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Jewish Journal

Jews’ Long History in Turkey

by Yigal Schleifer

November 20, 2003 | 7:00 pm

The Jewish presence in Turkey usually is dated to 1492, when the Ottoman emperor Beyazit II welcomed Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to his territory.

In fact, though, Jewish life in the area has been traced back to at least the fourth century B.C.E. During the Byzantine period, a community of Greek-speaking Jews lived in Istanbul, then called Constantinople.

But the Jewish community in what is now Turkey started truly to develop only after the arrival of the Spanish Jews in 1492, who created important centers of Jewish life in Istanbul, Izmir and Salonika, which is now part of Greece.

The Ottomans provided a sort of limited autonomy to the religious communities under their rule, which allowed Jewish life in the empire to flourish. For example, many of the Ottoman court physicians were Jewish.

At the beginning of the 20th century, just before the dissolution of the empire, the Jewish population in the area that is now Turkey numbered more than 100,000, mostly Sephardim, with sizable Jewish communities ranging from the country's Anatolian heartland to its Aegean coast and its border with Syria.

Turkey's Jewish population today is estimated at 25,000. Driven away by political and economic turbulence and lured by the possibility of living in nearby Israel, Turkish Jews left the country in great waves starting in the late 1940s. They left behind Jewish communities that -- with the exception of Istanbul, and to a lesser extent Izmir, which has a Jewish population of around 2,000 -- are either struggling to survive or have ceased to exist.

In Istanbul, the community maintains several institutions, including synagogues, a high school, old age homes and a hospital. As in Ottoman times, the community is headed by a chief rabbi known as the haham bashi.

Jews and Muslims traditionally have gotten along well in Turkey, which is officially secular and which -- as a non-Arab country -- has pursued policies starkly different from its Arab neighbors.

Military and economic ties with Israel are strong, and despite having earned Turkey harsh criticism in the Arab world, those ties have persevered under governments of varying ideologies.

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