Messianist Crypto-Jews in the Ottoman Empire

November 16, 2015 | William Armstrong
About the author:

Shabbetai Tsvi was one of Jewish history’s most notorious false messiahs. After the Ottoman sultan ordered him forcibly converted to Islam in 1666, a number of his followers, who came to be known as the Dönmeh, converted along with him, but clung to their heterodox Jewish faith in secret. Most of them lived either in Salonica or in what is now western Turkey; some have maintained their identity until today. William Armstrong reviews a recent book about their history:

[T]he Dönmeh became one of the most conspiracy-theory-prone subjects in modern Turkey. Some have painted the Dönmeh as a secret branch of world Jewry that undermined the Ottoman regime and played a central role in the demise of the empire in order to replace it with a secular Turkish republic. Some have even claimed that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, hailing from the Dönme heartland of Salonica, was himself a crypto-Jew.

The Burden of Silence, by the historian Cengiz Şişman, is a detailed study of the Dönmeh from the 17th century to today. Other volumes have focused on the historical and sociological development of the Dönmeh, but while Şişman does not ignore these aspects, he focuses on the theological and sectarian side of the subject.

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