The Turkish elephant and the Jewish question

Every world event, it seems, has its Jewish angle. So while Taksim Square is roiling with opponents of Recep Erdogan’s Islamist government in Turkey, Israeli journalists have seen fit to pull out the plum story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Jewish roots.

Ataturk (1881–1938) is credited with being the founder of the Turkish Republic and was its first president. He was also the initiator of reforms in every sphere of life aimed at making Turkey a modern nation-state.

It was a time of “firsts” in the Ottoman Empire. In Palestine, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) was busy making Hebrew the living language of Jews in the Land of Israel, inventing words by the bushel for things and concepts that did not exist in biblical and talmudic times, and he was the author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary. As part of his project, he spoke only Hebrew to his wife and children.

Ben-Yehuda’s first child, Itamar Ben-Avi (1882–1943), was the first native speaker of Hebrew in a millennium. He became a journalist, writing for his father’s newspaper, HaZvi (“the gazelle”), and then editing another paper, Doar Hayom (“the daily mail”).

In his autobiography, according to Yaron London, a veteran Israeli journalist, Ben-Avi describes meeting Mustafa Kemal (he had not yet taken the name Ataturk) twice in 1911 in the Kamenitz Hotel in Jerusalem while Ben-Avi was writing for HaZvi. Just as Ben-Yehuda was passionate about reviving Hebrew as the language of daily life, so his son was passionate about transcribing that language in Latin characters. One of the topics he discussed with Kemal was making Latin characters the alphabet for all the languages in the Ottoman Empire. Ben-Avi published two Hebrew weeklies in Latin characters, but they met an early death and his idea never caught on. But Kemal, clearly a more powerful figure, did succeed, and Ben-Avi took credit for planting the idea in the Turkish leader’s mind.

According to Ben-Avi, after drinking to their shared loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, Kemal revealed that he was descended from Sabbetai Zevi (1626–1676), who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. Following Zevi’s conversion to Islam, many of his followers also converted but continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Kemal said that at home he had a Bible printed in Venice, and that when he was a child his father had engaged someone to teach him to read it. He then proceeded to recite, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai ehad” (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.)

The story appeared in the United States in The Forward in 1994 and has since been picked up by hate-mongers bent on proving that all of Turkey’s troubles stem from the “Zionist dictator” Ataturk.

This reminds me of a book, Efendi (“Sir”), by Soner Yalcin, claiming that many influential Turks are Doenmeh.  When it appeared in 2004, it sent a shiver of discomfort through the Jewish community. It was too reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.  




2 Responses to “The Turkish elephant and the Jewish question”

  1. David Bennett Says:

    Thank you. I learned a lot and I had never heard of the Doenmeh. I just googled for the term. Wikepedia has some fascinating stuff.

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