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The Sublime Porte and the “Jewish Question”
Matthew J. Milzman, BA
In the period from the turn of the nineteenth century to the postbellum period following the First World War, history saw the rise of large, multiethnic, multiconfessionalist, colonial Empires. These empires were forced to face the challenges inherent in the administration of such states, however there was one among them that had notably different experience from the rest due to the sheer scope of religion’s influence on and official standing in state matters. This state is the Ottoman Empire. One of the many aspects that makes the Ottoman Empire markedly different from the other empires of this period, besides, of course, the fact that its state religion was Sunni Islam, was the Ottoman Empire’s approach to the so-called “Jewish Question.” The “Jewish Question” was the name given to the centuries old debate in those states in which Jews resided as to the appropriate status and treatment of that society’s Jewish population. In this current age in which the Jewish people enjoy a greater amount of freedom and prosperity than any other time since Antiquity, it is perhaps easy for one not well versed in the history of the Jews to not realize that the current positive status that Jews enjoy in most of the world’s societies is a relatively recent phenomenon and it is in the very period noted above, from the turn of the nineteenth century to after World War I, that this shift in how Jews were perceived and treated began. However, it is not the point of this essay to examine the overall change and continuity in the treatment of the Jewish people globally nor is it to compare how their statuses in different nation-states. Rather, the question posed by this essay is much more specific and focused: How did the relationship between the Ottoman Empire’s Jewish subjects and both the Ottoman government and specifically its Arab subjects change over the period of Ottoman decline, roughly from the turn of the nineteenth century until the Empire’s dissolution in 1922? The conclusion this essay comes to is that although the relationship between the Ottoman government and the Ottoman Jewry improved over the period of Ottoman decline, the relationship of Ottoman Jews and the Arab population of the Empire worsened and became increasingly strained during this period.
First, one must understand that the situation of the Empire’s Jews was rooted in a long-standing mutualistic relationship. Indeed the shared interests of the Empire’s Turks and Jews dates back to the early days of the Ottoman state (İnalcık 3). Jews in the Ottoman Empire performed various important functions, serving as advisors to the government, tax farmers, financial agents, and scribes, as well as playing a role in commerce and various trades and industries, that far surpassed what one would expect from a community their size (İnalcık 3). The Jews, like all non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire, fell under what is known as dhimma law, which guaranteed them the same protection as the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim subjects and freedom to practice their religion in return for paying a poll tax, known as the jizya (İnalcık 6). This policy, which was the strict religious duty for Muslim rulers to abide by, proved incredibly attractive to European Jews fleeing the crusades and inquisitions of Christendom, and so the Ottoman Jewish population grew larger and larger (İnalcık 6-7). This is the historical background for the situation of Ottoman Jewry in the period of the Empire’s decline.
During the period of Ottoman decline, a number of reforms were enacted starting in 1839 and concluding with the disbanding of the constitution by Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1876. This period was known as the Tanzimat and it was largely beneficial to the Ottoman Empire’s non-Muslim subjects, especially the Ottoman Jewry. One of the main themes of the Tanzimat era was the theory of Ottomanism (Osmanlılık). In order for the continued existence of the Empire, the Sublime Porte concluded that both the non-Muslim minorities of the Ottoman Empire and the European Great Powers had to be assured that the future of the Empire’s religious minorities was brighter if they remained within the Ottoman polity than it might be in smaller national successor states (Levy 103). The traditional concept of the state as essentially Islamic, which had been perhaps its most defining characteristic, was not discarded. However, two new elements, plurality and equality before the law, were grafted to it (Levy 103). The intended purpose of Ottomanism was to blur, and possibly even eradicate, the traditional perception of Ottoman society as divided between a Muslim ruling class and non-Muslim subject class. As Sultan Mahmud II said in his later years, “I distinguish among my subjects, Muslims in the mosque, Christians in the church and Jews in the synagogue, but there is no difference among them in any other way. My affection and sense of justice for all of them is strong and they are all indeed my children” (Levy 103). The Imperial Rescript of Gülhane (officially announced November 3, 1839) formally introduced the new policy of Ottomanism, promising to reform the taxation and military conscription systems, as well as including a commitment for equal justice for all Ottoman subjects, regardless of religion, and the security of their life, honor and property. The stated purpose of the rescript was to promote every subject’s “devotion for state (devlet), millet, and love of country (vatan mahabbeti)” (Levy 103-104).
In parallel to or perhaps as a direct result of the theme of Ottomanism in official state policy, there developed a change in how the local Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire operated. The functioning of Ottoman Jewish communities and their leadership in the period of Ottoman decline changed in the day-to-day application of their role, as allotted to them by the Ottoman government (Landau 87). This change was affected by the power struggle that arose between the community’s spiritual leaders (i.e. the rabbis) and the lay leadership (Landau 87). Throughout the nineteenth century, secular leaders of the Ottoman Jewish communities encroached more and more into territory formally reserved for the religious leadership at a congruent rate as the state. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Jewish lay leaders created statutes increasing their own powers and a certain duality developed between them and the old religious power structure across the Ottoman Empire, although admittedly to varying degrees (Landau 87). Although these old and new structures often coexisted amicably, usually choosing to focus on its own domains of decision making, when this arrangement fractured, the old structures gradually lost their influence and importance in the administration of Ottoman Jewish communities as Jews increasingly identified themselves as Ottomans rather than as “others” (Landau 87). In his essay, “The Changing Relationship between the Jews of the Arab Middle East and the Ottoman State in the Nineteenth Century,” Daniel J. Schroeter posits an idea that agrees with the notions laid out by Jacob M. Landau above. Schroeter claims that the Tanzimat created two opposing schools of thought when it came to the relationship between religious minority groups and the state. One of these schools of thought was derived from European notions of a civil society, which saw individuals as citizens of the nation-state in which they resided, regardless of their religious affiliation, that all had equal rights based on secular, universal principles (Schroeter 88). The other school of thought was based more on the theories behind the Islamic polity than from Western principles. It rather validated the new relationship that was created between the state and non-Muslim communities by seeking to strengthen the separate, group identity through the use of the millet system (Schroeter 88). Schroeter agrees with Landau that the former school of thought, relying on a shared value of Ottomanism between Ottoman subjects of various religious denominations, eventually won out over the separatist millet system of the past due to the encouragement of Ottoman from the top down. Perhaps there is no better example of the solidarity that, although it had existed in the years before the period of Ottoman decline, became increasingly stronger and more resilient as the twilight of the Ottoman Empire approached than the Young Turk Revolution. Although this might seem contradictory, this new solidarity felt by the Jewry of the Ottoman Empire was based in the principles of Ottomanism. As was the stated goal of Ottomanism, according to Levy, the Jews by the time of the Young Turk Revolution saw their best chance at prosperity as directly intertwined with the continuation of the Ottoman state. The position of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire had largely deteriorated under the reign of Abdülhamid II and so many Ottoman Jews gave their enthusiastic support to the reforms brought about by the Young Turks, thereby leading to the participation of Jews in parliament during this period (Schroeter 106-107). However, the participation of Jews in the newly founded parliament coincided with the participation of Arab Muslims in parliament and the relatively peaceful and respectful relationship that existed between these two groups, that had been neighbors for centuries in many of the Empire’s provinces, started to depreciate into a bitter rivalry.
As previously stated, for centuries there existed in Arab lands a relatively peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, in Palestine, following the news of the success of the Young Turk Revolution, Sephardi and Maghribi Jews celebrated in the initial public festivals alongside elements of the Muslim and Christian Arab communities (Campos 463). Jews, Muslims, and Christians from various social classes all took part in creating a new social network that aspired to transcend past communal boundaries, instead aiming for the economic, cultural, and political betterment of both the province of Palestine and the Ottoman Empire as a whole (Campos 464). Jews in Palestine took efforts to help transform and modernize the empire. They began organizing to educate fellow Jews about the new constitutional regime of the Young Turks. They also set out to mobilize them for participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections (Campos 464). Initially, there existed the idea of a “shared homeland” between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Many of the Jews of Palestine had the “view of national Jewish life in Palestine as being under the Ottoman umbrella, side by side with their Arab neighbors” (Campos 479). The historically close cultural and social relations of indigenous Jews and Arabs in Palestine helped this notion along, but there were limits to the model of the “shared homeland” of Jews and Arabs (Campos 479). A major cause for the fact that the initial camaraderie waned to the point where it was replaced by the rancorous animosity that, to this day, continues to characterize the relationship between Jewish and Arab Muslim communities in Palestine was the effect of their newfound ability to truly participate in civic life. Almost directly after the announcement of holding of elections for the Ottoman Parliament in 1908, civic participation was indistinguishably linked to communal competition, as it became a way for one to ensure one’s own community would maintain its position of power within the ever changing social and political landscape (Campos 479). Both Jews and Arabs in Palestine saw the opportunity to participate in civic matters as a way to strengthen their group’s legitimacy. Both groups asserted that their endeavors were both compatible with and even beneficial to the policy of Ottomanism, while those of their rivals were, in fact, not (Campos 479). Following the loss of the majority of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories and Christian population in the Balkan Wars and the subsequent rise of Arabist movements in Palestine, by the eve of the First World War, the Ottomanist vision of the various religious and ethnic communities of the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Empire had suffered irreversible damage (Campos 479). Like with Landau in the section above, Schroeter’s conclusion as to why the Ottoman Jews’ relationship with their Arab neighbors worsened while their relationship with the Ottoman state improved is inexorably linked, somewhat confoundingly, with the Ottomanist policies of the Young Turks. Coupled with growing foreign intervention in the Ottoman Empire’s affairs that tended to benefit the Jews, the efforts of the Young Turk regime to force the creation a civil society from above had the adverse effect of disrupting the centuries-old relationships that existed at the local level between Jews and Arabs in Ottoman lands, without adequately developing a shared civil consciousness in the society as a whole (Schroeter 106). In the majority Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, “the support, or suspected support, of the Jews for the Young Turks aroused the hostility of the Arab population” (Schroeter 107). It is clear to see that the lofty goals of Ottomanists and the Young Turks had the opposite effect that they were intended to. Although perhaps the seeds for an Arab-Jewish rivalry were already present, the policies of the Young Turks in terms of civic participation provided the water and sunlight needed for them to grow into a full-on ethnoreligious struggle for power and supremacy.
As stated in the beginning of this essay, its conclusion is that while the relationship between the Ottoman government and Ottoman Jews improved over the period of Ottoman decline, the same cannot be said about the relationship between Ottoman Jews and the Ottoman Arab Muslims and that this latter relationship worsened and transformed into a bitter rivalry by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
Campos, Michelle U. "Between And : The Struggle Over Ottomanism And Zionism Among Palestine's Sephardi Jews, 1908–13."International Journal of Middle East Studies 37.04 (2005): 461. Web.
İnalcık, Halil. "Foundations of Ottoman-Jewish Cooperation."Jews, Turks, Ottomans: A Shared History, Fifteenth through the Twentieth Century. Ed. Avigdor Levy. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2002. Print.
Landau, Jacob M. "Changing Patterns of Community Structures, with Special Reference to Ottoman Egypt."Jews, Turks, Ottomans: A Shared History, Fifteenth through the Twentieth Century. Ed. Avigdor Levy. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2002. Print.
Levy, Avigdor. The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton, NJ: Darwin, 1992. Print.
Schroeter, Daniel J. "The Changing Relationship between the Jews of the Arab Middle East and the Ottoman State in the Nineteenth Century."Jews, Turks, Ottomans: A Shared History, Fifteenth through the Twentieth Century. Ed. Avigdor Levy. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2002. Print.
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- Matthew J. Milzman (Author), 2014, The Sublime Porte and the “Jewish Question”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/293850