Given Turkey’s proximity to the Land of Israel, it is not surprising that there has been a Jewish presence in that country since at least the 4th century B.C.E, when the land was Roman territory. When Rome fell, Turkey became part of the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was Constantinople (present day Istanbul). In 1453, the Ottoman Empire arose out of Turkey and remained the controlling power of the area until World War I.
During the Byzantine era, the Jews faced similar persecutions in Turkey as the Jews did in the Christianized Roman Empire and Medieval Europe. They were taxed, expelled and sometimes faced violence. Although there were times of persecution, the Ottoman’s were generally quite welcoming to the Jews who fled there, after being expelled from Hungary, France, Bavaria, and more. The most significant of these waves of Jewish immigration occurred in 1492, when the Jews were forced out of Spain. While Jews were not equal citizens to Muslims, they were allowed to live as semi-autonomous communities and most of the persecution they faced was directed at all non-Muslims, not just the Jews.
Following World War I, the Ottoman Empire was occupied and divided by the Allied victors. By the early 1920s, the Turks were fighting for independence and the “Republic of Turkey” was proclaimed on October 29, 1923. The severe change in Turkish life, from theocratic sultancy to secular republic was challenging for the citizenry, and there was an increase in anti-Semitism (see The Thrace Pogroms). And while the country was now secular, distinctions remained between Muslims and non-Muslims. In 1942, a special tax (179% for Jews), the Varlik Vergisi, was imposed on non-Muslims, encouraging many Jews to leave the country. Between 1948 and 1951, tens of thousands of Turkish Jews moved to Israel.
Today, most Jews living in Turkey reside in stanbul. While there has been increasing anti-Semitism, there have also been generous overtures of friendship to the community, such as the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue in Edirne, where the first Jewish wedding in over 40 years recently took place.
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