Ottoman Empire: A Safe Haven for Jewish Refugees

The Ottoman Empire was a safe haven for the Jewish people, who experienced a golden age there similar to the Golden Age of Spain. During this period of history, Turkish-Jewish relations were phenomenal. It was a time of peace, prosperity, and serenity for Ottoman Jews.
Sultan Bayezid II sent Kemal Reis to save the Sephardic Jews of Spain from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and granted them permission to settle in the Ottoman Empire. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Despite the inflammatory language frequently evoked by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in regards to the Jewish people, it is important to remember that there was a time in Jewish history when the Turkish and Jewish people were good friends.   The Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of the Turkish Republic, was very much a pro-Jewish regime.

When the Ottoman Turks liberated Bursa in 1324 from the oppressive yoke of the Byzantine Empire, they discovered a heavily oppressed Jewish community. The Jews of Bursa treated the Ottoman Turks as their saviors. Sultan Orhan gave the Jews who previously couldn’t build synagogues permission to build the Etz Ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) Synagogue. Indeed, the liberation of the Jews of Bursa in 1324 from the tyranny of the Byzantines represented the beginning of the Turkish-Jewish friendship.

Starting in the early 14th century, Jews fleeing oppression began to settle in the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Turkey became the home to Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France in 1394, and from Sicily in the early 15th century. In the 1420’s, Jews living under Venetian controlled Salonika also migrated to the Ottoman Empire. In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II started to actively encourage Jews to settle in Ottoman lands. He issued a proclamation to all Jews stating, “Who among you of all my people that is with me, may his G-d he with him, let him ascend to Istanbul, the site of my imperial throne. Let him dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and beneath his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle. Let him dwell in the land, trade in it, and take possession of it.”

This statement was issued at a time when Jews across Europe were in great distress due to the persecutions they endured and were greatly in need of a safe haven. Rabbi Yitzhak Safarti sent out a letter to the Jewish communities of Europe soon after the Byzantine Empire collapsed completely in 1453, “inviting his co-religionists to leave the torments that they were enduring in Christendom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey.” Not too long after this letter was sent, in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain expelled the Jews from their country, which along with the Spanish Inquisition that followed it was arguably one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history prior to the Holocaust.

That same year, Sultan Bayazid II issued a proclamation ordering his officials to accept the Sephardic Jews into his country. Around 250,000 Jews came to settle in Ottoman lands, with most heading towards Istanbul and Salonika, which absorbed a total of 100,000 Jews. Immanual Aboab claimed that Bayazid II asserted that “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey.”

Interestingly, it was the Sephardic Jews who introduced the printing press into the Ottoman Empire. Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were at the center of the Golden Age of Spain recreated a new golden age within Ottoman lands. Rabbi Joseph Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the standard code of Jewish law in Safed, Israel, under Ottoman Turkish rule. The Lekhah Dodi prayer which Jews to date traditionally sing in the Friday evening synagogue services around the world, was composed in medieval Israel by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz under Ottoman Turkish rule. Joseph Nasi was appointed Duke of Naxos, while Aluaro Mandes was named Duke of Mytylene and Salamon ben Nathan Eskenazi arranged the first diplomatic ties between the Ottoman Turks and the British Empire.

Wealthy Sephardic Jews such as Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi financed the Ottoman Turkish sultan. In return for the contributions of Dana Gracia Mendes Nasi to the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Sultan offered the Jewish people the city of Tiberius for an independent city state under Ottoman tutelage. Despite local Arab and French opposition, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent continued to support the project.

According to Andree Aelion Brooks’ The Woman Who Defied Kings: the Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi, “In Tiberius, the newcomers were soon taking over abandoned structures, renovating deserted houses, restoring gaping roofs, clearing the rubble and quarreling in typical Jewish fashion. By 1564 the revival was sufficiently far along that yet another traveler recalled that the scent from the date palm, orange and pine trees was so overpowering that it was almost suffocating. Yet another talked effusively of a wilderness turned into a Garden of Eden. Almost all of the residents, noted one of these travelers, were former conversos from Spain and Portugal!”

As the historian Stanford Shaw wrote in Jews, Turks, and Ottomans: Fifteenth through Twentieth Century, “The Ottoman Empire had for centuries provided a safe haven for Jewish refugees from Europe. The large-scale migrations of Jews from Spain, Portugal, and other European countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are well known and have been discussed in detail. However, later Jewish population movements to the Ottoman Empire are less well known. Still, over the years, many European Jews individually or in small groups continued to settle in Ottoman dominions for political, economic, or religious reasons. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the influx of Jewish refugees into the shrinking Ottoman lands rose again. This time, the migration was mainly caused by persecution in the newly independent Balkan states.”

Mark Mazower, writing in Salonica: City of Ghosts, that the Jews of Salonikka did not want the Ottoman Turks to leave the city and were opposed to Greek rule. “Few Jews believed they would be better off in one of the Christian successor states than they were in an empire where their loyalty made them trusted and none can have thought that Salonica in particular----the city they dominated----would develop to their benefit if it became part of Greece or Bulgaria. The rise of Balkan nationalism thus increased the intensity of the Jews identification with the Ottoman state,” he wrote.

Even when blood libels did arise within the Ottoman Empire, such as the infamous Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, it was the local Christians rather than the Ottoman Turks who instigated them. Following the Damascus Blood Libel, Sultan Abdelmecid issued an edict to forbid blood libels within the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Abdelmecid asserted, “For the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth.”

Given this history, it is hard not to have nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. It represented a time period in history when Jews and Muslims worked and thrived together for the greater good. It was a time of peace, tranquility, and serenity regarding Jewish-Turkish relations. Many modern Turks also have nostalgia for this period in history. Let’s hope that one day Turkish-Jewish relations can return to this.

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