This Day in Jewish History / The Sultan Orders Transfer of Safed Jews

The Ottoman ruler wanted to move Jews from Safed to recently conquered Cyprus, but carrying out the order was another matter.

On October 8, 1576, the Ottoman sultan, Murad III, issued an order to the governor of Safed instructing him to carry out the transfer of 1,000 Jews from the region to Cyprus. The move was not intended as a punishment for the Jews, nor was it an especially unusual occurrence. Such population transfers, called “surgun” in Turkish, were, rather, expressions of a policy intended to encourage the economic development – and political stability – of what were often newly acquired territories of the empire by bringing in more well-off individuals.

The October 8 order, for example, which historian Bernard Lewis, in his 1995 book “Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery,” describes having come across by chance in an Ottoman-era archive, called upon the governor of Safed to select “one thousand rich and prosperous Jews and send them, with their property and effects, and with their families, under an appropriate escort,” to Famagusta, on the island of Cyprus.

Cyprus, Lewis, explains, had been conquered by the Ottomans in 1571, and in the years that followed, there were frequent instructions to regional rulers to make similar transfers of “reliable elements,” as Lewis puts it, to the newly acquired territory. In other cases, criminals and other undesirables were the objects of population transfer. If possible, the action was to be done with the cooperation of the transferees; if not, it was to be carried out by force. (For some historical perspective, although the context is very different, one can also point to the transfer of up to 120,000 Turkish settlers into Northern Cyprus, after its conquest by Turkey in 1974.)

Just because the order was given for someone to be moved to another part of the empire, however, did not necessarily mean that the move was successful, or even that it took place at all. Since Muslim law forbids such forced immigration, Ottoman officials were instructed to carry out the transfers with delicacy, and there were no active punishments for disobeying the orders. Historian Ronald Jennings, for example, suggests that the worst that could happen for someone who avoided banishment, or escaped from his new home, would be to have the order re-executed. “No corporal punishment was administered, nor criminal charges brought, nor even fines levied,” he writes in the 1993 book “Christians and Muslims in Ottoman Cyprus and the Mediterranean World, 1571-1640.”

A year after the 1576 order, Murad III issued another instruction, this one to the qadis (judges) of two towns on the road from Safed to Damascus, mandating the transfer of “500 Jewish families from among the rich and wealthy of the Jews of Safed” – again, to Cyprus. In this case, however, the Jews of Safed, who constituted a major source of revenues for the city, succeeded in convincing the Porte to rescind the order. In countermanding the original order, the authorities in Constantinople wrote that carrying it out would have meant that “the town of Safed will be on the verge of ruin.”

Lewis understands all of these imperial decisions as being motivated by economic and political interests, rather than sentiment. Jews had been welcomed into the Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain, in 1492, and Portugal, five years later. Although the invitation extended to the Jews may have been couched in language that made it sound like the offer was based on compassion, that sentiment, writes Lewis, “does not suffice as the explanation of a state policy pursued over a long period by successive generations of rulers and administrators.” For the officials of the Ottoman Empire, the Jews were an asset, bringing with them wealth and skills that could only benefit the realm.

But in an era before the concept of human rights was widely understood or accepted, the individual’s fate was in the hands of the ruler. When the Ottomans conquered part of Hungary, earlier in the 16th century, writes Bernard Lewis, “they brought their Jews with them and invited Hungarian Jews to go to Turkey. Then when they left in 1686, they took their Jews away with them. There are records of imperial orders to protect them, ensure their safe departure, and resettle them in suitable places in the Ottoman lands after the withdrawal from Hungary.”

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