In a recent war of words between foreign ministries, Turkish spokesman Hüseyin Müftüoglu lectured his Israeli counterpart on what Turkey saw as a history of benevolence towards the Jewish people: “[In] the Ottoman era, communities belonging to different religions and sects lived in peaceful coexistence and enjoyed freedom of worship for centuries. In this context, Jews would be expected to know best and appreciate the unique tolerance during the Ottoman era.”
For decades Turkey’s selective memory has distorted the Jewish experience under Ottoman and Turkish rule, choosing to rationalize its past and present behavior instead of changing it. Instead of acknowledging a long-standing and tragically extant brand of anti-jewish bigotry, Turkish society expects submissive victims of inferior political status and their descendants to look back in nostalgia, yearning for days of supposed tolerance and peace.
Those on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination, however, naturally find it difficult to limit their memory to the good times. For centuries Jews living in the Ottoman Empire were inferior subjects, known as ahl ul-dhimmah. Life as a dhimmi in the Ottoman Empire did not generally differ from the overall non-Muslim experience in the region. It meant punitive taxation and confinement to ghettos. It meant the inadmissibility of one’s testimony when legally wronged by a Muslim, rendering one defenseless in a court of law. It meant paying the jizya – the blood ransom all non-Muslims were required to pay in lieu of death, conversion or exile. It meant vulnerability to extortion, forced conversions, severe religious restrictions, and other various humiliations. It meant higher levels of misery and poverty. Many infamous manifestations of antisemitism attributed to Europe have longstanding origins in the east, such as the requirement that Jews wear distinctive badges and articles of clothing.
Dispersed between these constant measures were periodic synagogue destructions, pogroms and massacres. Jews experienced surgun – forced deportations of entire communities by Ottoman imperial authorities. Dozens of Jewish communities were uprooted, including the Romaniots (to which I owe my heritage), many of whom were exiled to Istanbul in the fifteenth century. These periodic bursts were not limited to the empire’s beginnings. Jewish communities remained open to attack through the twentieth century, and their suffering outlived the empire itself. Thousands of Jews fled Kriklareli in 1934 after mass looting of Jewish property and homes. A 1955 pogrom in Istanbul left hundreds of Jewish stores destroyed. Perhaps most Turks, under illusions of generous treatment towards Jews for centuries, were surprised when 40% of Turkey’s Jewish population fled the country within two years of Israel’s declaration of independence. Ask Turkish Jews why this happened, and they’ll tell you why.
Those who have been designated institutionally inferior – those who were and remain most vulnerable in the face of oppression – have provided ample testimony on their sufferings. Jews from across the Middle East have expressed pain resulting from uniquely Muslim manifestations of antisemitism for centuries – from Spain to Yemen, Morocco to Libya to Syria and everywhere in-between. These testimonies most certainly include Jews lamenting their circumstances under Ottoman rule as well as its last existing remnant, the republic of Turkey.
Samuel b. Ishaq Uceda, a sixteenth century Kabbalist from Safed, lamented his community’s circumstances: “There is no town in the [Ottoman] empire in which the Jews are subjected to such heavy taxes and dues as in the Land of Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem… The nations humiliate us to such an extent that we are not allowed to walk in the streets. The Jew is obliged to step aside in order to let the Gentile pass first.” Travelers of the Ottoman empire, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, provided eye-witness accounts of antisemitism. Myths of the Ottoman Empire’s benevolence towards the Jewish people hold no water in the face of evidence.
Turkish denial of its own legacy of bigotry against Jews reflects a larger problem in the greater Muslim world. The consensus is usually that Jews should be grateful for whatever tolerance they did experience as “protected” members of society, especially when considered next to the often brutal treatment they felt at the hands of simultaneous Christian societies. Al-Maghili (d. 1504), a well-known North African Islamic theologian, wrote that “We [Muslims] do them a favor… by accepting the jizya [tax].” Cairo University professor of medieval history Said Abdel Fattah Ashour gave an address at the Fourth Conference of the Academy of Islamic Research in 1968. Instead of considering the Jews’ dissatisfaction with inferiority as a natural human response, he lambasted the Jews for “return[ing] sincerity with treachery and kindness with ingratitude.”
We see a similar sentiment in a February 2005 edition of Milli Gazete, the daily newspaper of Turkey’s National Salvation Party: “Characteristic of their savage, treacherous [nature], in return they [the Jews]… ate away at the Ottoman [Empire].” Instead of addressing the problem, many leaders have presented a reality where no such problem exists. In his 1991 address to the UN General Assembly, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara explained that “for hundreds of years Jews have lived amidst Muslim Arabs without suffering. On the contrary they have been greatly respected.”
The Muslim world did not merely adopt antisemitism from Christian Europe, nor has it been willing, upon self-reflection, to take responsibility for over a millennium’s worth of crimes against Jews. It has its own brand – present in core religious texts, traditions and unanimously agreed-upon interpretations of those traditions. There is an ugly history whose testimonies and expressions find no exposure in museums or academic departments. It is swept under the rug, with the additional insistence that Jews blame themselves for usurping such an ideal status quo.
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel “confer[s] upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.” No less so, Zionism and Israel’s rebirth insist on Jewish individuals themselves being treated as independent equals instead of downtrodden creatures. Sadly, the dissolution of Jews’ inferiority and their subsequent political enfranchisement remain unpopular realities for many around the world, especially here in the Middle East, where regimes were so accustomed to their constant submission. Just as unfortunate is the extent of self-delusion and constant denial amongst those who fail to recognize their societies’ respective legacies of anti-Jewish bigotry. With this in mind, we should be especially thankful that Jewish self-empowerment and self-determination are alive and well in 2017.