Remembering the Long, and Mostly Happy, History of Ottoman Jewry

October 25, 2022 | Diana Darke
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While the Istanbul-based sultanate that ruled much of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe for many centuries had its flaws—not least corruption, authoritarianism, and the murderous persecution of the Armenians from the 1880s on—it also had much to commend it. Diana Darke notes that for most of its history it was one of the most tolerant places in the world, and a refuge for Jews when they had been expelled from most of Western and central Europe:

[A]n empire that lasted over 600 years, spanned three continents, and ruled over 30 million subjects comprising more than 70 ethnicities speaking twelve different languages must have got something right.

The Spanish Sephardim . . . were stripped of their wealth and banished [by the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies]. As a result, from the 16th century onwards, the Ottoman empire hosted one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, with Istanbul and Thessalonica their biggest centers. Along with other non-Muslims, the Sephardim simply had to pay the poll tax (a sum that was lower than their previous tax obligations in Catholic Spain) and to pledge obedience.

In the mid-15th century, a rabbi from Istanbul spread the word to Jews in Spain: “Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of. We possess great fortunes; much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes, and our commerce is free and unhindered. Everything is cheap and every one of us lives in peace and freedom. Here the Jew is not compelled to wear a yellow star as a badge of shame, as is the case in most of Germany, where even wealth and great fortune are a curse for a Jew because he therewith arouses jealousy among the Christians and they devise all kind of slander against him to rob him of his gold.”

When occasional anti-Jewish riots broke out in Constantinople, they were invariably stirred up not by Muslims but by Christians accusing Jews of the ritual kidnapping, murder, and eating Christian children.

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