Western travelers, almost unanimously, confirm the impression that the period from the end of the 18th into the second half of the 19th century was the lowest point in the existence of the Jews in the Muslim lands. At first most of these travelers were Christians, since few European Jews were willing or able to undertake journeys in Muslim countries. In time, however, a few daring spirits ventured into these lands and added their testimony to that of their Christian predecessors.
At a time when Jews in Western Europe were beginning to enjoy the fruits of emancipation, several of the Christian travelers marked the contrast between the Jews they met in Muslim lands and those whom they knew at home. Thus Charles MacFarlane, who spent some time in Istanbul in 1828, notes that the Jews are “the last and most degraded of the Turkish Rayahs . . . loaded with the concurrent and utter contempt of Frank, Turk, and Armenian.” Like many Western travelers, he reports the current stereotype of the Eastern Jew as dirty and cowardly, and goes on to say:
Throughout the Ottoman dominions, their pusillanimity is so excessive, that they will flee before the uplifted hand of a child. Yet in England the Jews become bold and expert pugilists, and are as ready to resent an insult as any other of His Majesty’s liege subjects. A striking proof of the effects of oppression in one country, and of liberty, and of the protection of equal laws, in the other.
The “uplifted hand of a child” could represent a mortal threat, as was noted in the same year by another English traveler, this time in Morocco, who, attributing a mean and degraded quality to the Moroccan Jews, ascribes it to
the debasement to which they are subject even from the children of a true believer. I have seen a little fellow of six years old, with a troop of fat toddlings of only three and four, teaching their young ideas [sic] to throw stones at a Jew, and one little urchin would, with the greatest coolness, waddle up to the man and literally spit upon his “Jewish gabardine.” To all this the Jew is obliged to submit; it would be more than his life was worth to offer to strike a Mahomedan.
Even in Istanbul the situation was hardly better. Julia Pardoe, in a description of “the city of the Sultan” in 1836, makes the point very vividly:
I never saw the curse denounced against the children of Israel more fully brought to bear than in the East; where it may be truly said that “their hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against them.”—Where they are considered rather as a link between animals and human beings, than as men possessed of the same attributes, warmed by the same sun, chilled by the same breeze, subject to the same feelings, and impulses, and joys, and sorrows, as their fellow-mortals.
There is a subdued and spiritless expression about the Eastern Jew, of which the comparatively tolerant European can picture to himself no possible idea until he has looked upon it. . . . It is impossible to express the contemptuous hatred in which the Osmanlis hold the Jewish people; and the veriest Turkish urchin who may encounter one of the fallen nation on his path, has his meed of insult to add to the degradation of the outcast and wandering race of Israel. Nor dare the oppressed party revenge himself even upon this puny enemy, whom his very name suffices to raise up against him.
I remember, on the occasion of the great festival at Kahaitchana [Kâthane], seeing a Turkish boy of perhaps ten years of age, approach a group of Jewesses, and deliberately fixing upon one whose delicate state of health should have been her protection from insult, gave her so violent a blow as to deprive her of consciousness, and level her to the earth. As I sprang forward to the assistance of this unfortunate, I was held back by a Turk of my acquaintance, a man of rank, and I had hitherto believed, divested of such painful prejudices; who bade me not agitate, or trouble myself on the occasion, as the woman was only a Jewess! And of the numbers of Turkish females who stood looking on, not one raised a hand to assist the wretched victim of gratuitous barbarity.
Such practices survived into modern times, as may be gathered from a report written by the British vice consul in Mosul in January 1909, that is, after the Young Turk revolution of 1908:
The attitude of the Muslims toward the Christians and Jews, to whom . . . they are in a majority of ten to one, is that of a master toward slaves whom he treats with a certain lordly tolerance so long as they keep their place. Any sign of pretension to equality is promptly repressed. It is often noticed in the street that almost any Christian submissively makes way even for a Muslim child. Only a few days ago the writer saw two respectable-looking, middle-aged Jews walking in a garden. A small Muslim boy, who could not have been more than eight years old, passed by and, as he did so, picked up a large stone and threw it at them—and then another—with the utmost nonchalance, just as a small boy elsewhere might aim at a dog or bird. The Jews stopped and avoided the aim, which was a good one, but made no further protest.
Compared to the Jews of Iran, however, the Jews of the Ottoman empire were living in paradise. The verdict of the travelers is summed up by the Hungarian Jewish Orientalist, Arminius Vambery, who traveled extensively in Iran and Central Asia: “I do not know any more miserable, helpless, and pitiful individual on God’s earth than the Jahudi in those countries. . . . The poor Jew is despised, belabored, and tortured alike by Muslim, Christian, and Brahmin, he is the poorest of the poor, and is stripped by Armenians, Greeks, and Brahmins.”
Perhaps the most informative of Western writers on 19th-century Iran was George, later Lord Curzon, whose great work Persia and the Persian Question appeared in 1892. Among numerous references to the Jews in that country, he has this to say on their situation in general:
Throughout the Mussulman countries of the East these unhappy people have been subjected to the persecution which custom has taught themselves, as well as the world, to regard as their normal lot. Usually compelled to live apart in a Ghetto, or separate quarter of the towns, they have from time immemorial suffered from disabilities of occupation, dress, and habits, which have marked them out as social pariahs from their fellow creatures. The majority of Jews in Persia are engaged in trade, in jewelry, in wine and opium manufacture, as musicians, dancers, scavengers, peddlers, and in other professions to which is attached no great respect. They rarely attain to a leading mercantile position. In Isfahan, where there are said to be 3,700, and where they occupy a relatively better status than elsewhere in Persia, they are not permitted to wear the kolah or Persian headdress, to have shops in the bazaar, to build the walls of their houses as high as a Muslim neighbor’s, or to ride in the streets. In Teheran and Kashan they are also to be found in large numbers and enjoying a fair position. In Shiraz they are very badly off. At Bushire they are prosperous and free from persecution. As soon, however, as any outburst of bigotry takes place in Persia or elsewhere, the Jews are apt to be the first victims. Every man’s hand is then against them; and woe betide the luckless Hebrew who is the first to encounter a Persian street mob. . . . During the absence of the Shah in Europe in 1889, a fanatical disturbance took place in Shiraz and Isfahan, largely instigated by the clerical firebrand, Sheikh Agha Nejefi . . ., in the course of which a Jew was killed in the streets, and his murderer was at first suffered to go scot-free, and finally only sentenced to the bastinado. The Sheikh, by way of improving or embittering the situation, took upon himself to promulgate a series of archaic disabling laws against the Jews of Isfahan, in which odious restrictions were imposed upon their food, dress, habits, life, fortune, inheritance, and trade. The Zil-es-Sultan was afraid to move for fear of endangering his position. It was largely in consequence of this outbreak that an influential deputation from the Anglo-Jewish Association waited upon the Shah while in London, and presented to him a memorial on the subject of their co-religionists in Persia. The Shah gave assurances of protection, which were much needed, and which, it is to be hoped, will be carried out.
Such descriptions—and many others could be added to them—no doubt helped to arouse the concern of Western Jews for their Eastern brethren. Some of these authors indeed explicitly urged them to action. Thus John MacGregor, who toured Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in 1869, remarked: “Jews amongst us Gentiles in England have refinement, cleanliness, luxury, and elegance—why don’t they send to the rabbis of Galilee, at any rate, besoms and soap?”
The troubles of the Jews in Islamic lands in this period were not limited to poverty and degradation. For the first time in centuries they found themselves exposed to active hostility, not only in Iran, where such things were not uncommon in earlier times, but also in the Ottoman lands and Morocco. From the late 18th century through the 19th century, expulsion, outbreaks of mob violence, and even massacres became increasingly frequent. Between 1770 and 1786 Jews were expelled from Jidda, most of them fleeing to the Yemen. In 1790 Jews were massacred in Tetuán, in Morocco; in 1828, in Baghdad. In 1834 a cycle of violence and pillage began in Safed. In 1839 a massacre of Jews took place in Meshed in Iran followed by the forced conversion of the survivors, and a massacre of Jews occurred in Barfurush in 1867. In 1840 the Jews of Damascus were subject to the first of a long series of blood libels in many cities. Other outbreaks followed in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and the Arab countries of the Middle East.
With the increasing centralization of government through the 19th-century reforms, Ottoman rule became in many ways more effective. There was, for example, a notable improvement in the condition of the Jews in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (the two provinces that later became Libya) after 1835, when direct Ottoman administration replaced the previous autonomous local regimes. From the reforms until the end of the empire, through various changes of political order, the Ottoman authorities in general did their best to protect their Jewish subjects from the hostility of local populations and of rival minorities. Where they failed—as they sometimes did—it was through weakness or indolence rather than through active ill will.
The reforms and accompanying changes brought some alleviation to the deteriorating Jewish condition in the Middle East, which had become very marked by the early 19th century.
This deterioration may be attributed to a number of causes: the internal decline of the Jewish communities; the falling standard of education and the resulting loss of useful and marketable skills; the ousting of Jews from their traditional vocations by better-equipped, better-educated, and above all better-protected Christian competitors. To these may be added the general decline in Islamic power, and its effect on Muslim attitudes to the subject communities. By the early 19th century, Muslims were becoming aware of the advance of Europe and their own relative weakness. The Russians had conquered and annexed the Muslim lands around the Black Sea and in Transcaucasia and before long were able to advance into the old Muslim cities of Central Asia. In 1798 the French conquered Egypt with ease and held it for over three years; they had left it because of British, not Muslim, power. In 1830 the French invaded Algeria; in 1839 the British took Aden. These were only the first steps in the establishment of a British, French, and Russian stranglehold on the heartlands of Islam.
Nor was that all. The Russians in Transcaucasia, the French in Egypt, found among the local Christians willing and helpful assistants in establishing control over Muslim populations. Muslim resentment of these changes, seen as a violation of the old established principles by which dhimm?s—i.e., protected non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state—were treated, is clearly expressed in the literature of the time. That resentment increased with the advance of Russian, French, British, and later also German penetration of the Middle East and North Africa, and the growing numbers of former dhimm?s who in one capacity or another served the European great powers. Loss of power led to loss of confidence, and this in turn to loss of tolerance. What remained of Muslim tolerance was subjected to severe strains as the dhimm?s tried to combine the totally incompatible objectives of equal citizenship, foreign protection, and national independence. Sufferance gave way to mistrust, and the easy contempt of early times was replaced by an often well-founded fear, sometimes mixed with envy.
In all this the Jew was not, in Muslim eyes, the principal offender. It was, rather, the native Christian who was seen as aiding the enemies of Islam. But from mid-century on, the Jew also began to enjoy his secondhand share of the fruits of empire when, thanks to new educational opportunities, Jews as well as local Christians were able to offer their services, in various capacities, to foreign governments and businesses. But if the Jew was not the principal malefactor, he was certainly the easiest victim. The Christians were numerous and well-protected; the Jews were few, and enjoyed, at best, a slender and intermittent protection from outside powers. At a time of general, often undirected, fear and resentment, it was natural that hostility should turn against the Jewish as well as the Christian dhimm?s, and that attacks should be directed to that quarter where there was the least chance of either immediate defense or subsequent retribution.
To make matters worse, it was not only the Muslims who turned against the Jews; it was also—and indeed more particularly—their Christian dhimm? compatriots, who, glorying in their new power and the protection of their mighty patrons, turned against their hapless Jewish neighbors, their ancient bigotry reinforced by modern ideologies. From the 1860’s onward there was an ominous growth of European-style anti-Semitism among the Christian communities of the empire. This was strongest among the Greeks, but also affected other Christians, including the Arabic-speaking Christians of the Levant and Egypt. One reason for this was certainly their increased openness to influences from Europe, including the precept and practice of European anti-Semitism; another was the educational and economic revival that was beginning among Ottoman Jews in the second half of the 19th century, and which confronted Christian merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans with competition from a quarter they had been accustomed to discount. Significantly, the appearance of anti-Semitic slogans and accusations was almost always accompanied by attacks on Jewish shops and workshops and calls for boycotts. The Muslim populations were the last to be affected by these incitements, and the Ottoman authorities usually gave what protection they could to their Jewish subjects. Almost to the end of the empire, numbers of Jews suffering or fearing persecution fled from Russia, Rumania, and other Balkan countries and found refuge in the Ottoman lands.
In Istanbul and other Turkish cities, there seems to have been a realization among Muslims that in this period the Jews were not the enemies but the fellow victims of the Turks. Turkish public opinion was not in general anti-Jewish, and Turkish official action was sometimes taken to protect the Jews from their local persecutors. In the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire, among a politically less sophisticated population, anti-Jewish outbreaks became more frequent. In the North African countries, where there was no native Christian population, the Jews were more useful to the imperial powers, and consequently more hateful to their Muslim neighbors.
The Jews suffered from two major weaknesses in confronting these dangers: their unprotected status, which made them easy victims, and their low level of education, which left them without useful skills and therefore despised by Muslim and Christian, Easterner and Westerner alike.
It was to these two problems that a number of Jewish organizations in Europe and America principally addressed themselves. Of these the most important by far was the Alliance Israélite Universelle, based in Paris, which maintained a network of primary and vocational schools for Jews throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In both respects the organizations achieved considerable successes. Their major public effort was devoted to improving the legal status of the Jews in these countries by securing better laws and their more effective application, and they proceeded by intercession or even intervention.
One important method was by publicity. In earlier times even large-scale persecutions could pass virtually unnoticed. In the age of the telegraph and the newspaper press, with a network of Alliance and other representatives all over the Middle East and North Africa, cases of ill-treatment or persecution were immediately known and made public. Such reports could cause grave embarrassment to Muslim rulers, especially at a time when most of them were bankrupt and in urgent need of raising loans on the European money markets. This gave an added force to the intercessions and interventions by Jewish individuals or organizations or by European governments, which from 1840 onward became increasingly frequent.
The most effective form of intervention was through the official channels of a European great power. With the establishment of direct European control—the French in North Africa, the British in southern and eastern Arabia and then in Egypt—the powers themselves became responsible for their Jewish as for their other new subjects. There can be no doubt that the Jews—like the Christians, though not as much—benefited greatly from this change. Even the oppressive and anti-Semitic policies of the czars in Russian-dominated Central Asia represented an improvement on the rule of the amirs that had preceded it. In British-ruled Aden, Egypt, and Iraq, in French-ruled Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, in Italian-ruled Libya, imperial rule ushered in a new era in Jewish educational progress and material prosperity. It also insured the ultimate doom of these communities.
In the heartlands of the Middle East, however, two Muslim states, Iran and the Ottoman empire, remained independent. Though their independence was often threatened and to some extent undermined by the European imperial powers, it was never completely lost, and both countries survived well into the 20th century as working polities. Both of them were the home of ancient and important Jewish communities.
Historians of 19th-century Ottoman Jewry have focused attention on a few major events, some of them turning points in the history of the empire as a whole, others of purely Jewish significance. The first of these was the destruction, in 1826, of the Corps of Janissaries, for centuries the main component of the Ottoman infantry, and the ultimate military source of political power. In destroying this ancient and privileged institution, the reforming Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) was seeking to remove the main prop of opposition to his modernizing and Westernizing reforms, and to clear the way for a new-style army, trained, organized, and equipped along European lines, and wholly devoted to the person of the sultan and to the enforcement of whatever policies he might choose to promulgate.
One might assume that the removal of a military corporation that was the mainstay of reactionary and religious opposition to modernization would help the Jews, as potential beneficiaries of liberal change. In fact, the reverse was the case, at least in the short run. In the course of time certain wealthy and prominent Jews had established a very close relationship with the Corps of Janissaries, and while this relationship was sometimes interrupted by conflicts and even murders, it remained effective. The quartermasters, purveyors, and merchants of the Janissaries had to a large extent been Jewish, and the destruction of the corps was a major blow to the Jewish interest in Istanbul and elsewhere in the empire.
It was also an important step forward for the Armenians, who had recently acquired a new importance and were beginning to oust the Jews from those functions they still retained in the service of the empire. The advance and enrichment of Ottoman Christians in the 17th and 18th centuries had been accomplished mainly by Greeks and by Syrian Catholics. The Armenians did, however, make some progress, and from the last years of the 18th century onward Armenian merchants, shipowners, entrepreneurs, and bankers assumed an increasingly important role in the Ottoman economic structure. In doing so, they inevitably encroached on the few remaining Jewish footholds in the Ottoman economy. The Corps of Janissaries, and the small, close-knit group of Jewish merchant families associated with it, were the last redoubt of Jewish economic power. The destruction of the Janissaries was followed by the ruin of their Jewish associates, leaving the way open for the ultimately pyrrhic Armenian victory.
Sultan Mahmud II was greatly concerned to centralize and rationalize the government of his empire. This also involved some change in the structure of the Jewish communities that were subject to him. The two major Christian communities, the Greeks and the Armenians, were each organized in a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure, headed by a supreme chief who exercised authority over all his faithful throughout the Ottoman lands, and at the same time was recognized by and answerable to the sultan. In contrast, the Jews had no such central organization. Each city—and in cities of any size, each community—had its own rabbi and wardens. For some seventy years after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the sultans had recognized a chief rabbi of the capital, not of the empire; after 1526 even this office ceased to exist. For the rest of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, there was no one who could speak for the Jews of the empire as a whole except self-appointed dignitaries and men of affairs. Such anarchy was not acceptable to the tidy-minded sultan, and also began to seem dangerous to a Jewish community that felt itself isolated, weakened, and endangered. An imperial ferm?n of 1835 therefore created the office of hahambashi, chief rabbi of the empire. According to the rules established, the chief rabbi was to be chosen by the Jews themselves, and appointed and ratified by the sultan.
This new office, and the institutions that administered it, became the focus of a conflict that affected the Jews as it did other communities in 19th-century Turkey—what in another context has been called “the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns.” One of the major themes of 19th-century Turkey was the struggle between those who desired modernization, which at that time and in that place meant those who wanted to Westernize their way of life, and those who saw such change as a mortal threat to their religious and other values and fought desperately to preserve the old order. Attention has naturally concentrated on the struggle between reformers and conservatives among the Turkish and Muslim majority. But there were parallel struggles among the non-Muslim communities of the empire. In most of these conflicts the reformers were, for a while at least, successful. They accomplished major reforms among the Greeks, somewhat later among the Armenians, and finally also among the Christian Arabs.
Among the Jews they failed. European, Turkish, and even Jewish movements of ideas passed the Turkish Jews by. There were few if any among them who had received the kind of European education that Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs in increasing numbers had been getting in Christian schools. The ideas of the French Revolution, and the whole intellectual ferment that followed in the early decades of the 19th century and caused such a tremendous stir among the Greeks and Armenians, seem to have had no impact among the Ottoman Jews, who continued undisturbed in their old ways. Nor were they influenced by the stirring of new ideas among the Muslim Turks. Though presumably most of the Jews in Turkey could speak some Turkish, they did so in a manner and with an accent that made them a favorite butt of popular humor. Only a tiny minority could read and write Turkish; however, with the 19th-century reforms, these became more numerous, and some found employment in government service, mostly as interpreters. They played no role in Turkish intellectual life, and were hardly touched by the movements and arguments that were agitating the Turks.
They were equally impervious to the movements that were transforming the outlook of European Jews—Hasidism, the Enlightenment, the Hebrew revival, religious reform, Zionism. All these, so important to the history of the Jews in Europe, for long left the Jews of the Ottoman empire unaffected, even unaware.
Where there were some minimal signs of change, they were due mainly to external pressures or interventions. There were some Italian Jews who moved during the 18th and still more during the 19th centuries from various cities in Italy, especially Livorno, and settled in the Levant and North Africa. These Livornesi, or, as they were called in Hebrew, Gornim, became an important element in Jewish communal life in a number of cities, notably in Tunis. They retained some contact with their countries of origin and helped to initiate the resumption of relations between the Jews of the Ottoman empire and those of Europe. A role of some importance was played by a small community of Sephardi Jews from Turkey who, for commercial reasons, had settled in Vienna in the 18th century. These had retained their Ottoman nationality, which incidentally gave them a somewhat better status than that of the native Austrian Jews, and had also preserved close links with Istanbul.
A well-meaning attempt by an Ottoman Jewish philanthropist from Vienna to secure some reform in Jewish communal life brought the inner tensions of the community to a crisis point. The quarrel came into the open in 1862, and it was perhaps the only occasion in the 19th century when the internal affairs of the Jewish community received some attention—even then minimal—in Turkish newspapers and historiography. The crisis began with an attempt at reform, bitterly resisted by the ultraconservative rabbinate controlling the institutions established by Ottoman law. The Jews began to riot and fight among themselves, to the point where the Ottoman authorities felt bound to intervene. At first this intervention resulted in a victory for the old guard and the imprisonment of some of the reformers. The authorities, however, seemed to have reconsidered the matter, and in 1865 the Jewish community was provided with a new communal constitution. This was not devised or proposed by the Jews themselves, but given to them by the Ottoman government. It was based on the constitution that had been enacted some years earlier for the Armenian community and which had been hammered out by the Armenians themselves after long and bitter arguments.
This new constitution differed from earlier arrangements in that it provided for a role to be played in communal affairs by the laity. Under the terms of this dispensation, the domination of the rabbinate, hitherto total, was to be limited, and in certain specified circumstances the rabbinate was required to consult with a council of laymen.
Even though it was backed with the force of an Ottoman imperial decree, the new arrangement did not work well. The rabbis did not like it, the faithful supported them—and the Ottoman government had more pressing matters requiring its attention. Before long, the constitution became a dead letter, and while the community retained its autonomy, the rabbinate was again in full control. It was not until the last years of the 19th century, when the activities of the Alliance Israélite Universelle produced a rising generation of French-educated Turkish Jews, that a new spirit began to work among the communities of the empire, and the first windows to the West were opened.
This process was paralleled and encouraged by the development of a new attitude among many Turks and Arabs, especially the Westernized and semi-Westernized urban elements most influenced by liberal and patriotic ideas. Among many of these there was a genuine desire to accord a measure of equality to non-Muslim compatriots, and to draw them into a common political allegiance and a shared social and cultural life. Both in Turkish and in Arab cities there was a mood of liberalism and optimism, and a widespread belief that the different communities of the empire, under a new political dispensation, could live in harmony and work for a common cause.
By the early years of the 20th century, individual Jews were even beginning to play a role in politics—a new and radical departure from past precedent, and a striking indication of the changes that were taking place in the political attitudes and perceptions of both the majority and the minorities in the empire. The Jewish political role was incomparably smaller than that of other minorities. What was remarkable was that Jews played any role at all.
Even this small role was considered too much by some observers, outside as well as inside the empire. Popular mythology assigns an important role to the Jews in the conspiratorial committees that, working in secret under Sultan Abdülhamid II, eventually produced the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The charge that this revolution was due to Jewish machinations appeared almost immediately. In the Arab provinces in particular, the overthrow of the sultan’s Islamic order was received with horror and alarm, and in several cities there were violent outbreaks against what were seen as the godless usurpers of the sultan’s power. One of the charges brought against the Young Turks was that they were transferring power to non-Muslims and, worst of all, to Jews. Some European journalists and diplomats, notably the British ambassador Sir Gerard Lowther and his chief interpreter Gerald H. Fitzmaurice, both addicts of conspiracy theories, took up the theme, and stories of a familiar type about Jewish masonic schemes and designs began to circulate. They were found useful during World War I, when Allied propaganda sought ways to discredit the Young Turk regime in the Arab and more generally in the Islamic world.
In fact the Jewish role in the Young Turk movement was small before the revolution, and virtually nonexistent after it. The leaders of the Young Turk movement that achieved the revolution of 1908 were overwhelmingly Muslim, mostly Turkish and Balkan, some Arab. They included comparatively minor groups of non-Muslims—Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Christian Arabs. A few features combined to give an exaggerated and distorted impression of the role of these minorities in the movement. One was that they were more articulate in Western languages and more visible abroad than their Muslim colleagues. Another was that many of them were citizens or protégés of foreign powers and that their houses were therefore immune from search by the Ottoman police. This made them convenient meeting places for the conspirators; it did not imply that the owners of these houses had any great influence. Much the same may be said of the masonic lodges, in which Jews played a certain role, and which provided a useful cover for the Young Turks. Finally, the fact that the main area of Young Turk activity outside the capital was in Salonika, a major Jewish center, gave the impression of a large Jewish role. This impression was strengthened by the activities of one or two marginal Jewish figures, notably a certain Albert Carasso (also Karasu), a Salonikan Jew who was prominent in Young Turk councils before and during the revolution. A much more important figure was the economist Javid Pasha, who took part in the 1908 revolution and served several times as finance minister in Young Turk governments. He was not a Jew but a dönme (that is, a descendant of Jews who had followed the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi in his conversion to Islam in the late 17th century but maintained a form of crypto-Judaism).
Carasso was the only Jew, and his career did not last long. In the first Ottoman parliament in 1908 elected after the revolution, the members included 147 Turks, 60 Arabs, 27 Albanians, 26 Greeks, 14 Armenians, 10 Slavs (including Bulgarians, Serbs, Macedonians, etc.), and 4 Jews. These proportions held more or less the same throughout the remaining years of the empire.
In general, the economic situation of Ottoman Jews continued to be bad. The occupations most frequently listed in Alliance school records for the parents of children are hawkers, ragmen, tinkers, bootblacks, match vendors, and water carriers. These are not high-income professions. To take a single example: the Jewish community of Silivri, a small town not far from Istanbul, was tabulated in detail by the Alliance representatives in the year 1907. Of 400 Jewish families in Silivri, they recorded the professions of 282, as follows: 130 hawkers, 50 bootblacks, 40 water carriers, 20 grocers, 12 tinkers, 4 butchers, 3 goldsmiths, 2 cobblers, 2 moneychangers, 1 leather seller, 1 glazier, 7 clothiers, 3 barbers, 3 tavern-keepers, 2 government employees, 1 mason, 1 box-maker, and a very large number of people who are described as doing “what they can,” presumably odd jobs and occasional work. In addition, most of the Jewish girls in Silivri worked at making lace for various entrepreneurs in Istanbul. Only 12 of the 400 families are described by the Alliance representative as “notables . . . veritablement à l’abri du besoin”—really safe from need. It is a picture that can be paralleled in many other communities.
The Alliance schools were, however, bringing important changes. They taught their pupils trades, and they taught them French. Both of these were of the greatest importance in initiating an upward movement among the Jews of the Ottoman empire that continued into the 20th century, more especially after the revolution of 1908. Their position, however, remained comparatively weak. In this as in other respects, they did not rise with the Christians, but rather fell with the Turks on whose power their fortunes ultimately depended.
The final phase in the decline of Ottoman Jewry began with the occupation of the city of Salonika by the Greek army at the end of 1912, as a result of the Balkan war. Salonika, often called by Jews “a city and a mother in Israel,” had indeed been a major Jewish religious and cultural center and certainly the most advanced Jewish community in the Ottoman empire, giving leadership to Sephardi communities everywhere else. This city now passed from Turkish to Greek rule. The Jews of Salonika, familiar with the long record of commercial rivalry and anti-Semitic agitation of their Greek neighbors, viewed this change with considerable misgiving. Their fears about their possible fate under a Greek government proved to be misplaced. They were nevertheless doomed in that they had lost their raison d’être. The Jews of Salonika had enjoyed a symbiosis with the Turks, such as they could never hope to have with the Greeks. As part of the Ottoman empire, Salonika had a natural economic hinterland in the Ottoman Balkans, which it no longer possessed as a northeastern outpost of the Greek kingdom. In 1914 the Ottoman empire blundered into World War I, and its Jews, like all its other subjects, were involved in its final collapse. The decay of the Jewish community of Salonika, cut off from its economic and its Jewish hinterland, continued without interruption until its extermination by the Nazis.
The Jews of Iran in the same period suffered the same disadvantages and more, and enjoyed none of the same advantages as their brethren in the Ottoman lands. Isolated among a hostile and fanatical population, rarely protected by the public authorities, they had the further disadvantage of living in a remote country where few visitors, Christian or Jewish, would observe and report on their plight.
However, there were some, and their descriptions, which generally agree, are confirmed by the reports of the Alliance representatives when schools were established in Iran from 1865 onward. The Jewish traveler J. J. Benjamin, who traveled in Iran at mid-century, summarized the misfortunes of the Persian Jews under fifteen headings:
- Throughout Persia the Jews are obliged to live in a part of the town separated from the other inhabitants; for they are considered as unclean creatures, who bring contamination with their intercourse and presence.
- They have no right to carry on trade in stuff goods.
- Even in the streets of their own quarter of the town they are not allowed to keep any open shop. They may only sell their spices and drugs, or carry on the trade of a jeweler, in which they have attained great perfection.
- Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity, and should they enter a street inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt.
- For the same reason they are forbidden to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans.
- If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him so unmercifully, that he falls to the ground, and is obliged to be carried home.
- If a Persian kills a Jew, and the family of the deceased can bring forward two Mussulmans as witnesses to the fact, the murderer is punished by a fine of 12 tumauns (600 piastres); but if two such witnesses cannot be produced, the crime remains unpunished, even though it has been publicly committed, and is well known.
- The flesh of the animals slaughtered according to Hebrew custom, but as Trefe declared, must not be sold to any Mussulmans. The slaughterers are compelled to bury the meat, for even the Christians do not venture to buy it, fearing the mockery and insult of the Persians.
- If a Jew enters a shop to buy anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods, but must stand at a respectful distance and ask the price. Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them.
- Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever pleases them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life.
- Upon the least dispute between a Jew and a Persian, the former is immediately dragged before the Achund [religious authority], and, if the complainant can bring forward two witnesses, the Jew is condemned to pay a heavy fine. If he is too poor to pay this penalty in money, he must pay it in his person. He is stripped to the waist, bound to a stake, and receives forty blows with a stick. Should the sufferer utter the least cry of pain during this proceeding, the blows already given are not counted, and the punishment is begun afresh.
- In the same manner the Jewish children, when they get into a quarrel with those of the Mussulmans, are immediately led before the Achund, and punished with blows.
- A Jew who travels in Persia is taxed in every inn and every caravanserai he enters. If he hesitates to satisfy any demand that may happen to be made on him, they fall upon him, and maltreat him until he yields to their terms.
- If . . . a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel [feast of mourning for the death of the Persian founder of the religion of Ali] he is sure to be murdered.
- Daily and hourly suspicions are raised against the Jews, in order to obtain excuses for fresh extortions; the desire of gain is always the chief incitement to fanaticism.
The Alliance reports contain a number of accounts of the occupational distribution of Persian Jews. Thus a report of Shiraz in 1903 lists some 5,000 Jews as follows: 400 peddlers, 200 masons, 102 goldsmiths, 90 merchants, 80 wine sellers, 60 musicians, 20 grocers, 15 butchers, 10 vintners, 10 moneychangers, 5 dry-goods merchants, 5 jewelers, 5 physicians, 2 surgeons. Another, for Kermanshah in the same year, lists 70 grocery peddlers, 55 merchants, 44 textile peddlers, 27 dyers, 23 goldsmiths, 22 grocers, 15 porters, 10 weavers, 5 brokers, 3 wine sellers, 3 barbers, 3 synagogue beadles, 3 well diggers, 2 vintners, 2 Hebrew teachers.
The Alliance records include numerous stories of ill-treatment, humiliation, and persecution. Toward the end of the century the shah sometimes intervened to protect his Jews from mob violence or religious hostility, but this was rare and usually not very effective. Even the accusation of ritual murder, not known in the past, reached Iran, and a particularly bad case occurred in Shiraz in 1910. Appeals to foreign rulers, the queen (later king) of England, the president of France, the sultan of Turkey, were also of limited help. There was no real change until after the constitutional revolution of 1905, and no substantial improvement in the condition of Persian Jews until after the fall of the Qajar dynasty in 1925.
In the Arab lands of the Middle East and North Africa, the position of the Jews was for a while very much better and benefited greatly from the prevalence, at that time, of liberal ideas and aspirations among the political class. One prominent Jew, the Egyptian James (Ya’q?b) Sanua, better known by his pen name Abu Naddara (1839-1912), even played a certain role as a patriotic journalist and as a playwright. In general, the participation of Jews in Arab intellectual and cultural life, though greater than among the Turks, was—with the exception of Iraq—limited. In other respects, however, their educational standards and therefore their economic opportunities improved, while the new systems of government that were being created gave them an unprecedented degree of civil and political security. But these improvements were linked with the establishment of Western predominance, either directly through imperial rule or indirectly through political and cultural influence. This association was ultimately to prove fatal to these communities, when that predominance weakened and ended.
The Jewish communities in various Arab countries often differed quite considerably in the paths that they followed. In Iraq the Jewish community, while preserving an ancient tradition of Hebrew religious learning, was thoroughly Arab in language and culture, and profoundly integrated into the society; some of its members played an important part in the literary, musical, and artistic revival. The Jews of Egypt were at the opposite extreme. While the lower classes remained Arabic-speaking and Egyptian in sentiment, in the middle and upper classes Jews—like many Christians and even some Muslims—were often alienated in both culture and nationality, for the most part using Italian and later French rather than Arabic, sending their children to foreign-language schools, and often obtaining the citizenship of a European country. In the end, both Iraqi and Egyptian Jews suffered the same fate.
Western influence prepared the downfall of the Islamic Jewries in more ways than one—not only by violating the dhimma and thus exposing them to the hostility of the Muslim majorities, but also by providing new theories and forms of expression for this hostility. From the late 19th century, as a direct result of European influence, movements appear among Muslims of which for the first time one can legitimately use the term anti-Semitic. Hostility to Jews had of course roots in the past, but in this era it assumed a new and radically different character. The starting point was the very strong feeling that the proper relationship between believer and unbeliever, between Muslim and dhimm?, had been subverted. This feeling was fueled by growing resentment at the favor shown by European powers to members of the non-Muslim minorities and at the consequent successes achieved by members of these minorities, who attained positions of power and wealth under foreign rule or influence they would never have been able to achieve in the old Muslim order. This resentment was directed at Christians as much as Jews—indeed rather more so. But a specific campaign against Jews, expressed in the unmistakable language of European Christian anti-Semitism, first appeared among Christians in the 19th century, and developed among Christians and then Muslims in the 20th. European consuls and traders, working with local Christian minorities, played a role in ousting Jews and securing their replacement by Middle Eastern Christians. They were also active in the spread of certain classical themes of European anti-Semitism—for example, in the introduction of the blood libel, and in conjuring up fantasies of Jewish plots to gain world domination.
The first anti-Semitic tracts in Arabic appeared toward the end of the 19th century. They were translated from French originals—part of the literature of the Dreyfus controversy. Most of the translations were made by Arab Catholics, Maronites, or other Uniate Christians. The first Arabic translation of the most famous of all anti-Semitic forgeries, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was published in Cairo in 1927. This was followed by many other translations—indeed, there are now more translations and editions of the Protocols in Arabic than in any other language, and the text is still required reading in departments of comparative religion in a number of Arab universities. There is now also available in Arabic a vast literature of anti-Semitic works, translated or adapted from European originals. These include the Nazi classics that form the basis of a large proportion of current Arab writings on Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history, as well as other writers as diverse as Henry Ford and Karl Marx. The latter’s essay on the Jewish question is now enjoying a new popularity in Arabic translation.
The result of all this is that some of the nastiest inventions of European anti-Semitism have been endorsed in Arab countries at the highest political and academic levels. The late Egyptian President Nasser, in an interview with an Indian journalist on September 28, 1958, cited and recommended the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a guide to Jewish designs, and in another interview of May 1, 1964, with a German neo-Nazi newspaper, dismissed the Holocaust as a myth and expressed his regret at the Nazi defeat. Dr. Hasan Z?z?, professor of Hebrew at ‘Ayn Shams University in Cairo, reached the conclusion, apparently on the basis of the Damascus affair of 1840, that the Jews—in defiance of what he admits to be their own laws—use Gentile blood for ritual purposes, and many other Arab writers on Judaism agree.
This approach is found not only in overtly polemical writings, but also in what purports to be scholarly work, concerned not with Israel or Zionism but with Jewish history and religion. The proceedings of the fourth conference of Islamic research, held at Al-Azhar in Cairo in September 1968, are full of these and similar accusations, often expressed in violent terms. Even schoolbooks are affected. A UNESCO commission of three experts, one of them a Turkish Muslim, prepared a report on textbooks used in schools in the UNRWA camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Among the criteria that the commission set was that:
All terms contemptuous of a community taken as a whole should also be prohibited since this, obviously intolerable in itself, can among other consequences lead to the violation of the most sacred rights of the individual. Hence, liar, cheat, usurer, idiot—terms applied to Jews in certain passages, and part of the deplorable language of international anti-Semitism—cannot be tolerated.
Of 127 textbooks examined, the commission recommended on the basis of these criteria that 14 be withdrawn entirely, 65 be used only after modification, and 48 be retained as they were. Among other problems, the commission found that in textbooks on religion and history,
an excessive importance is given to the problem of relations between the Prophet Mohammed and the Jews of Arabia, in terms tending to convince young people that the Jewish community as a whole has always been and will always be the irreconcilable enemy of the Muslim community.
The report was presented to the 82nd session of UNESCO in Paris on April 4, 1969. It was never published.
Lebanon and Jordan are not among the most extreme in these matters. Far less restrained anti-Jewish statements have appeared in Egyptian books, schoolbooks, and media, before and also after the peace treaty with Israel, not to speak of other more radical and more traditional states, each group with its own distinctive perceptions of relations with the Jews. A characteristic expression of the late Saudi King Faysal’s understanding of the Jewish role in history occurs in an interview that was accorded to a widely circulated Egyptian picture magazine and published on August 4, 1972:
Israel has had malicious intentions since ancient times. Its objective is the destruction of all other religions. It is proven from history that they are the ones who ignited the Crusades at the time of Saladin the Ayyubid so that the war would lead to the weakening of both Muslims and Christians. They regard the other religions as lower than their own and other peoples as inferior to their level. And on the subject of vengeance—they have a certain day on which they mix the blood of non-Jews into their bread and eat it. It happened that two years ago, while I was in Paris on a visit, the police discovered five murdered children. Their blood had been drained, and it turned out that some Jews had murdered them in order to take their blood and mix it with the bread that they eat on this day. This shows you what is the extent of their hatred and malice toward non-Jewish peoples.
The Saudi monarch, who used to present copies of the Protocols and other anti-Semitic tracts to his visitors, had clearly traveled all of the way from the traditional contempt for the Jew as upstart to the modernized, Westernized nightmare of the Jew as the embodiment of evil. He was not alone in this.
The present-day Arabic reader has at his disposal the whole gamut of anti-Semitic mythology. His perceptions have also been modified by the introduction of European anti-Semitic iconography. Anti-Jewish cartoons, for some time now very common in the Arabic press, draw their themes and stereotypes entirely from Central and Eastern Europe. This is true even of cartoons in fundamentalist Islamic publications. Since there was no native tradition of anti-Jewish caricature, it required some education before readers of Arabic newspapers could be expected to understand the symbols. It would seem that this task of education has now been completed.
The propagation of anti-Semitic themes and notions was not left to chance, nor was it entirely entrusted to Middle Eastern enterprise. Anti-Semitism has been energetically propagated by various European groups. The most important in this century were the Nazis, who from the early 1930’s until the defeat of Germany in 1945 devoted great efforts to the spread of anti-Semitic doctrines among the Arabs. Since the fall of the Nazis, some Arab countries have themselves become the major source of anti-Semitic publications, which are distributed all over the world.
Obviously, a major element in the rise of Arab anti-Semitism is the Palestine question, and the consequent embitterment of relations between Jews and Arabs everywhere. In its origin this is a political conflict—not a matter of prejudice or bias, or intercommunal or interethnic hostility, but a specific and material conflict between two groups of people both claiming the same place. However, since Zionism and later Israel both happen to be predominantly Jewish, and since there were conveniently accessible Jewish minorities in Arab countries, and since furthermore anti-Semitism provided a ready-made system of themes, images, and vocabulary for attacks on Jews, the temptation was obviously very strong to make use of them. And of course there were skilled and experienced tempters to push them.
Arab leaders have reacted in various ways. Some have eagerly embraced these allies; others have denounced them with indignation; some have done both at the same time. While recognizing the obvious effect of the Palestine question in the deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations and therefore in the position of Jews in the Muslim world generally, its importance should not be exaggerated, in particular not to the neglect or exclusion of other factors. This deterioration is part of a larger change, affecting the general situation in the Muslim world and that of minorities within it. The general worsening of relations and loss of tolerance harmed others besides Jews. But it was worse for Jews because of the Palestine question, and because they were more vulnerable. Jews in Arab countries had, for the most part, been either indifferent or hostile to Zionism, which was seen as a predominantly European movement. The conversion of the Arab Jews to Zionism came later and was, as in some other places, a direct result of persecution.
The process of their conversion was hastened by violence. In the summer of 1940, and again in February 1941, the mufti of Jerusalem, H?j Am?n al-Husayn?, acting, he said, on behalf of an inter-Arab committee of government and nongovernmental representatives, presented proposals to the government of Germany for German-Arab cooperation to achieve common ends. If the German government would issue a declaration, a draft of which he provided, endorsing the mufti’s aims, he could promise them effective Arab support. The earlier draft of the proposed declaration contains this clause, repeated with minor changes in the second:
Germany and Italy recognize the right of the Arab countries to solve the question of the Jewish elements which exist in Palestine and in the other Arab countries, as required by the national and ethnic (völkisch) interests of the Arabs, and as the Jewish question was solved in Germany and Italy.
The Germans, for a variety of reasons, never gave a clear answer to the mufti’s requests, but there can be no doubt about the extent of Nazi influence, as expressed in the mufti’s draft proposal, in the Arab nationalist camp at that time. Between 1941 and 1948 there were numerous outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Southern Arabia, and North Africa, in which hundreds of Jews were killed or injured, while far greater numbers found their workplaces sacked and their houses destroyed, leaving them homeless and destitute. All these events predated the establishment of the state of Israel and no doubt contributed to some extent to its creation. That, in turn, further undermined the position of Jews in Arab countries, already weakened through their perceived association with the West, and exposed them to a new militancy that leaves no place for those who deviate from the rule.
The result was a massive emigration of Jews from these countries, mostly in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Of 300,000 Jews in Morocco, some 18,000 remain. Of 55,000 Jews in the Yemen, fewer than 1,000 remain. Of the three major communities of Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt, previously estimated at 135,000, 125,000, and 75,000, respectively, only a few hundred old people remain in each. Even in Turkey, a Jewish community once reckoned at some 80,000 to 90,000 has been reduced by emigration to about 15,000, while in Iran a return to the dhimma seems to be the best for which the Jews of that country can hope. Increasing numbers have preferred emigration, either to Israel or to the countries of the West.
There have been many chapters in the long history of the Jewish people. Greek Alexandria was the home of Philo, Babylon of the Talmud, medieval Spain of a rich Hebrew literature; the Jews of Germany and Poland wrote major chapters in modern Jewish history. They have all gone, and only their monuments and their memory remain. The Judeo-Islamic symbiosis was another great period of Jewish life and creativity, a long, rich, and vital chapter in Jewish history. It has now come to an end.