Jewish History

The Jewish presence in Turkey has existed since biblical times when it is believed that Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat. In 300 BCE, the Jewish community was located primarily in the city of Sardis. In 1204 the Jews, Muslims, and Christians were told to resettle in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the new capital.

When the Ottoman Army conquered Bursa in 1324 they made the city their new capital. At the time, they found a Jewish community oppressed under Byzantine rule. Jews welcomed the Ottomans as saviors. Sultan Orhan gave them permission to build the Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) synagogue which remained in service for hundreds of years until recent times.

Following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the Sultan Bayezid II invited Jews from Spain and Portugal to resettle in the Ottoman Empire which perpetuated a mass immigration to the region. At the time, the Ottoman Empire consisted of territory covering most of North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucuses, modern day Greece, as well as what we now call the Balkans and the Arabian Gulf.

Unlike Jews in other areas of Europe and the Middle East, the Jews in Turkey enjoyed a good amount of religious tolerance and prosperity. Although they were still required to pay special taxes and abide by restrictions dictating where to live and work, Jews had a significant amount of autonomy, engaged in business enterprises of their choice, and some reached high positions in the Ottoman court. Jews is the Ottoman Empire were respected, influential members of society who contributed to diplomacy, commerce and trade.

In 1912, the future first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion moved to Istanbul and studied law at Istanbul University with Yitzhak Ben Tzvi who would later become the second President of Israel.

Turkey established its independence in 1923, and as a result, the treatment of the Jews changed as well. In 1934, a planned deportation of Jews from East Thrace and an anti-Jewish pogrom caused feelings of insecurity among the Turkish Jews. In addition, the varlik vergisi, or wealth tax, of 1942 was imposed upon wealthy citizens of Turkey which disproportionately affected minorities and was seen as an attempt to decrease minority power. People who were unable to pay the tax were forced into labor camps. 30,000 Jews decided to emigrate from Turkey.

During WWII when the ship Struma filled with 769 Jews arrived in Istanbul, the passengers were refused permission to enter Turkey. On the journey back the ship sank after being hit by an explosion. Throughout WWII, Turkey remained relatively neutral, but several Turkish diplomats were key in saving thousands of Jews from France and Eastern Europe. A riot in Istanbul in 1955 destroyed 4,000 businesses and 1,000 homes and convinced 10,000 Jews to leave Turkey.

Today there is still a strong community of about 26,000 Jews remaining in Turkey, despite occasional anti-Semitic sentiment. In 2003, the Bet Israel Synagogue in Istanbul was bombed, killing 20 and injuring over 300.