandably reluctant to admit being members of this group, which has been given such a bad name.
And how did you overcome such barriers to collect your information? What other resources did you use?
I gained peoples' trust by proving my aims were different than the others who have written about this topic in Turkey. I did not attempt to reveal the identity of those people who were members of this group, nor did I promote conspiracy theories, nor do I write about the present. My book ends in the 1950s, for this is when the group dissolved as an organized religious group. I relied heavily on the interviews I conducted. But I also used written sources in Ottoman Turkish, Turkish and Greek. The Ottoman and Turkish sources include family genealogies, tombstone inscriptions at the main Dönme cemeteries, archival sources, literary journals, newspapers and memoirs published in Turkey. I investigated the design and layout of their buildings in Salonika. I also found useful Greek-language memoirs, newspapers and archival sources.
Did Salonika really consist of mostly Jewish people in the past, as claimed by some people in Turkey and abroad?
According to Ottoman archival sources, the majority of people in Salonika from the 16th century to the end of Ottoman rule were in fact Jewish.
Do you think there are any Dönme left in Turkey?
Approximately 50,000 Muslims were expelled from Salonika and sent to Turkey as part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923-1924. There were 15,000-20,000 Dönme among them. But by the 1940s the Dönme ceased being an organized religious group. Most intermarried and left their beliefs behind. Thus, it is no longer meaningful to speak about a Dönme population today in Turkey. The Dönme mainly exist only in the minds of anti-Semites.
‘Secular Turkey stripped the Dönme of their political and economic power'
You are quoted in an interview in a Turkish daily as saying that the number one enemies of the Dönme were secular Turks. You also say that they were forced to be Turkish nationalists. Would you elaborate on those ideas? And what about the Islamic fanatics who are usually against the Dönme and Jewish people?
It is true that Islamists have been their enemies for over a century. For over a hundred years individual Muslims have attacked them in print for being secret Jews plotting the empire's or the republic's destruction. Such attacks increased after 1950 and an Islamist attempted to murder journalist Ahmet Emin Yalman on these grounds. But such views were always marginal.
From 1666 to 1923 Ottoman authorities never investigated the religious identity of the Dönme. They were accepted as Muslims and never questioned about it. In Ottoman Salonika the Dönme were outspoken Ottomanists who tried to save the empire. They were religious people who lived according to their own moral and religious principles. They neither promoted secularism nor Turkish nationalism. This is evident from their literary journals, newspapers, school curriculums and the speeches made by prominent Dönme. They did not choose to leave Salonika and were among the last to be settled in Turkey during the population exchange. It was only in the Turkish Republic that their Jewish origins were considered a problem. Expelled from Greece because they were Muslim, the Dönme were greeted in Turkey as if they were Jews! As soon as they arrived they faced threatening articles in the Turkish press declaring that because Jewish blood ran in their veins, they had no right to live in Turkey. The Dönme were considered a danger to the Turkish nation. They were depicted as disloyal, sponging parasites. It was feared that these “secret Jews” would destroy Turkish society from within.
The Dönme only became Turkish nationalists and secularists after being forced to settle in Turkey. They lost control over the content of their schools' curriculums. They had to teach their children to be Turkish nationalists. They lost their connections to the rest of Europe. They lost their economic strength due to Turkey's restrictive economic policies. The two most prominent Dönme politicians from the last years of the Ottoman Empire, Doctor Nazım and Mehmet Cavid, were executed on the orders of Mustafa Kemal in 1926. The Wealth Tax implemented between 1942 and 1944 placed them in a category distinct from Muslims, which had never happened in the Ottoman Empire. Secular Turkey stripped them of their political and economic power while marking them as racially different.
‘Turkish Republic never led by a secret Jew'
What do you think about the claims that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk -- the founder of the republic -- and Turkey's current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are indeed of Jewish origin?
From the 1920s to the present, Islamists have declared that Mustafa Kemal is a Dönme, by which they mean he is a Jew. Leave aside for a moment the fact that the Dönme are not the same as Jews. According to this way of thinking, if Mustafa Kemal is a Jew, then the Turkish Republic that he established is illegitimate. This racist way of thinking is based on the principle that only an ethnic Turkish Muslim can have Turkey's interests at heart, while a Jew -- here the secret Jew Dönme -- can only serve foreign interests at odds with those of the Turks. The same racist principle is used by secular neo-nationalists who claim that Erdoğan is a Jew. What they are implying is that because he is a Jew, Erdoğan cannot be loyal to the Turkish nation nor defend its interests. In Turkey the one in power is considered a Jew by those who have lost power. The Turkish Republic has in fact never been led by a secret Jew.
‘Dönme reluctant to come to republican Turkey'
Conspiracy theories regarding the Dönme are widespread, as you also indicate in your book. And the books, Soner Yalçın's “Efendi” (Master) and “Efendi 2,” which claim that every important person's real identity in Turkey is indeed Jewish, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But you shed light on many such myths. Do you think your book might influence or change views about this group of people, who have been victims of prejudice?
I would like to think that my book will change the way people in Turkey think about the Dönme, but I am not too hopeful. After all, after being subjected to an endless stream of conspiracy theories, how many will be willing to accept that the Dönme were never crypto-Jews? How many will be convinced that the Dönme were not secular nationalist Turks, but religious, progressive cosmopolitans supporting Ottomanism in Ottoman Salonika? Or consider that the Dönme were reluctant to come to Turkey, where they faced discrimination and even state violence in the early republic so that they dissolved as an organized religious group by the 1950s? It is not easy to give up the sureties of conspiracy theories for the messy complications of reality.
‘Neither Crypto-Jews nor secular Turkish nationalists'
How have the Dönme been viewed by others?
After their initial conversion, they were accepted as Muslims for two centuries, and by the end of the 19th century they had risen to the top of Ottoman Salonikan society. Their greatest and most controversial contribution was in serving as a driving force behind the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the secret society of Young Turks that dethroned the last powerful sultan, Abdülhamid II, following the 1908 revolution.
Soon after the revolution, they faced a double-pronged attack. In İstanbul, they were castigated for their membership in what many perceived to be the atheist and immoral CUP and the decision to remove the sultan from power. For the first time their Islamic faith and practices were also doubted. They were not only targeted for what they believed, but for what they did, namely, engage in foreign economic networks and local politics.
After Salonika fell to Greece in 1912, there was no room in the city for pluralism. In what became Greek Salonika, some managed to hold on to their political and financial power, but after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey just over a decade later they were expelled from Greece, which could not tolerate “non-Greek” elements with substantial financial connections beyond the nation-state.
In their new homeland, Turkey, which had seen a decade of anti-Semitic rhetoric, they faced opponents who conflated being Turkish with being Muslim and only accepted those with “Turkish blood” to deny them a secure place in the secular Turkish nation-state.
In Turkey today, they are considered either enlightened secularists and Turkish nationalists who fought against the dark forces of superstition and religious obscurantism, or atheist Jews who had engaged in a secret Jewish plot to dissolve the Islamic empire and replace it with an anti-Muslim secular republic led by a crypto-Jew. As I demonstrate in my book, both views are false.
Marc David Baer
An associate professor in the history department at the University of California, Irvine, he is a scholar of Islamic and Jewish history with particular interests in religious and cultural conversion. Baer's first book, “Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe” (Oxford 2008, Turkish translation 2010) won the Albert Hourani Award from the Middle East Studies Association of North America for the best book in Middle East Studies. His second book, “The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks” (Stanford 2010, Turkish translation 2011), was a finalist, Sephardic Culture category, National Jewish Book Awards. Based on research conducted while holding a two-year position at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, Germany, Baer is currently writing about Turks in Weimar and Nazi-era Berlin.