Jewish History Waiting for the Messiah

In Turkey today, there is immense interest in the Doenmeh, a sect consisting of descendants of those Jews who converted to Islam during the era of Shabbetai Zvi, although very little remains of this community save a few memories.

Dan Yardeni
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Dan Yardeni

A Scapegoat for All Seasons The Donmes or Crypto-Jews of Turkey by Rifat Bali, Isis Press, 418 pages, $45

Three and a half centuries ago, a young, charismatic rabbi, Shabbetai Zvi, declared himself to be the Messiah and promised that the Jewish people would soon be redeemed and would return to Palestine, the ancestral Jewish homeland. Masses of Jews believed in him, and the events of that epoch, which are among the most turbulent in Jewish history, culminated in tragedy: In 1668, forced by the Ottoman sultan to choose between death and conversion to Islam, Shabbetai Zvi opted for the latter. Although most of his disciples abandoned him after his conversion, several thousand emulated their leader by outwardly accepting, though they continued to see themselves as Jews.

The historical and theological aspects of this episode in Jewish history have been extensively discussed by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, including Gershom Scholem. However, little is known about the present-day descendants of the Sabbateans.

During my last visit to Istanbul, I met Rifat Bali, the author of "A Scapegoat for All Seasons," through a mutual friend. A distinguished scholar who has written articles and books about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, Bali leans more toward documentation than analysis in his historical studies. In the book's 400 pages, he cites hundreds of historical documents depicting the past and present vicissitudes of the Sabbateans' descendants, who in Turkey are called the Doenmeh.

The book's first part describes the status and history of the Sabbateans in contemporary Turkish society, while the second part contains verbatim testimony that Bali has collected from various individuals, most of them descendants of the Sabbatean sect; the testimony is presented with minimal appendices or comments.

The complexity of the descendants' situation is reflected in the very meaning of the term "Doenmeh," which is translated as "convert," in a pejorative sense (the members of the sect refer to themselves as ma'aminim, Hebrew for believers). A tendency toward self-imposed segregation and extreme secrecy characterizes the succeeding generations of this unique community of crypto-Jews, who willingly converted to Islam but continued to see themselves as Jews at the same time. Most of the testimony Bali offers is from men and women who are identified only by their initials.

The present generation may well be the last one to retain the fragmented memories of the living members of this sect. A Doenmeh friend of mine told me his father had informed him that his father's mother used to go to the beach every Friday to recite a prayer in Ladino. My friend's father remembered only the phrase "Esperano a-te" (I will wait for you [O Messiah]).

Bali himself displays an ambivalent attitude toward the ma'aminim and their future in Turkey. In his view, some are doing their utmost to assimilate into Turkish society, while others, especially members of the younger generation, are trying to return to the ranks of the Jewish people though they are greeted largely with a cold shoulder. Both groups are being motivated by the ever-increasing anti-Semitism in Turkey, caused by a rise in Islamism and by the concomitant dwindling of the prestige of Kemalism, the movement that was headed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular and Westernized modern-day Turkish republic.

An intriguing question is whether Ataturk himself was a Doenmeh. An entire chapter is devoted to this issue, though no clear-cut conclusions are drawn. Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence supports the assumption that he was of Jewish descent (this point in itself is of little importance except for the fact that it has helped fuel Turkish anti-Semitism). Nonetheless, it can be stated with certainty that most members of Ataturk's inner circle were declared or clandestine Doenmeh.

There continues to be immense interest in the Doenmeh in Turkey today, from the extreme right to the extreme left, largely driven by a penchant for conspiracy theories that want to see the Jews as being behind many of the state?s problems. Since its publication in 2004, more than 150,000 copies have been sold of a book by Soner Yelcin whose Turkish title translates as "Effendi: The Deep, Dark Secret of the White Turks," which makes the claim that much of the ruling elite in modern-day Turkey, from its early days to the present, has been made up of Doenmeh. That book even argues that modern Turkey itself is a "Jewish invention" whose goals included liberating Palestine from the grips of the Ottoman Empire and turning it into a Jewish state.

Another theory, referred to in Bali's book, discusses the role of the Doenmeh in preventing Turkey from aligning with Hitler's Germany during World War II. According to this theory, the Doenmeh, as the country's rulers, knew that if the Nazis entered their country, they themselves would be annihilated together with the members of Turkey's Jewish community.

Another popular conspiracy theory argues that the Doenmeh were responsible for initiating the Armenian genocide. This is a convoluted conspiracy theory intended to exonerate the Turkish nation from the charge of having carried out the mass murder of the Armenians and to shift the blame to the "scapegoat for all seasons," the Doenmeh.

Most of today's Doenmeh are descendants of 20,000 Doenmeh residents of Salonica who were exiled to Turkey in the 1920s as part of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Their exile came in the wake of a ruling of that city's rabbis, who refused to recognize them as Jews, something that would have allowed them to remain in Greece as a minority. The historical irony of that decision is that it actually saved their lives; nearly every member of the Jewish community of Salonica was ultimately annihilated in Auschwitz or Majdanek.

Dan Yardeni, a manager of firms dealing with high-tech materials and processes, researches and writes on Jewish history.

'A witch hunt is being conducted'

The following are the contents of a letter written in English that was recently sent by a friend of mine, who is a Doenmeh, to a prominent member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel; no reply was ever received. In his letter, the writer says that both he and a friend of his share a common desire to return to their Jewish roots.

Dear Mr. ---------

My name is --------- and I am a friend of ---------- who contacted you over a week ago. Since we have a mutual desire to return to the Jewish people, I thought I too should communicate with you. My father is a Turkish citizen of Sabbatean/Doenmeh descent (from both his father's and mother's side) His family had been living in Salonika until they immigrated to Istanbul, Turkey, in the 1920s.

My mother was an American. She passed away when I was a young boy. As far as I am aware, she had no Jewish background and she was raised as a Protestant. I know that in Orthodox circles, Judaism is passed from mother to child or through a conversion to Judaism. However, I've always felt Jewish in my mind and in my heart and always empathized with the Jewish people. My father told me about his real identity when I was 9 years old. I wasn't the least bit surprised, as I had already sensed that we were "different." Today he is 72 years old and he's still very proud of being "Jewish," although this assertion finds no support from the Jewish establishment in any part of the world.

... There is a growing tendency (not yet a movement by any means), especially among the younger generation of the Ma'aminim, to reacquaint themselves with their Jewish heritage. I know some people who have joined the Jewish fold under the auspices of Marc Angel, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. Others have married Jewish women to guarantee that [at least] their children will be acknowledged as belonging to the people of Israel.

I've been researching my Sabbatean/Jewish heritage for close to 18 years - ever since I was 17. I had the opportunity to read the Tanakh many times. I'm extremely familiar with all aspects of Jewish history and culture from the times of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob up to the modern age. The Turkish Ma'aminim have unfortunately been ignored by most Jews until quite recently. For the last 350 years we've been separated from the Jewish world and also been rejected by the Muslim world. We haven't been able to maintain ourselves as a homogenous group either, due to internal disagreements about the successor of Shabbetai Zevi, the Ma'aminim broke apart into three distinct subsects [Karkash, Yakubi and Kapandji] by the year 1720.

In this long process, many Ma'aminim assimilated and lost interest in religious affairs. Predominantly they became secular, agnostic, atheist, etc., but definitely not "Muslim." I don't believe that Shabbetai Zevi was the Messiah, neither does my dad. The Sabbatean faith, for the most part (in the Kapandji subsect) was gradually abandoned toward the end of the 19th century. What remained was a tight-knit community of people of Sabbatean descent held together by a common memory and familial ties. However, this doesn't mean that Sabbateanism, as a belief system, has completely died out.

Out of the tens of thousands of Sabbatean descendants (in Turkey and abroad) some 4,000 to 5,000 people from the Karakash subsect have kept up their traditions. They have their religious organization, rabbis, ceremonies, prayers, continued practice of endogamy, private cemeteries, but all this is done in absolute secrecy. They believe that living the double life that Shabbatai Sevi led will hasten the redemption and bring Tikkun. There are certain individuals from the Yakubi and Kapandji subsects who try to cultivate their heritage but they lack the necessary religious/communal structure that was once available to their ancestors in Salonika.

In the course of the past 10-15 years, a witch hunt has begun and intensified against the people of Sabbatean descent in Turkey. Because we represent an important segment of the secular elite in Turkish society, and because of our high socio-economic standing and unique background, we've been chosen as the "ideal" scapegoat for all the woes in Turkey. And oddly enough not just by Islamists but also by fascists, leftists, Kurds and secularists.

As can be imagined, this precarious state of affairs doesn't bode well for the future. I've been told that Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel, wanted our "community" to turn back to Judaism and make aliyah. If only this had come true. While it may be too late to make this happen in a large scale, I think it should be our duty to help those individuals who look forward to such an outcome for themselves and their immediate families.



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