Judaism in Turkey

There are estimated to be around 20,000 Jews in Turkey today, concentrated in Istanbul and Izmir. Judaism was present in the Ottoman Empire at its earliest foundations in the 14th century, particularly among the Greek-speaking Romaniots, who were descended from Jews living under the Byzantine Empire in Greece and Anatolia that had been unable to freely practice Judaism and so welcomed the Ottomans, and Jewish communities existed throughout the Levant, taken by the Ottomans in 1516. European Jews arrived during the 14th century, drawn by Ottoman policies that permitted Jewish and Christian land and property ownership, and wider freedoms to choose a profession. Following the Ottoman defeat of Edirne, a large Jewish community flourished, attracting European Ashkenazim; during the 15th century, Rabbi Isaac Ashkenazi wrote to European Jewish communities encouraging them to migrate to Edirne. Sultan Mehmed II (d. 1481) welcomed non-Muslim settlement of Constantinople following its fall, hoping to benefit from their wide skill set. This early Istanbul community included Ashkenazim, Romaniots, Karaites, and small numbers of Sephardim. By 1478, over 10,000 Jews lived in Istanbul alone.

Roughly 100,000 Jews fled the 1492 Spanish expulsion under Queen Isabella, most of whom were drawn to the Ottoman Empire, 60,000 people arriving in 1492 alone. The Sultan sought to rebuild the population after Byzantine subjects fled, and they welcomed communities with no loyalties to external states who would therefore be steadfast in their loyalty to the Sultan. At the same time, they maintained widespread family networks throughout Europe, with valuable implications for commerce. Between the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Jews arrived from Spain, Italy, and Portugal, and established or joined thriving communities, especially in Istanbul and Salonika.

The Sephardim came to dominate Jewish life in the Empire, prevailing over the Greek Romaniots (leading to their eventual assimilation), Arab Musta'arabi, and Balkan Jews. Many of the Ashkenazim had converted to Christianity in Iberia as a means of survival, and thus large groups of Jews arrived who knew little about their faith but readily embraced it. These Jews created a variety of religious, charitable, and educational institutions as well as libraries and publishing houses throughout the Mediterranean and as far as the Balkans; many, traumatized by the sudden cultural rift of having been torn from their Iberian homeland, worked to preserve Jewish culture through these institutions, fearing its loss. Thus a vibrant intellectual community emerged that was intent on capturing the breadth and depth of Jewish life, with hubs in Salonica, Cairo, Edirne, and elsewhere in the Empire. With the addition of Arab territories, Sephardic Jews merged with preexisting Musta'arabi Arab Jewish communities, leading to a renaissance of Jewish life in Cairo, Aleppo, and Damascus.

Despite the benefits provided to Jews and Christians, especially in comparison with Jewish life in Europe, both religious groups were considered second class citizens in the Empire. Both were obligated to wear clothing in specific colors, and limitations were placed on riding horses, building or repairing houses of worship, and certain professions within the state, though these restrictions were not universally observed throughout the Empire and in some areas, not at all. Jews and Christians paid a separate tax in addition to regular taxes as an exemption from military service. In return for these concessions, the state recognized Jewish and Christian communities as independent and capable of managing their own affairs. Most Jews chose to live in Jewish areas of cities, though not all did, and some cities had multiple Jewish quarters. By the late 16th century, some of the largest cities had over 100 different Jewish congregations. Jews excelled in a wide variety of professions, though were barred from the military (and positions that were based in military service, such as governorships), but were prominent as customs officials, physicians (including court physicians to the Sultan), and throughout commerce and craft production.

By the late 19th century, anywhere between 300,000 and 450,000 Jews resided in the Ottoman Empire, though conditions had begun to change. The economic crisis triggered by Europe's discovery of the Americas had a major impact on Jewish merchants, particularly as longstanding Ottoman trade routes shifted in the Europeans' favor. As Europeans began to work closely with the Empire, they tended to select Christians as middle men and preferred not to contract with Jewish tradesmen.

Tanzimat Reforms in the late 18th century led to the official recognition of Jews (as well as Muslims, Greeks, and Armenians) as discrete communities, and a chief rabbi was appointed by the state; these appointments in major cities across the Empire continued into the early 20th century, which reflected wider processes of modernization and top-down state organization occurring in all aspects of government. While Greek and Armenian leadership lent itself to a head representative, the diverse Jewish population resented what they perceived as state intrusion into their communal affairs. The Empire also pushed for the inclusion of secular curricula in the modern sciences, which many in the Jewish community resisted but which nonetheless changed the landscape of Jewish education. With reorganization of the state came new professional opportunities, and Jews flourished in banking, trade, manufacturing, and began to enter government service. A wide variety of Jewish periodicals became available which expressed a spectrum of political perspectives, including Ottomanism and, increasingly, Zionism and socialism.

Jews remained in the shrinking Empire as peripheral territories sought independence or were colonized by European nations. Jews in these latter territories saw a shift in their relationship with the state, which was no longer governed under Ottoman policies but often was shaped by ethnonationalist perspectives. Turkey's neutrality in WWII made it a harbor for Jews with Turkish family connections who fled the Nazis and Turkey’s Jews were reassured by official statements that rejected anti-Semitism. However, many Turkish nationalists resisted proposals for wide scale Jewish immigration, which they feared would threaten the integrity of Turkish (secular ethnonationalist) identity. Ultimately, the vast majority of these refugees—as well as Turkish Jews—immigrated to Israel upon its founding in 1948.


Yaron Ayalon, "The Jews of the Ottoman Empire," The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism, ed. Alan T. Levenson (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp. 224-243.

Soner Cagaptay, Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk? (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Michelle U. Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

Jane S. Gerber, "Turning Point: The Spanish Expulsion," The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism, ed. Alan T. Levenson (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp. 309-324.

See also: Turkey, Judaism