the Ottoman Empire - a Book Review


the Ottoman Empire - a Book Review


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Book Review

By Jay Levinson

    Mina Rozen. The Last Ottoman Century and Beyond: The Jews in Turkey and the Balkans, 1808-1945. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2005. ISBN 965-338-063-X.

As the Ottoman Empire was slowly crumbling, what was happening in the Jewish Community? If the author of this book is correct, the leaders of the Turkish Jewish Community were become further estranged from their constituents, as self-interests led them to a surrealistic conclusion that the status quo could be maintained.

Europe was changing. The supporting tenet of the Empire advocating a wide empire unified by religion was being replaced by a new nationalism based upon the nation-state in which commonality of language and perceived history became the raison d'être of the state. The movement was European in origin, but it slowly spread and ate away at the underpinnings of Ottoman society. That process was ignored by many Jewish dignitaries, who dreamed that loyalty to the Empire would insure a continuation of "business as usual" in every sense, from commerce to politics.

The author postulates that rule is based upon the dual principles of government to exercise control, and the satisfaction of those ruled not to revolt. While the Jewish leadership certainly championed that latter principle, they were totally oblivious to the former.

Plagued by a lack-luster, if not impotent, leadership which almost served Ottoman interests more than Jewish concerns, the Jewish Community floundered without direction. "…the Jewish elite created a reality of genuine loyalty to the ruler and his family, i.e., to the state… As the nineteenth century progressed, the element of delusion threatened to overtake the element of reality in these relations.1"

At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century the Zionist movement emerged as a force in Ottoman society, first as a champion of the lower class, then as a more general movement. In some areas Zionism was stronger; in other regions it was weaker. In every sense Zionism was a threat to Jewish leadership, since it stressed Jewish national identity rather than Ottoman values. The author, however, clearly shows that Zionism was almost a protest philosophy. It was an alternative affiliation and not a practical desire to uproot and emigrate from Turkey to Palestine. In later years, when Jews did flee a difficult (if not untenable) traditional life under Ataturk's "secular Islam," the author demonstrates that the motivation to relocate to the Land of Israel was an open-door policy and the desire to start a new life, rather than strong philosophic Zionist commitment. A crushing blow to staying in post-Ottoman Turkey was the 1941-1942 realization that "if their presence would cause problems for the majority in its relations with Nazi Germany, they would be considered "dispensable."

It is a shame that the author focuses almost exclusively on immigration to Palestine and does not delve into the issue of Jews from Istanbul and Tarakya who found new homes in Latin America, primarily in the 1920s. Another shortcoming is the extensive detail of names cited, which complicates reading. This is partially inevitable, given the relatively wide geographic scope of the book. One pragmatic solution is to read the Epilogue first (almost as a summary), since it delineates the philosophy of the book. Then read the text.

One also has the strange feeling that the text was written to fit the already-developed philosophy outlined in the epilogue.

Although reading can be tedious at times, it is certainly worthwhile to gain better insight into the last "Jewish days" of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing nation-states.

1 Pp. 373-374.

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from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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