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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

How the Turks Saved the Jews from Genocide

by Shelomo Alfassa

Israel Insider Magazine / October 10, 2007

In the fall of 1921 a Turkish steam ship sailed into New York harbor named the SS Gul Djemal, the name of the ship meant "Beautiful Rose." On that ship, was my great-grandmother Rosa and her brother Eli; their father Isaac had arrived sometime earlier, all were Spanish speakers, all set sail from Turkey.

My family spoke the Spanish language because their ancestors had fled Spain in the late 15th century when the Spanish government committed one of the most heinous acts in history, the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population of Spain through near-total displacement of its Jews. Although the Jews had existed in Spain prior to the invention of the Spanish language or even the arrival of Christianity, in 1492 they were subject to mass violations of human rights and were forced to flee--or as the Spanish government put it, they would "incur the penalty of death."

In the end, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Spain, leaving behind what would amount in today's monetary system as billions of dollars in assets. These assets included private property such as homes, furnishings, jewelry, books, family objects, clothing, etc; and communal property such as businesses, real estate, synagogues, etc.

The only reason why I am able to sit here in 2007 and write this essay is because at the time when the Spanish government advised the Jews they would have to flee their homeland or face death, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire--the leader of the state that existed before the modern Republic of Turkey--allowed my family and our people to seek refugee in his lands, this includes what is today Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Israel, the Balkans, and other places. Not only were the Jews allowed to go freely, but the Ottoman Empire sent ships to the west to assist the Spanish refugees in their terrible plight.

Sultan Mehemet stated: "Who among you of all my people that is with me, may his God he with him, let him ascend to Constantinople, the site of my royal throne. Let him dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and cattle. Let him dwell in the land, trade in it, and take possession of it."

When the most powerful nation in the world, 15th century Spain, openly and publicly threatened genocide against the Jewish people for the stated crime of practicing their own religion-Judaism, it was a Muslim government, the Ottoman Empire, which stepped in and saved the Jewish people from destruction. It was the Ottoman Empire that saved the Jews of Spain and to a great extent, Portugal, from certain death which the goverment threatened them with.

Unlike the Christian kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, the Ottoman Empire never had a system of government-sponsored hatred against the Jewish people. Even though Jews were dhimmis, the government of the Ottoman Empire never set in place specific targeted anti-Jewish policies such as those that existed in Christian Europe. It is a sad reality that today many people only remember the Ottoman Turks for alleged bad treatment of minorities, when clearly, they have done many positive things that we today hundreds of years later should continue to praise.

Public Responses:

The Sultan did save many lives - I am so glad to see this article. Both sides of my family share the same history from Spain to Turkey, although some of my father's people also went to Egypt ( where they, and the other Jews, were slaughtered by Moslems), some to Romania /Bulgaria, ( where Hitler finally finished them off), and some joined existing family in Israel (then called Palestine), where they still live today. The Sultan of Turkey did indeed treat the Jews more fairly than in other Moslem nations. Our people lived in far better conditions, with less threat to their lives in Turkey than in any other Moslem nation. Yes, his motivations were practical, but he saved many lives. My family was among them. --Alkalai - U.S.A

My friend, I have known about this and in college when I was taking World releigions philosophy calss our teach have also mentioned this and he also said that Jews have given Sultan Mehemet a special title which ment in hebrew " Doing good to Jews even though not being a jew" this title is only been given to hand full of people thru out Jewist history and even how much i researched or look I cannot found that word and if you know it I would be more than happy to re-learn it. --Osman Tavilson (Austin, TX)

Shelomo, this is a great article, thank you for reminding everyone that the Ottoman Empire was one of the fairest and most just empires in the world. Armenians and others like them, like to pretend the Ottomans treated them horribly when the Ottomans actually relocated them away from danger to more peaceful lands away from the front lines and massacres. --Mr. O (Virginia Tech)

My family has a similar story. We Sephardic Jews are all greatful to Turkey for how good they have been to us. --Rachel Salomon (Maryland)

An honest man could say no more and no less. And let us never forget a good deed. --Red (Toronto, Canada)

Our relations with Muslims were never ideal but they used to be much better than they are now. Of course the point of the article is that we Jews must remember that the Turks DID help us in our time of need. Whatever the politics surrounding the massacre of Armenians during WWI, a debt is owed. The Turks could have stood by and done nothing but they didn't. Truth is truth...My words mean no more but also no less than they say. The Turks may be Muslims but to this day they have shown kindness to the Jewish people. Turkey is on good terms with Israel, for example.--W. (Jerusalem, Israel )

Great Article. I greatly appreciate your writing skills. Your article especially explains why some people insist on supporting the allegations of Armenian historians.Without researching on the subject they come to the conclusion that if The Turks are included, then it must have happened. In my opinion,to put the Jews of WWII and Armenians of WWI under the same category is a great injustice to the Jews of WWII themselves. The Jews of WWII had not sought a political goal against their own states. Nor did they rebel and massacre unarmed villages. By no means they were at war with Germany. I hope one day those who support the Armenian cause in the name of morality will realize that by defining any bloody event in history as genocide, you are actually inflating the usage of this crime and thus reducing its extremity together with Nazism. --Arda Akbulut (Turkey)

I could not agree more. The myth of the "Terrible Turk" is alive and well, unfortunately. --Rachel Salomon (Maryland)

This is exactly what I've also been saying since the ADL got involved in this. The territorial claim of the Armenian Jews is the critical distinction. The same argument also goes for the expulsion of Jews of the North African and Iraq after the forming of state of Israel. They had no territorial claim yet they were kicked out of their homes leaving behind what today would equal to billions of dollars in assets.

However, the history of Modern Turkey has not been as been so clean against the minorities. Pogroms against the Jews in the late 1920s and early 1930s known as Thracian Pogroms (Trakya Olaylari), Estate Tax (varlik vergisi) of 1940s where exclusively non-Muslims were taxed and many went bankrupt. I am not including the events of September 6-7 1955 (6 -7 Eylul Olaylari) against the Greek minority because no ties to the government can be made, although such claims has been made. --Vitali Penso (NYC)



© Shelomo Alfassa