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Turkish Jews


    Sultan Bayazid II's offer of refuge gave new hope to the persecuted Sephardim. In 1492, the Sultan ordered the governors of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire "not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially". According to Bernard Lewis, "the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled".

    Immanuel Aboab attributes to Bayazid II the famous remark that "the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey".

    The arrival of the Sephardis altered the structure of the community and the original group of Romaniote Jews was totally absorbed.

    Over the centuries an increasing number of European Jews, escaping persecution in their native countries, settled in the Ottoman Empire. In 1537 the Jews expelled from Apulia (Italy) after the city fell under Papal control, in 1542 those expelled from Bohemia by King Ferdinand found a safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. In March of 1556, Sultan Suleyman "the Magnificent" wrote a letter to Pope Paul IV asking for the immediate release of the Ancona Marranos, which he declared to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope had no other alternative than to release them, the Ottoman Empire being the "Super Power" of those days.

    By 1477, Jewish households in Istanbul numbered 1647 or 11% of the total. Half a century later, 8070 Jewish houses were listed in the city.

    The present size of Jewish Community is estimated at around 26.000. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2.500 in Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Canakkale, Iskenderun, Kirklareli etc. Sephardis make up 96% of the Community, with Ashkenazis accounting for the rest. There are about 100 Karaites, an independent group who does not accept the authority of the Chief Rabbi.

    Turkish Jews are legally represented, as they have been for many centuries, by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi. Rav David Asseo, Chief Rabbi since elected in 1961, is assisted by a religious Council made up of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Thirty-five Lay Counselors look after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Committee of fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay Counselors, runs the daily affairs.

    Synagogues are classified as religious foundations (Vakifs). There are 16 synagogues in use in Istanbul today. Three are in service in holiday resorts, during summer only. Some of them are very old, especially Ahrida Synagogue in the Balat area, which dates from middle15th century. The 15th and 16th century Haskoy and Kuzguncuk cemeteries in Istanbul are still in use today.


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