The Jews of Ottoman Izmir: A Modern History

The Jews of Ottoman Izmir: A Modern History 
By Dina Danon, Stanford University Press, 254 pages

This work should be treasured. Not just because it is a well-wrought and at times elegant addition to the Judaic Studies, but because it enlightens those of us who are fascinated with Jewish life specifically, and late Ottoman history more generally, and fills a critical space in our understanding of the revolutionary changes occurring during this period.

Leaving the privileged Christian Levantine population around Izmir aside (for their card de’ identite´, which came from places as diverse as Malta and Great Britain, conferred on them legal rights guaranteed by sultan Sulieman through the legal act called the Capitulations), the Jews of Izmir were the smallest and least prosperous minority in the city. Where they had once been customs agents, tax farmers, and translators, they had fallen economically into trades like greengrocers, tailors, peddlers & and the poverty of beggars. Other minorities, such as Greeks from Asia Minor and Greece proper, and Armenians, had taken their place in the Izmiri economic pecking order.

But whereas these Christian minorities would soon suffer tragic fates, the Jewish Community of this city maintained a close relationship with the Ottoman/Turkish powers in a continuum from the early to late Ottoman Period, during World War One, and through defeat, eventual victory, and the formation of the Turkish Republic. And thus, though the great Izmir fire of 1924 destroyed most of the physical evidence of these minorities, the Jewish Community, miraculously spared the flames in their traditional neighborhoods, have an intact archive of community documents, Ladino newspapers, and Ottoman legal documents that until Ms. Danon’s book, have never before been explored in a scholarly manner.

 Indeed, one of the critical points Danon makes in her investigation is Izmir Jews had tolerant rulers. As long as they paid the Jizre owed by non-Islamic Abrahamic faiths, they were free to practice their religion as they saw fit. This form of relatively benign neglect meant that the various newspapers published during that time in Ladino could openly express their opinions, and contain vivid records of the internal disputes within the community. Though it was rare for the rancor to reach such a level as to require the aid of the Ottoman governor to untangle it, this happened on a rare occasion.

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The book really starts in 1839 with the birth of the Tanzimat Era and the Edict of Gülhane which declared that Muslims and non-Muslims were to be equal before the law. Whereas Danon provides many examples to show how conservative this community was until this time, she is quick to point out the Tazimat provided a “vocabulary” with which to espouse modernity and dissent from the existing order. The publication in 1847 of the Shavat Ani’im, a searing denunciation of poverty and the gabela tax imposed by the kehillah, the community council of elders, on kosher meat, is a powerful, first voice being raised in the name of reform. The physical circumstances of the impoverished congregation were being considered in a way that had never been dwelled on before.

Though the gabela supported the rabbinate, schools, and other communal needs, the tax was not only regressive as everyone paid the same amount when buying kosher meat—one late 19th-century figure listed some 55% of the community as poor—but was vulnerable to the exorbitant fees charged by the butchers and the corruption of the kehillah. Though a number of attempts were made to reform this method of taxation over roughly the next 50 years, it remained a vexing issue, and a portion of the community at one point voted with their feet, creating a butchery independent of the kehillah—buying meat from the Ashkenazi butchers, or even purchasing non-kosher meat off the street.

The issues came to a head, expressing what the author calls the “rupture” between the bourgeois aspirations of the community leadership and the impoverished reality of its people, when the venerable chief rabbi of the period, Abraham Palacci, passed away. His son Abraham Palacci was proclaimed chief rabbi by the popular acclaim of the streets as he spoke up for the poor. This led to a battle royale between what were called Palaccistas and the communal council, whose supporters were called Kolelistas. Members of the council disdainfully described the Palacci supporters as “a cobbler, a salesman of used clothes and a mender of sacks.” Class warfare was out in the open. Soon there were three groups of kosher butchers in town: Askenazi, Palaccistas, and Kolelistas. The tension in the community over the 18 months or so grew in size until Ali Bey the governor of Izmir intervened to appoint a compromise candidate, Joseph Bensenyor, as chief rabbi.

The story of kosher meat and taxation during this period is one of several ways of following the breach of modernity created as the community’s values were pushed and often pulled from a more religious, passive, and accepting nature of their circumstances to a leadership actively persuing the embourgeoisement of the Izmiri Jewish community, in part through the values of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, which supported schools and built the Rothchild Hospital.

In this regard I personally found the history of Purim fascinating, having had no idea how raucous it could be—resembling Mardi Gras for the days in which it occurred as much as anything else. The elite of the community found these days of misrule to be scandalous and inappropriate for a community they wanted to dress “appropriately” so they might attend formal dances and lectures to edify the mind; the elite had the ambitious goal of joining the same clubs the elite of the other minorities were members of. They wanted emotional enclosure made of western repression around the slouching poor, libertine, and lazy citizens of the community that would enable the powers that be, themselves, to break and tame them into standing up straight through proper work and behavior. 

There has been a small but potent recognition of the social/political/ethnic conflicts in Turkish society over the last two years. The mini-series Ethos that appeared a year ago was the first decent deep dive I’ve ever seen in the contemporary issues that divide Turkey.

This year, and directly relevant to the discussion of The Jews of Ottoman Izmir, comes Club, a mini-series directly concerned with minorities in Turkey. It is confrontational in the best possible way, broaching issues like the Varlık Vergesi, the punitive tax placed on minorities in World War Two, and the events of September 6th and 7th, 1955, where a rumor that Ataturk’s home in Salonika had been burned became the government’s excuse to sponsor the burning and looting of primarily Greek business up and down Istiklal Avenue, then the main thoroughfare of Istanbul and the center of its cosmopolitan identity.

The Club is a lament for the crimes committed against the minority populations during the Republican era and a reasonably successful attempt to humanize the Jewish community there that continues to hang on, now reduced to around 10,000 people. It is a belated but critically important recognition of what has been lost since the multi-religious Ottoman Empire collapsed into the religious/nationalistic state we call Turkey.

While the present government continues to make a mess of the economy through interventions that go against the general principles of a modern central bank, popular mini-series that confront contemporary issues from the past in a manner until recently considered unimaginable.

Dina Danon’s The Jews of Ottoman Izmir is yet another valuable contribution to the process of excavating the true history of Asia Minor. Providing real clarity about the economic, sociological, and cultural issues confronting Izmir’s Sephardic community in the late Ottoman period, this book is a valuable addition to current scholarship in Jewish and Ottoman studies.

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