The Other Secret Jews1

26/07/2010 15:57



In The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, Marc David Baer has produced the first scholarly study of this group. That it is a scholarly work, limited in its scope and sticking closely to written archives, is something that Baer insists on, and with good reason. For while the Spanish conversos are now seen as an interesting historical phenomenon, and it is even rather fashionable to claim converso ancestry, Turkey is still a part of the world where the anti-Semitic imagination runs wild.Office 2007 key is available here.

And because the Dönme played an outsize role at key moments in modern Turkish history, the myth of their secret Jewish power has itself become powerful. As Baer writes in his introduction, there have recently been bestselling books in Turkey claiming that everyone from the current prime minister, the religious Muslim Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern secular Turkey, are secretly Jewish. “Ghost Jews haunt the Turkish popular imagination,” as Baer puts it.

This makes it a delicate matter to write about the Dönme. In fact, Baer says, most of the descendants of Dönme whom he interviewed for the book asked him not to use their names. “Although many believe conspiracy theories about the Dönme,” Baer writes, “very few know the real character and history of the group.” His book, perhaps deliberately, will not raise the profile of the Dönme very much. Not only is it an academic book, published by Stanford University Press, but Baer says very little about the origin of the Dönme, or about their religious beliefs and practices—matters that many Jewish readers would be curious about.

In fact, he emphasizes that the Dönme, unlike the conversos, do not really merit the title “crypto-Jews.” They were not Jews who pretended to be Muslims, but a sect of their own, whose beliefs and practices were actually further from Judaism than from Islam. Because they were originally followers of Sabbatai Zevi, mainstream Sephardic Jews wanted nothing to do with them. Baer quotes one rabbinical opinion from 1765, declaring that “there is no difference between them and the Gentiles at all, transgressing against all that is written in the Torah, certainly taken for Gentiles in every matter.” The Dönme followed the Muslim calendar and prayed in mosques, though they dissented privately in some ways. For instance, while they fasted during the daytime on Ramadan, like all Muslims, they deliberately broke the fast a few minutes early, thus signaling their independence.