The history of the Jews in Anatolia started many centuries before the migration of Sephardic Jews. Remnants of Jewish settlements, ancient synagogue ruins and tombstones, dating from 220 B.C. at least, have been uncovered in Sardes, Miletus, Phocee, Priene, along the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Jewish communities in Anatolia flourished and continued to prosper through the Turkish conquest.
When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1326 Orhan Bey gave to the Jewish community, oppressed under Byzantine rule, the permission to rebuild the Etz Ahayim (Tree of Life) Synagogue that remained in service until nineteen forties. The Jews greeted the Ottomans as saviours.
Early in the 14th century, Jews expelled from Hungary, France, Sicily etc. migrated to the Ottoman lands. From the early 15th century on, the Ottomans actively encouraged Jewish immigration. Through a letter sent to Jewish communities in Europe around 1454/1469, Yitzhak Sarfati (Chief-Rabbi of Edirne) invited his co-religionists to leave the torments they were enduring in Christianity and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey. When Mehmet II “the Conqueror” took Constantinople in 1453, he encountered an oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community which welcomed him with enthusiasm.
Following the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, Sultan Bayazid II’s offer of refuge gave new hope to the persecuted Sephardim. The arrival of the Sephardim altered the structure of the community and the original group of Romaniot Jews was totally absorbed.
Over the centuries an increasing number of European Jews, escaping persecution in their native countries, settled in the Ottoman Empire. Jews fleeing the 1881, 1891, 1897 and 1902 pogroms in Russia and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution also took refuge in Turkey.
For 300 years following the expulsion, the prosperity and creativity of the Ottoman Jews rivaled that of the Golden Age of Spain. With a Jewish population of almost 30.000, Istanbul thus became one of the most important Jewish centers of Europe. The Talmudic Academy that was established in Edirne, with the participation of many Sephardic philosophers, thinkers and scholars, trained students coming from all over Europe. Sfad (Safed) too became a world famous centre for religious philosophy and Kabbalah.
The first printing press in the Ottoman Empire was established in 1493 by the brothers David and Samuel ibn Nahmias, who had emigrated from Spain. Between the beginning of the 16th and the end of the 18th centuries, Istanbul was one the main centers of Hebrew publishing.
Most of the court physicians were Jews: numerous Jews were assigned to distinguished posts in the Ottoman palace, especially in financial and foreign relations issues; Ottoman diplomacy was often carried out by Jews. In the free air of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish literature flourished. Joseph Caro compiled the Shulhan Arouh. Shlomo haLevi Alkabes composed the Lekhah Dodi and Jacob Culi began to write the famous MeAm Loez. The Ottoman Sultans issued a number of firmans about blood slanders. World War I brought to an end the glory of the Ottoman Empire.
The young Turkish Republic, recognized in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne as a fully independent state within its present day borders, adopted a secular constitution and accorded minority rights to the three principal non-Muslim religious minorities, permitting them to carry on with their own schools, social institutions and funds.
During the tragic days of World War II, Turkey managed to maintain its neutrality. As early as 1933, Atatürk invited numbers of prominent German and Austrian scientists, mostly Jewish, to find shelter in Turkey and continue their academic carriers at Turkish universities.
Turkey served as a safe passage for thousands of Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazism. Several Turkish diplomats, made every effort to save the Turkish Jews in the Nazi occupied countries, from the Holocaust. Mr. Salahattin Ulkumen, Consul General at Rhodes in 1943-1944, was recognized by the Yad Vashem as a Hassid Umot ha’Olam (Righteous Gentile) in June 1990.
The present size of Jewish Community is estimated at around 20.000. Almost 18.000 live in Istanbul, about 1.500 in Izmir and other smaller groups located in different towns. Sephardim make up 96% of the Community, with Ashkenazim accounting for the rest.
Turkish Jews are legally represented, as they have been for many centuries, by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi who is assisted by a religious Council made up of five Hahamim and fifty Lay Counsellors who look after the secular affairs.
The Community maintains in Istanbul a school complex including elementary and secondary schools for around 600 students. A weekly newspaper: Salom (Shalom), in Turkish with one page in Judeo-Spanish and a monthly supplement El Amaneser, also in Judeo-Spanish are published.
The first and only Jewish Museum of Turkey has been inaugurated on November 2001 (www.muze500.com).
Two Jewish hospitals, homes for the aged (Moshav Zekinim) and several welfare associations (Matan Baseter, Barnyart Mishne Tora), that assisting the poor, the sick, the needy children and orphans, serves the community. Social youth clubs containing libraries, cultural and sports facilities, discotheques give young people the chance to meet. In spite of their number, the Jews have distinguished themselves.
There are several Jewish professors teaching at the Universities of Istanbul and Ankara, and many Turkish Jews are prominent in business, industry, almost all liberal professions and journalism.