Israel Hanukoglu, Ph.D.
College of Judea and Samaria
(ADDENDUM, 4-07: The article will be followed by
the "oral history" of a former Turkish Jew living in Israel,
regarding the fate of Turks and Jews at the hands of the Armenians.)
The current dispersion of Jews dates back to 70 g.E. when the Roman army invaded Jerusalem
and expelled the Jews from Judea and Samaria. Some of these Jews reached Spain and
established thriving communities there. In the 15th century the Jews in Spain faced strong
pressures to convert to Christianity and many yielded to this pressure and became
In 1492 the king of Spain issued an edict to expel all Jews from Spain who did not convert
to Christianity. When the news of this reached the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan (Emperor)
Beyazit II issued a decree to welcome the Jews expelled from Spain. A significant portion
of those expelled thus came to the Ottoman Empire and settled mostly in European parts of
the Empire. The Turkish Jews are also identified as Sephardic Jews. This derives from the
word Sepharad which in Hebrew means Spain.
Since 1492, through five centuries, the Ottoman sultans and the modem day Turkish
Republic, welcomed the Jews and offered them a safe haven from persecution in the European
countries. The Ottoman Empire at its zenith became one the largest empires in World
History covering most of Mediterranean basin region extending from North Africa to Eastern
Europe. It has been suggested that one of the characteristics that extended the domination
of the Ottoman Empire was its allowance of religious freedom for the different
nationalities and minorities under its rule. While many European nations expelled,
persecuted or tried to convert the Jews under their dominion, the Turkish people of the
Ottoman Empire, remained as an outstanding example of tolerance of different nationalities
with different religions.
The presentation above sometimes sounds unusual to strangers who may have heard Turkey
only in the context of conquests of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed Turkish people have been
throughout history a nation with a strong army and strong national feelings. Yet, the
Turkish history is also studded with stories of humanity and tolerance. In war time they
are a strong nation to avoid confrontation with, but they also know to become friends
beyond the war times and zones. This, in my personal opinion, is a consistent pattern of
Turkish behavior in all of their extensive history through centuries.
The history of the Ottoman Jews is rich with mutual
complementary cultural influences. The Jews coming from Spain established the first
printing presses that had just emerged as a most important tool of the modem
culture. Many Jewish doctors served in the courts of Ottoman Sultans. Jews engaged
in commerce enhanced trade between countries of the region for the benefit of all.
The religious freedom allowed the flourishing of famous rabbis that produced
outstanding works of comments on the Old Testament.
Until World War I the Land of Israel also known as Palestine, remained under the
rule of the Ottoman Empire. During this period the Jewish population living in this
region similarly enjoyed religious freedom maintaining their synagogues and daily
lives as loyal subjects of the greater Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the
British Empire gained control of Transjordan and Palestine which ended in 1948 with
the declaration of independence of the State of Israel.
In pre World War II times Turkey opened its doors to Jews from Europe and many
German Jewish scientists came to Turkey escaping the Nazi regime. As a biochemist
myself, by first hand account I have heard stories of Turkish scientists honoring
their German Jewish teachers who escaped to Turkey and taught in universities in
Istanbul. The Sephardic communities in Turkey and Bulgaria were the only communities
that did not suffer the Nazi Holocaust, thanks to the wisdom of the leaders of these
countries during World War II. In contrast, nearly the entire Sephardic Jewish
community pf Greece was killed during World War II by the Nazi death machine. The
Turkish ambassador to the Greek Island Rhodes, Mr. Selahattin Ulkumen, was awarded
the unique medal of “The Righteous Among the Nations” for saving Jews of this
island risking his own life.
After World War II, while the British rule tried to prevent the
movement of the Jewish refugees into Israel, the modern day Turkish republic allowed its
Jewish citizens freely to emigrate to Israel. The current population of Turkish-Jews in
Israel is estimated as about 100,000, though a precise figure is difficult to obtain. This
represents a relatively small community in the general population of about 6 million in
Israel. The major wave of emigration from Turkey to Israel took place between 1940-1950.
This migration from Turkey was not a result of a desire to escape from Turkey but rather
emanated from the national desire to return to the homeland of our forefathers as each day
three times a day we prayed to return to Jerusalem.
My own personal appreciation of Turkish attitude to Jews was shaped slowly. Like any
minority in any country, sometimes isolated events of differential treatment are raised.
Yet, as I became more knowledgeable and could compare cultures and countries around the
globe with the passing of age and experience, we became much more appreciative of the
benevolence of the Turkish people who harbored the Jewish people through incredibly
barbaric times in the annals of European history. In retrospect of what we know of
European history today, we owe Turkish people a great debt of gratitude for saving the
lives of thousands of Jews. As Turkish-Jews we have a strong national identity as the
descendants of the Biblical Israelites, yet to this day we also feel ourselves as Turkish
and identify with the Turkish People.
Today Turkey is one of the most favorite countries for Israeli tourists, thanks to its
natural beauty and famous hospitality of its people. The number of Israeli tourists
visiting Turkey each year is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. This tourist travel
has extended the ties of friendship between Israel and Turkey to the general population,
outside of the small community of Turkish Jews. Concomitantly, the trade between Turkey
and Israel has greatly expanded in all spheres of economic activity from food commodities
to hi-tech products. There are also many joint scientific and commercial activities
between the two countries.
Both Turkey and Israel are unique in the Middle-East as the only countries with democratic
regimes and democratic culture with multi-party systems. As it is well known, Middle-East
is highly volatile with intra-Arab (Iran-Iraq war, Iraq-Kuwait Gulf War, Lebanese civil
war, etc.) and Arab-Israeli conflicts. I hope that continuing the centuries old tradition
of strong ties between Jews in Israel and Turkey may help promote greater stability in
this region. The close ties of friendship and tolerance between the Turkish and Jewish
People throughout the centuries is proof that Moslems and Jews can live together with
mutual respect, and should serve as an example for our Arab neighboring countries with
whom we yearn for a peaceful coexistence.
From a complementary perspective, the Arabs want to project the Israeli-Arab conflict as a
religious conflict. We as Turkish Jews know that this is an improper use of religion in
the fight of Arabs against Israel. In all the generations of Jewish life in Turkey we
never saw a single Moslem Turk trying to kill a Jew in the name of Allah, whereas this is
a common occurrence here. As the recent events show this conflict is not going to end
May 1, 2001, The Turkish Times
A slightly longer version of the above may be read here.
Regarding Armenians, from an Israeli
“… I would like to relate, especially to the Armenian friends, this incident
that I heard. I am a Jew, of Istanbul origin, and have lived in Israel for the last
35 years. My wife’s father is a Caucasus-Jew who died before I could get to know
him. As far as I can remember, they had escaped from the Caucasus when he was a
young boy and resettled in Adana (an agricultural and trade hub, as well as a port
city in the South of Turkey). About 10 years ago, at a family wedding, I met an old
gentleman who knew about my deceased father-in-law and mentioned some incidents
about his childhood, his family, and the turmoil of those days, that were quite
interesting to us. According to what he told me, During WWI, the Russians invaded
the Caucasus, and with the help of local Armenians, they have chased Turks and Jews,
killed whoever they could catch, and then pillaged and plundered Turkish and Jewish
villages. He was about 10 years old and my father-in-law was only 3 and he said
there is no way he could forget that exodus, that fleeing. Turks and Jews brought
with them to Anatolia whatever they could pack with them. Jewish families first went
to Van (a city by the lake Van in Eastern Anatolia). While some Jewish families
settled there, others continued their travel to settle in Adana and other places,
and still others went as far as Palestine.
What I am trying to my Armenian friends is this: everything has a prior history. If
the Armenian attack and kill Turks, Turks, in their quest to avenge those Armenian
atrocities, may have caused massacres in their counter attacks and chases. Aren’t
these ‘eye for an eye’ feuds conventional and normal under the conditions of
those days? In contrast, what the Germans did to 6 million Jews can not be explained
by such feuds, chases, or civil wars; there was absolutely no reason for the
Holocaust. I never quite understood how the Armenians want to be included in the
same category as the Jews of Holocaust. Let’s leave those old issues and the old
world behind. Let’s look at the present. Let’s talk about what we can do to
create a beautiful, happy new world… We should learn from those old stories and
history; we should talk about the truth and agree on it; and let’s together build
a more secure world to hand over to our children…Nobody benefits from feuds,
hatred, and animosity; one can only gain tears that way; let’s worry about
tomorrow, brothers, tomorrow! “
Momo Asafrana, Tel Aviv, written in a private chat group, December 3, 2004, as reported in Ergun Kirlikovali's "Israeli and Jewish Sources
that Refute the AAG (Alleged Armenian Genocide)." When Kirlikovali asked Mr.
Asafrana for permission to use his words, the response was:
"…I see no problem in your quoting my story in your book.
Those who create all this fuss around the Armenian issue do not want to understand
one thing: instead of teaching love and brotherhood to their kids, they are teaching
grudge and hatred (like the Palestinians do). What do they want to achieve with this
attitude? Enough of this animosity already…The age old Armenian issue no longer
interests me. My children’s future is more important…”
See also: Jews of Turkey