Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

Mobilizing the Juderia in Service of the City: Shifting Perspectives on Poverty among the Jews of Late Ottoman Izmir

Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

Mobilizing the Juderia in Service of the City: Shifting Perspectives on Poverty among the Jews of Late Ottoman Izmir

Article excerpt

While the Jews of Izmir figure prominently in narratives chronicling the city's emergence as a major port in the seventeenth century, they are largely absent from the literature on the late Ottoman period. By the nineteenth century, their influential role had diminished significantly, as their once-robust mercantile networks across the Mediterranean Sephardi diaspora gave way to petty trade, artisanship, and unskilled labor. Their small numbers and lackluster socioeconomic profile during the modern period have rendered them of tangential importance in studies of the port's booming commerce, bourgeois culture, and "cosmopolitanism." Juxtaposed against their pronounced role during the early modern period, these striking historiographical silences suggest a community inconsequential to the city's modern growth and dynamism.

Yet, as this article will demonstrate, the Jews of late Ottoman izmir were deeply invested in the city's modern transformations. Specifically, this study traces how Jewish leaders, journalists, and activists deliberately reconceptualized the poverty that was so prominent in izmir's.judería, or "Jewish quartef' in service of a larger, citywide public good. At the same time, it demonstrates how the notables of one of the city's least numerous, impoverished groups perceived a symbiotic and nearly interdependent relationship between long-standing categories of belonging rooted in "nationality" and newly cultivated ones rooted in the modern city.

Numbering 25,000 by the turn of the twentieth century,1 Sephardi Jews, or Jews of Iberian extraction, had been continuously present in Ottoman izmir for over three hundred years. Unlike other Sephardi communities of the eastern Mediterranean such as those of istanbul and Salónica, that of izmir was established not in the direct wake of the Expulsion of 1492, but a full century later, as new generations of Ottoman Sephardi Jews migrated to the rapidly developing port. As Jews became active as brokers, wholesalers, factors, moneylenders, and customs collectors,2 izmir quickly emerged as a major center of Jewish life with numerous Jewish neighborhoods, religious institutions, and thriving Hebrew and Ladino printing presses.3

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, a constellation of factors diminished the Jews' involvement in izmir's commerce. The emergence of izmir in the eighteenth century as an exporter of western Anatolian goods facilitated the rise of local Greek merchants and producers,4 while the continued reconfiguration of the Ottoman economy during the nineteenth century made Jewish knowledge of tax-farming, moneylending, and provisioning obsolete.5 Factors internal to the community also destabilized its socioeconomic position, among them frequent quarrels over communal taxes, especially the regressive sales taxes known as gabela taxes, as well as mounting debts to the Ottoman authorities. Fires and epidemics only exacerbated such financial difficulties.

Previously unexplored taxation and census records demonstrate the waning of Jewish involvement in izmir's commerce. Employing the traditional Ottoman division of cizye taxpayers into three categories according to wealth, a Ladino-language communal census taken in 1858 lists 215 taxpayers as "ilas" (good), 269 as "ifsates" (average), and 400 as "etnas"(low).6 Likewise, in census records from the 1880s, among the most common professions are petty merchants, such as green grocers and sellers of coffee, spices, and sweets; craftsmen, such as tailors and tinsmiths; and unskilled laborers, such as shoeshiners and porters.7

Outside observers also noted the impoverishment of izmir's Jewish community. In 1873, a representative of the French-Jewish philanthropic organization the Alliance Israélite Universelle reported that in addition to a small upper class and sizeable middle class, a full third of the city's 3500 Jewish families were "deprived of all livelihood and living on public charity. …

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