The Jews of Ottoman Izmir: A Modern History

The Jews of Ottoman Izmir
  • Book Title:
 The Jews Of Ottoman Izmir A Modern History
  • Book Author:
Dina Danon
  • Total Pages
273
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THE JEWS OF OTTOMAN IZMIR – Book Sample

INTRODUCTION – THE JEWS OF OTTOMAN IZMIR

In 1899, the Jewish community of Ottoman Izmir came to a near stand-still. The death of Chief Rabbi Abraham Palacci in January led to the first transfer of rabbinic power in over thirty years, and the ensuing turmoil over the appointment of a successor as well as a range of problems that had long plagued the communal administration now polarized the community.

The most contentious issue was management of the local kosher meat industry, which, through its levy of a sales tax known as the gabela, generated the vast majority of the community’s revenue. Warring factions advanced competing visions of how a new chief rabbi might improve the system, lessening its inefficiencies and distributing its burden more equitably.

In the spring, La Buena Esperanza, then Izmir’s longest-running Ladino newspaper, published a fictional, quasi-Talmudic dialogue between “Simon” and “Reuben” distilling the arguments circulating in the community regard-ing payment of shohatim, or ritual slaughterers. While Simon remained skeptical about changing the traditional system, Reuben insisted that slaughterers had monopolized communal coffers for too long. The two engaged in a protracted debate:

S: But that goes against the [religious] rulings.

R: I beg you, enough! The rulings were made in other times. Now our public is poor. If it cannot support itself, should it die to help others?

S: Is this something new? There have always been shohatim and we never complained. What has now changed that we should pick a fight with these good people?

R: It is true that this evil is quite old. If we pick a fight with them now, it is because of how [the situation] has spun out of control! What would you prefer? That they exploit the people, cost us more than one hundred thousand kuruş a year, cause conflicts and, as they say, ignite the community? Until now we tolerated it, but we no longer want anything to do with them!

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Reuben’s position pivots on a keen awareness of a changed socioeconomic reality. Indeed, while the Jews of Ottoman Izmir had greatly prospered during the city’s early modern period, playing an essential role in its emergence as a major port in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth century a con-stellation of global and local factors had combined to dramatically destabilize their position.

By the time La Buena Esperanza published the above-cited dialogue in 1899, the Jews of Izmir were no longer the customs agents, tax farmers, and translators they had once been but rather greengrocers, tailors, peddlers, and beggars. So dramatic had been their downfall that in the late nineteenth century, it is reported that nearly one-third of the Jewish com-munity in Izmir subsisted solely on charity.2

Yet as this book demonstrates, most significant about Reuben’s reading of Jewish poverty was not its prevalence, nor its exacerbation in the nine-teenth century, but rather its position in a larger rupture between agora, or “now,” and otros tiempos, or “other times.” Reuben’s understanding of the fun-damental difference of agora and its ability to necessitate new solutions to age-old problems such as that of Izmir’s shohatim was framed by numerous assumptions.

For Reuben, Izmir’s Jewish poor constituted a collectivity that might intervene in communal affairs and advocate for itself. This collectivity represented its interests through the vehicle of el puvliko, a new entity that might not only check abuses but also mount a lasting challenge to traditional religious authority. Moreover, Reuben’s palpable indignation suggests that the agora of 1899 had ultimately compelled a reconsideration of poverty it-self, betraying a sense that its unchecked persistence and expansion was not only undesirable but fundamentally unacceptable.

It is Reuben’s understanding of how the modern age had reordered such social hierarchies and relationships that animates the central interpretive claim of this book. By 1899, the marked impoverishment of Izmir’s Jewish community had come to stand painfully at odds with modern attitudes that recategorized poverty as a social ill, as well as with the local triumph of middle-class values. I argue that it is this disjuncture, this rupture with a centuries-old worldview that cast poverty as a natural, acceptable, and even stabilizing force in society, that propelled Izmir’s Jews to engage in a series of modern reforms. Jewish leaders rallied to remove beggars from the streets and reorganized their collection and distribution of charity.

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They experimented with a range of anti-poverty initiatives such as vocational training, apprenticeship programs, and rudimentary education in commerce and began to adopt decidedly bourgeois patterns of associational life, residence, leisure, and philanthropy.

Communal leaders typically denounced the community’s socioeconomic decline as a source of weakness and decay. Yet this book demonstrates the re-verse, capturing how the growing empowerment and self-awareness of Izmir’s poor and lower classes catalyzed a dynamic reimagining of Izmir’s kehillah, or semi-autonomous Jewish community structure, which was often referred to as the kolelut.

Through the lens of two crucial elements of Jewish self-government, namely its financial and leadership structures, I explore how “progress” demanded the reordering of social hierarchies along modern lines. This book traces ongoing efforts to rid the community of its most critical yet increasingly controversial source of revenue, the regressive gabela sales tax on kosher meat, which disproportionately burdened the poor.

It tracks the elaboration of rationalized statutes and representative assemblies that would better address the needs of the poor and working classes and reconstructs the reversal of the long-standing rabbinic alliance with the wealthy. Undergirding all of these initiatives, as the book demonstrates, is the evolution of a vibrant and robust Ladino pub-lic sphere where the needs of el puevlo or “the people” were constantly debated with recourse to an expanding modern vocabulary of “rights.”

This case study’s emphasis on socioeconomic factors as primary agents of change invites a reconsideration of assumptions that have long governed the study of modern Jewish history. Prevailing conceptual paradigms such as assimilation, acculturation, integration, and secularization, among many others, are largely the intellectual legacy of extensive reflection on the Jewish experience in numerous modern European contexts.

While European com-munities differed in many respects, across nation-states and empires alike Jews in Europe were often confronted with the notion that their religious and cultural distinctiveness was somehow incompatible with the modern age. From the absolutist Russian Empire, to the nascent German nation-state, to the secular French republic, among other polities, European Jews had to con-tend in some way with a homogenizing pressure resulting from a relentless tension between the “universal” and the “particular”—a tension they negoti-ated in countless ways.

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The view from Ottoman Izmir reveals these categories to be of little in-terpretive value. While never static, the prevailing social hierarchy as refracted through the Ottoman interpretation of sharia law, coupled with the profound ethnic and religious diversity characterizing the empire itself, cultivated a so-cial fabric that was not only tolerant of difference but predicated upon it.3 The legitimation of religious and ethnic distinctiveness persisted in the nineteenth century despite and even in concert with efforts to promote other forms of shared belonging, such as the Ottomanism of the Tanzimat era and the con-stitutional fervor of the Young Turks.4

Notably, this continued affirmation was especially the case for Ottoman Jews as opposed to their Greek and Armenian neighbors, as their position in the Ottoman landscape was not complicated by the rising tide of various nationalisms sweeping Europe. While the emergence of Zionism in the years after 1908 did spark controversy, for the Ottoman Sephardi community Jewish nationalism functioned largely as a vehicle for cultural and religious revival and was frequently cast by its proponents as beneficial to the empire’s interests.5 For the long arc of Ottoman history, the legitimacy of Jewish difference was simply not in question.

As this book demonstrates, this context requires a different set of ques-tions: What happens when Jewish distinctiveness is wholly unremarkable? What happens when Jewish communal autonomy is not only tolerated, but affirmed, amplified, and even cast as a necessary precondition for the modern age? What types of change might we anticipate when there is no “Jewish question”? Following Izmir’s Jews on the street and in the marketplace, in the

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