Pre-20th Century History -- the Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire by Avigdor Levy / the Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic by Stanford J. Shaw

By Hathaway, Jane | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Pre-20th Century History -- the Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire by Avigdor Levy / the Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic by Stanford J. Shaw


Hathaway, Jane, The Middle East Journal


The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire, by Avigdor Levy. Princeton: Darwin Press, 1992. xv + 124 pages. Notes to p. 150. Chron. to p. 164. Bibl. to p. 176. Append. to p. 178. Index to p. 196. $19.95.

The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, by Stanford J. Shaw. New York: New York University Press, 1991. xiii + 271 pages. Appends. to p. 288. Notes to p. 301. A Bibl. to p. 344. Index to p. 380. $60.

The quincentennial of Spanish Jews' immigration to the Ottoman Empire has yielded quite a number of publications. Brandeis University celebrated early with a 1987 conference on Ottoman Jewry. Avigdor Levy has expanded his introduction to the forthcoming volume on this conference into a book-length overview of the conclusions reached. Even in this modest chronological narrative, Levy does not shrink from the revisionist opinions aired at the conference (conference participants are acknowledged in parentheses). He points out that the Sephardic migration occurred when the Ottoman Empire was rapidly expanding and in need of fresh, enterprising populations, and that the Ottoman administration was able to use Jewish functionaries to keep the local elites of the conquered territories in check. Still, he gives due weight to the entrenched Romaniot and musta'rab (Arabized) communities in these territories, noting that these non-Sephardic elements constituted a majority of Ottoman Jewry well into the seventeenth century. In examining communal structures, Levy cites the finding of recent scholarship that a chief rabbi for Istanbul, though not for an empire-wide millet, is identifiable as early as the mid-fifteenth century.

The prosperity of leading Sephardim during the reign of Suleyman I (1520-1566) is well-known. Levy's depiction of the ensuing three centuries as "the age of standstill and decline" is unfortunate, however; a quasi-revisionist survey should acknowledge rethinking of the standard Onoman decline paradigm. Instead, exceptions to the scheme of pervasive, unstoppable decline, such as the prosperous Jewish community of seventeenth-century Izmir, are treated as aberrations. On the other hand, the Shabbatai Zvi affair is treated cautiously as neither a symptom nor a catalyst of communal decline. Oddly, however, the author does not consider the surge of Kadlzadeli puritanism that conditioned the Ottoman response to the false messiah.

European penetration during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created unprecedented opportunities for the empire's Christian populations and arguably contributed to nationalism in the Ottoman Balkans early in the nineteenth century. The Jews of these provinces, often seen as beholden to the Ottoman state, frequently suffered from these movements. On the other hand, as a reliably loyal minority, Jews were increasingly employed in the Ottoman administration and armed forces during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Levy considers the 1890s, before the separatist upheavals and ethnic strife that preceded World War I, the period when Jews fared best under Ottoman rule. With the Tanzimat reforms, Jews had acquired an unprecedented degree of equality; by the end of the century, moreover, the upheavals that erupted in the wake of the reforms had dissipated. Ottoman Jewry also benefited belatedly from the European Jewish enlightenment, which brought Jewish philanthropic and educational organs into the empire. By the time the empire disintegrated, its Jewish population was an entrenched segment of Ottoman society whose upper strata had achieved an impressive degree of education and wealth. …

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