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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Turkish Jewry Today

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Changing Jewish Communities

No. 17


  • The Turkish Jewish community is one of the oldest of the Diaspora, dating back to the Roman Empire.
  • Ninety percent of Turkish Jews live in Istanbul and most of the remaining 10 percent in Izmir.
  • Demographically it is an aging community with a steady trend of emigration, in the past to Israel and nowadays mainly to the United States.
  • In the last thirty years the Turkish Jewish community has been portrayed as a model of “the tolerance of the Ottoman Empire and of the Turkish Republic toward its minorities.” This message was promulgated by the Turkish Republic so as to neutralize the “terrible Turk” image still popular in some circles of the American establishment.

Historical Background

The Ottoman Years

The Turkish Jewish community is one of the oldest of the Diaspora, dating back to the Roman Empire.1 An important date in its history is the expulsion edict of 31 March 1492 by Ferdinand, King of Spain, and his wife Queen Isabella. The edict stipulated that Jews must be expelled from Spain on 31 July 1492 unless they converted to Catholicism.2 This resulted in the emigration of approximately two hundred thousand Spanish Jews (Sephardim) to the Balkans and Asia Minor, which were Ottoman lands. Most Jews living today in Turkey are descendants of those first settlers.

In the Ottoman Empire, Jews, like Greeks and Armenians, lived as a millet.3 Each millet was organized as a semiautonomous community represented by its religious leader. In this system non-Muslims were accepted as dhimmis, “People of the Book” protected by their masters, the Ottoman Muslims. As dhimmis they had to be distinguished from the Muslims and were subject to certain limitations. They had to wear clothing of a certain color, could not ride horses, could not build synagogues higher than Muslim houses were exempted from military service and forced to pay a poll tax.4

The Ottoman Empire allied with the Central Powers in World War I, and met its demise as a result of the war. On 30 October 1918, the Empire and the Allied Powers signed the Moudros Armistice. Soon after, the Allied forces occupied Constantinople and the Greek army occupied Thrace, Izmir and its surroundings. The peace treaty signed on 10 August 1920 at Sèvres between the Entente and the Ottoman Empire liquidated the latter and virtually abolished Turkish sovereignty in Asia Minor.

The treaty was rejected by Mustafa Kemal, later named Atatürk (father of the Turks) and the nationalists. On 19 May 1919 they launched the national war of independence which ended on 29 August 1922 with a victory over the occupying Greek forces. During this period of turmoil, Jews were loyal to the nationalist movement. The last Ottoman chief rabbi, Haim Nahum, supported the nationalists and participated in the 1922 Lausanne Peace Conference as an adviser and member of the Turkish delegation.5 The conference ended with the Lausanne Treaty signed on 24 July 1923, by which Turkey regained all territories and sovereignty conceded to the Allies in the Treaty of Sèvres.

The Republican Years

The first two decades (1923-1945). Three months after the Lausanne Treaty on 29 October 1923, Mustafa Kemal declared that Turkey was a republic. The transition from empire to republic was painful for the Turkish Jews. The new republic raised the social status of its people from subjects to citizens, and the Constitution of 1924 extended equality to all citizens, thereby upgrading the social status of non-Muslims from dhimmis to citizens. However, Turkish society continued to perceive non-Muslims, including Jews, as dhimmis whose loyalty to the fatherland was suspect.

During the first two decades of the Turkish Republic, three events particularly affected Turkish Jews. In late June-early July 1934, anti-Jewish riots occurred in various towns and cities of Thrace with Jewish communities.6 Then during May-July 1942,7 non-Muslim enlisted men were forced to serve in labor battalions. Finally, the Capital Tax Law, meant to tax wealth accumulated by profiteering during the wartime years, was ratified on 11 November 1942.8

Under this law, non-Muslims of Turkish and foreign nationalities were taxed much more heavily than Muslims of Turkish nationality at equal levels of wealth. Non-Muslims of Turkish nationality who were unable to pay the taxes were sent to labor camps in Eastern Anatolia to honor their debts by shoveling snow under harsh winter conditions, whereas Turkish Muslim taxpayers were exempt from forced labor. For many Jews, the law meant commercial ruin and the end of any hope that they would one day be considered as citizens equal to the Muslims.

The multiparty democracy. The discriminatory situation in which Turkish Jews lived during the first two decades of the republic changed drastically after the end of World War II. In 1946, Turkey started to experiment with true democracy by establishing multiple political parties. Concurrently, however, the Islamic movement reawakened. In the first two decades of the republic, the Turkish government had repressed the movement. The government sought instead to implement secularism in a society that had been governed by sharia law for six centuries, the duration of the Ottoman Empire.

After resurfacing in 1946, the Islamic movement steadily gained strength and reached a peak in the 1980s and 1990s. This movement regarded the Jews as the main cause of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Until the 1990s, the movement’s anti-Semitism remained at the level of virulent rhetoric. In that decade, however, this anti-Semitism moved from rhetoric to action with physical attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions.

In 1992, Hizballah militants attacked the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul with hand grenades. In 1993, Jak Kamhi, a Jewish business magnate, escaped death from an armed attack. In 1995, Prof. Yuda Yürüm, president of the Ankara Jewish community, miraculously survived a bomb which had been planted in his car. On August 2003, a Jewish dentist named Yasef Yahya was murdered. The perpetrators confessed that their motive was simply to kill a Jew. In each of these cases various Islamist groups were responsible.

These hate crimes were a prelude to the synagogue attacks on 15 November 2003. On that day Turkish terrorists who had trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan attacked two Istanbul synagogues during Shabbat prayers, killing twenty-three people including six Jews.

The Governance of the Community

The Turkish Republic recognizes the Chief Rabbi as the official leader of the Turkish Jews. His authority is limited to religious affairs, with lay leaders being responsible for secular affairs. The Chief Rabbi has an Advisory Council and an Executive Council. The fifty members of the former include prominent Jewish lawyers, businessmen, and industrialists who make policy on secular matters. The Executive Council is comprised of eighteen members selected from the Advisory Council to implement its policies.

The president of the community, who is unofficially elected by the fifty members of the Advisory Council, is a de facto but not de jure president. The Turkish government’s unwillingness to give de jure recognition is probably because it does not want to create a precedent encouraging other religious and ethnic groups to ask for similar recognition. The secular character of the Turkish Republic does not allow ethnic and religious groups to organize legally as communities, which was valid in the Ottoman Empire under the millet system.

Demography and Geographic Distribution

The Turkish Jewish community is mainly Sephardic. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ashkenazim represented a significant part of the Jewish population, but today they number only about four hundred. Ashkenazim have been intermarrying with Sephardim, and most of the children are raised according to Sephardic traditions. It is believed that within a few generations the Ashkenazi population of Turkey will have totally disappeared.9

Although the Chief Rabbinate estimates a semioffical Turkish Jewish population of about twenty-three thousand, a more realistic figure is seventeen thousand to twenty thousand.10 Twenty percent are aged 0-24; far lower than the 50 percent figure for the general population.11 About 1,500 Turkish Jews live in Izmir and the rest in Istanbul, with very small populations in the cities of Edirne, Kırklareli, Çanakkale, Ankara, Bursa, Adana, and Antakya where in the past there had been a significant Jewish presence.12

In 1914, the Turkish Jewish community of 147,000 represented nine of every thousand in the general population, whereas today’s total represents 0.3 of every thousand in the general population. Emigration is mainly responsible for this decrease,13 first to the United States and France and later to Palestine and Israel.14 The latter emigration reached its peak soon after Israel was established when thirty thousand Jews, about 40 percent of the Turkish Jewish population at that time, went to live there.15 This emigration to Israel continued steadily in the following decades, fluctuating somewhat according to political and economic conditions in Turkey.16 In the 1980s and 1990s, it practically stopped and instead Turkish Jewish young people began emigrating to the United States.

Cultural and Religious Activities

The Turkish Jewish community’s social welfare institutions are the Or-Ahayim Jewish Hospital of Istanbul;17 the Old Age Home in Istanbul;18 the Society for Aid to Students;19 the Society to Protect and Shelter Orphans; the Matan Baseter-Barınyurt, a home in Istanbul for people in need of medical care and/or without relatives;20 and the Karataş Jewish Hospital and Old Age Home of Izmir.

The Ulus Jewish School in Istanbul, established in 1915 and moved to a new building in 1994, provides kindergarten, primary, and high school education.21 Its current total of 460 students at all levels represents 30 percent of Turkish Jewish youth in this age bracket. For Jewish youth in Izmir, only a Sunday school is available. There are also five cultural societies serving Turkish Jewish youth, four in Istanbul and one in Izmir.22

Synagogues and cemeteries are operational in Istanbul,23 Izmir, Ankara, Kırklareli, Antakya, Adana, Bursa, and Çanakkale. The largest numbers of active synagogues are in Istanbul and Izmir, the other Jewish communities being very small.

There are also four Jewish cultural institutions in Istanbul. The Society to Protect Poor People draws its membership from the community’s intelligentsia.  The community’s leadership is exclusively selected from the members of this society. The other three organizations are: the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews;24 the Schneidertemple Culture and Art Center, operated by the Galata Ashkenazi Cultural Society;25 and the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center.26 The third is an informal organization that is conducting an oral history project in cooperation with Centropa, an American nonprofit organization based in Vienna,27 and is seeking to revive Ladino culture among Turkish Jews.

The Quincentennial Foundation deserves particular attention. Established in 1989 by Turkish Jewish community leaders and businessmen, its president is the aforementioned well-known industrialist Jak Kamhi. In 1992, the foundation celebrated the quincentennial anniversary of the Sephardic Jews’ arrival to the Ottoman lands after their expulsion from Spain.

In 1989-1992, the Quincentennial Foundation implemented a highly successful public relations campaign in the United States targeting its political and intellectual establishment. This effort sought to improve Turkey’s “terrible Turk” image in the United States, which was a result of Turkey’s past discriminatory policies toward minorities, its human rights violations after the 12 September 1980 military coup, and of the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians during their deportation in 1915. The campaign aimed to convey to the American intelligentsia the implicit message that the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Turkish Republic, which behaved so tolerantly toward its Jewish community, could not have committed a crime against humanity such as the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians.

The community also has four periodicals. The Shalom weekly newspaper28 was established in 1947 and is published in Turkish. The El Amaneser is a monthly newsletter in Ladino. The Göztepe and Dostluk monthly journals are published in Turkish by the Göztepe and Dostluk cultural societies, respectively.29


Although the Turkish Republic has strong relations with Israel, the Turkish Jewish community’s leadership maintains a very low profile in terms of expressing solidarity with Israel. Not only does the Turkish public have an extremely negative perception of Israel and of the demonized ideology of Zionism,30 but expressions of support for Israel by Turkish Jews would immediately raise allegations of disloyalty to Turkey.

The Turkish Jewish community has, indeed, maintained a low profile throughout its history, which has been fraught with discriminatory policies, especially the aforementioned 1942 Capital Tax Law. It was with the Quincentennial Foundation’s public relations campaign in Turkey in the 1990s-a corollary of the campaign in the United States-that the community began opening up to Turkish society. Since 2001 the community has celebrated a Jewish Heritage Day aimed at a projecting a better image of the Turkish Jewish cultural heritage to society at large. However, the terrorist attacks against Jewish personalities, the murder of the Jewish dentist, the November 2003 synagogue attacks, and threats received by the community institutions during the summer 2006 Lebanon war have led the leadership to suspend, for the time being, this cautious opening up to Turkish society.

Today the community leadership’s main concern is the security of its religious, social, and cultural institutions. On the one hand, the leadership seeks to maintain the present status quo in its relations with the Turkish government and society. On the other hand, it wishes to continue instilling a Jewish identity in the community’s youth, who, under the present circumstances and for the foreseeable future, cannot publicly express sympathy for Israel. 

The community’s future depends very much on whether the nationalist and Islamist trends presently threatening Turkish society will eventually subside and whether Turkey will continue to develop as a liberal democracy without changing its secular character.

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Rıfat N. Bali, an independent scholar, is a graduate of Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Religious Sciences Division, in Paris. He is the author of nine books and numerous articles on the history of Turkish Jewry. His most recent publication is The “Varlık Vergisi” Affair: A Study of Its Legacy-Selected Documents (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2005).

*            *            *


1. Under the Roman Empire, Jews lived in the Balkans, Constantinople, and Asia Minor and were called Romaniots. They had Greek family names, their synagogues had Greek names, and they spoke Romaniot, otherwise known as Judeo-Greek, a mixture of Greek and Hebrew. See Simon Marcus, “Romaniots,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 14, 231-32. For a general history of the Jews of Turkey, see Avram Galante, Histoire des Juifs de Turquie, Vols. 1-9 (Istanbul: Isis Press, n.d.) [French]; Stanford J. Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic (London: Macmillan, 1991); Walter F. Weiker, Ottomans, Turks and the Jewish Polity: A History of the Jews of Turkey (Lanham, MD, and London: University Press of America, 1992); Esther Benbassa, Une Diaspora Sépharade en Transition Istanbul XIXe-XXème Siècle (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1993). [French]

2. For a full translation of the edict, see

3. The term millet means “nation.”

4. For a study of the millet system and dhimmi status, see Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis, eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Vols. 1, 2 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982); Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi Jews and Christians under Islam, trans. David Maisel, Paul Fenton, and David Littman (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1985).

5. For a biography of the chief rabbi, see Esther Benbassa, Haim Nahum: A Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Politics 1892-1923, trans. Miriam Kochan (Tuscaloosa: University of  Alabama Press, 1995).

6. For a study of these riots, see Avner Levy, “Ha-Pera’ot bi-Yehudei  Traqayah 1934,” Peamim, No. 230 (1984): 111-32. (Hebrew)

7. This measure was taken in response to the Nazis invading Greece and reaching the border of Thrace. The Turkish government feared that in case the Nazis invaded Turkey, the minorities (especially the Armenians) would act as a fifth column and collaborate with them. See Rıfat N. Bali, “kinci Dünya Savaşı Yıllarında Türkiye’de Azınlıklar – I – Yirmi Kur’a htiyatlar Olayı,” Tarih ve Toplum, No. 1769 (November 1998): 4-18. [Turkish]

8. See Rıfat N. Bali, The “Varlık Vergisi” Affair: A Study of Its Legacy-Selected Documents (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2005); Faik Ökte, The Tragedy of the Turkish Capital Tax, trans. Geoffrey Cox (London: Croom Helm, 1987).

9. For the history of the Ashkenazim, see Moe Grosman, Robert Schild, and Erdal Frayman, A Hundred Year Old Synagogue in Yüksekkaldırım: Ashkenazi Jews (Istanbul: Galata Aşkenaz Kültür Derneği, 2000). [Turkish/English]

10. Antoine Emmanuel Strobel, Inscription de la Judéo-Hispanicité dans l’Espace Turc-Préliminaires, unpublished MA thesis, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, 2004, 29. [French]

11. Lina Filiba, Türk Musevi Cemaati Genel Yapı ve Istanbul Demografik Durumu (2002), unpublished study, July 2005, 1-2. [Turkish]

12. Ibid., 1.

13. For the demography of the Turkish Jews, see Rıfat N. Bali, Cumhuriyet Yıllarında Türkiye Yahudileri Bir Türkleştirme Serüveni (1923-1945) (Istanbul: Iletişim Yayınları, 1999), 561. [Turkish]

14. For sources on these events, see Avner Levi, Toldot ha-Yehudim be Republiḳah ha-Turkit: Maamadam Ha-politi Veha-mishpaṭi (Jerusalem, 1992) [Hebrew]; Bali, Cumhuriyet; Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue, The Jews of the Balkans: The Judeo-Spanish Community, Fifteenth to Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1995).

15. For the history of the emigration to Israel, see Rifat N. Bali, Cumhuriyet Yıllarında Türkiye Yahudileri Aliya Bir Toplu Göçün Öyküsü, 1946-1949 (Istanbul: letiim Yayınları, 2003); Walter F. Weiker, The Unseen Israelis: The Jews from Turkey in Israel (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988); Şule Toktaş, “Turkey’s Jews and Their Immigration to Israel,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2006): 505-19.

16. Turkey’s democracy has been interrupted by the following coups: on May 27 1960, the Turkish army toppled the Democrat Party government and executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan, and Foreign Minister Fatin Rüdü Zorlu; on 12 March 1971, the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff issued an ultimatum to Süleyman Demirel’s government resulting in its resignation; and on 12 September 1980, the Turkish army staged another coup against the Demirel government.

17. For a history of this hospital, see Viktor Apalaçi, ed., Or-Ahayim Hospital: A Century of Love and Compassion (Istanbul, 2003).

18. For a history of this institution, see Arslan Yahni, ed., The Association for Assistance to the Elderly from Its Birth to the Present 1915-2005 (stanbul, 2006).

19. For a history of this institution, see Yusuf Besalel, Asırlık Hayır Kurumu Mişne Tora (1898-1998) (Istanbul: Maraton Grafik, 1998). [Turkish]



22. These societies are the Yıldırım Sports Club; the Home of Friendship Society (Dostluk Yurdu Derneği); the Göztepe Cultural Society; the Home of Comradeship Society (Arkadaşlık Yurdu Derneği), informally called the Turkish Union of Jewish Students; and the Cultural Society of Izmir.

23. The cemeteries are in Bağlarbaşı, Hasköy, Kuzguncuk, Kilyos, Ortaköy, Ulus Sephardi, Ulus Ashkenazi, and Şişli Italian.


25. For the history of this synagogue, see Grosman, Schild, and Frayman, A Hundred Year Old Synagogue.



28. The newspaper is put out by the Gözlem Publishing Company, which also publishes Jewish interest books:

29. See note 22.

30. In a November 2003 survey, 63 percent of Turks expressed a negative opinion of Israel. Source: Prof. Dr. Yusuf Ziya Özcan and Doç. Dr. İhsan Dağı, “Türk Dış Siyaseti Araştırması,” unpublished study, Ankara, November 2003, 36.