- Created on 05 June 2013
- Written by Joseph Hantman
One of the most significant developments in recent Middle East affairs is the close relationship which now exists between Turkey and Israel in military, political, economic and intelligence matters. This change in the power structure is usually attributable to the old Arab maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Since both Turkey and Israel count Syria and Iraq as their strongest threats, the close ties between Turkey and Israel are quite logical.
However, there is good evidence of a less widely known but absolutely fascinating story behind this relationship. Turkey, which has a population almost exclusively Muslim, has a government which by law is committed to being totally secular. This goes back to modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal (Kemal Ataturk), 1881-1938, leader of the Young Turk Movement which took over after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Ataturk and his followers moved rapidly to end religious domination and many religious practices in the daily life of the country. They decreed a change from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman, and they outlawed the fez and the veil. They opened schools to both boys and girls, and their main goal was to Westernize Turkey and secularize its practices. The Turkish army has been the main enforcement agent of this secular policy in times of rising fundamentalism among some groups.
Some Background Data
In the 18th and early 19th century Salonika (now Thesalonika), under Turkish rule in Greece, was the unofficial capital of Sephardic Jewry. Of the three groups in the city, the Jews were larger than the combined Greek Orthodox and Muslim population.
The Jews dominated the commerce of the city and controlled the docks of this major seaport. There were great synagogues and academies of rabbinic study. Moslem shops closed on Friday, Greek Orthodox on Sunday, and most shops and businesses were closed on Shabbat. Ladino, the beautiful mix of Spanish and Hebrew, was the lingua franca of the city and “Shabbat Shalom” was the universal Saturday greeting among all. In the late 19th and early 20th century the city declined as a result of conflict between Greek Orthodox and Moslems, and Jewish dominance of the city decreased.
Fall of the Ottoman Empire
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the decision at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 to create an independent Greek state, the decision was made to transfer populations. All Moslems in Greece had to move to Turkey and all Orthodox Greeks in Turkey had to move to Greece. In all, about 350,000 Moslems and one million Greeks were involved in the move. Jews were permitted to remain wherever they lived.
At this time a group of Moslems went to the authorities supervising the population shift and explained that they were not really Moslems but were in fact really Jews posing as Moslems. The authorities would not entertain such a claim so the group then went to the Chief Rabbi, Saul Amarillo, to verify their Jewish status. Rabbi Amarillo states, “Yes, I know who you are. You are momzarim (very loosely translated as bastards) and as such not acceptable in the Jewish community.” These people were the Donmeh, the Turkish word for converts, and their existence had been known for over 200 years. They were called momzarim because of the bizarre sexual practices that were part of their religious rituals, which made it impossible to trace parentage and lineage. The Donmeh were forced to leave Salonika for Turkey, which, considering the tragic fate of Salonika’s Jews during the Holocaust 20 years later, undoubtedly saved their lives.
Who Were the Donmeh? (Doenmeh, Donme)
One of the best known names but least known historical figures in Jewish history is Shabbtai Zvi, the “false messiah” (1626-1687). Born in Smyrna, Turkey, of a Sephardic father and an Ashkenazi mother, he was a brilliant child and Talmudic student, and an ordained rabbi in his mid teens. He went on to study and became a master in Kabbalah and other Jewish mysticism. His oratory was captivating and he soon acquired a following. However, he exhibited odd characteristics, including periods of illumination where he was believed to be communicating with God and periods of darkness when he was wrestling with evil. Soon he began to hint that he was the Messiah. This blasphemy caused him to be expelled from a number of congregations. He took up a pilgrim’s staff and with some followers roamed the Middle East, gathering many to his messianic preaching, especially during his periods of light. In Gaza he was welcomed by Rabbi Nathan, who had for years been preaching that the arrival of the Messiah was imminent. This combination led to a great outpouring of belief in Shabbtai Zvi as the Messiah. Word spread throughout the Jewish world, from Poland, Amsterdam, Germany, London, Persia, and Turkey to Yemen. Multitudes joined his ranks – educated rabbis, illiterates, rich and poor alike were swept up in the mass hysteria.
Among his inner core, they accepted his theory that all religious restrictions were reversed. The forbidden was encouraged and the commandments of the Torah were replaced by Shabbtai’s 18 (chai) commandments. This led to feasting on fast days, sexual relations with others than one’s spouse, and many more. The high point was in 1665-66, when Shabbtai, with his followers, marched on the Sultan’s palace expecting to be greeted as the Messiah. This of course did not happen. To shorten this story, Shabbtai was given the choice “convert to Islam or die.” To the consternation of his followers, he chose conversion. Most of his followers return to their homelands where, after penitence and sometimes flagellation, they were received into the congregations. However, some hundreds of families of his inner circle considered his apostasy as part of his overall plan of reaching the depth before attaining redemption. They too converted to Islam, although for about 200 years they lived as Moslems but secretly passed on their secret quasi-Jewish Shabbatean beliefs and practices to their children. They continued learning and praying in Hebrew and Ladino. As the generations passed, the knowledge of Hebrew was reduced to reciting certain prayers and expressions by memory in a barely understood Hebrew. They were known in Turkish as Donmeh, meaning “converts”; to the Jews they were Minim, meaning “heretics.” They referred to themselves as Ma’aminim, the “believers.” They were never really accepted by the Turks nor by the Jews.
As we get into the middle and late 1800’s and education and enlightened thinking spread through parts of the region, young Donmeh men who were dissatisfied with their status as “neither-nor” turned to secular nationalism to establish their identity. They neglected all forms of religious belonging and saw in the “Young Turk movement” their emancipation.
The Jewish Roots * * *
In 1911 in the Hotel Kamenetz in Jerusalem, Itamar Ben Avi, a newspaperman and writer who was the son of Eleazer Ben Yehudah (credited as the main proponent of the establishment of Modern Hebrew) met with a young Turkish Army officer. After enjoying a good quantity of Arak, the officer, Col. Mustafa Kemal, turned to his drinking partner and recited the “Shema” in fluent Hebrew and indicated that he came from a Donmeh family. They met again on a few occasions and Kemal filled in more of his background. This man was of course to become General Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.
Remnants of Donmeh still exist. There is an unidentifiable building known as the Jewish Mosque where Donmeh still meet. During World War II, when Turkey was close to Germany, there were separate tax lists for different religious categories, and the “D” list was for Donmeh. During his lifetime and continuing today, there have been whispered rumors among Islamic activists that Kemal Ataturk and other Young Turks were of Jewish origin. Publicly, he denied this and his biographers avoided the issue.
However, there is little doubt that 300 years after the death of Shabbtai Zvi, his influence and twists and turns of his Donmeh followers provided the activist secular basis which is one of the underlying principles of modern Turkey – without which the Turkish-Israeli connection would have been most unlikely.
To bring this story up to date and possibly complete the circle, we now learn that some Donmeh living in Turkey have made inquiry of American Jewish religious organizations about the possible re-entry of Donmeh into today’s Jewish world.