Pressure mounts on Turkey’s medieval messianics

According to this fascinating Media Line report in The Jerusalem Post,  the rising authoritarianism of Turkey’s ruling AKP party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has left the descendants of the followers of the medieval ‘Messiah’ Shabetai Zvi, the Donme, increasingly uncomfortable. Although they have been Muslim for centuries, some are, like many Turkish Jews,   applying for Spanish and Portuguese passports. (With thanks: Lily)

 Shabbetai Zvi: proclaimed himself Messiah, then chose conversion to Islam



Following the First World War and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire,
the Salonika Dönme, officially considered Muslims, were forced to move
to Istanbul in a Christian-Muslim population exchange between Greece
and the newly established Turkish republic. They had to leave most of
their wealth behind in Salonika and didn’t meld into the young Turkish
republic, where they were viewed with suspicion and soon tarnished with
scurrilous conspiracy theories. Most of them assimilated into
republican society, losing their unique culture, while the few that
retained their religion hid their identity from the public. “In this
climate, the Dönme were extremely secretive,” Kösemen says. “Years
passed, [and] these people either died, forgot their [religious
practices], or hid them.”

After much research that eventually became a book, Kösemen
realized that on his father’s side, he himself was one of the thousands
of Turks who unknowingly have Dönme ancestry. There are still perhaps
2,000 Dönme remaining in Turkey who have maintained their identity and
beliefs, though many of their religious practices have evolved with
time. Due to rampant discrimination and religious obligations of
secrecy, most extant Dönme conceal their identities and don’t speak to
outsiders about their communities. However, The Media Line was able to
meet two of their members, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Cem is
from the more secularist and Judaic Kapancı sect, and Osman is from the
more spiritual Karakaş sect. Both are in their forties, and neither
speak for the Dönme in any official capacity.

Cem and Osman
agreed that, although the Dönme have been victims of discrimination
since the early days of the republic, the rise of the currently ruling
and ardently Sunni Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made them
feel more uncomfortable than ever before.

“With the 2002 election
of the AK Party, everything changed,” Osman says. “There’s a new kind
of disturbance with this government.”

Cem supported the AKP’s
liberal reforms in its early years, but stopped around 2009 due to its
authoritarianism and other troubling practices. He says the AKP has
tried to socially engineer society in favor of pious Sunni Muslims, and
this new model excludes religious minorities and secularists.>

“You
have to be one of them in order to be a good citizen,” Cem says. He
and other Dönme are trying to gain Spanish or Portuguese citizenship,
since their ancestors are Sephardic Jews who fled religious persecution
in those countries in the late fifteenth century.

“This is like Plan B [so that] if things go sideways I have another place to go to,” Cem says.

After
their Messiah’s death, the Dönme eventually split into three sects,
each with quite different beliefs. “The differences between the sects
were so visible, so strong, that by the second half of the nineteenth
century, there were almost no social connections between them,” says
history professor Cengiz Şişman, one of the few Dönme experts in the
world and author of a book about them, The Burden of Silence.

Cem goes even further.

“I
would call them different religions even,” he says. The two other
Dönme sects are largely a mystery to him, keeping their practices
secret even from other Dönme sects.

“We didn’t inter-marry; we
didn’t believe in the same theology […]; we had different places of
worship; we had different neighborhoods we lived in,” Cem explains.

The
Dönme developed a unique Kabbalist culture that was partly influenced
by Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism. “They borrow some ideas from
Sufism, but only so long as it fits into the Jewish mystical
framework,” Şişman says.

Cem considers Sabbatai Zevi a kind of
reformer, comparing him to Martin Luther and saying that he made
Judaism more inclusive to women.

“He kind of spiritualized Judaism,” he says.

Osman says that, at least for the Karakaş, the Sufi-influenced practices aren’t just to blend in with Muslims, but are genuine.

“The
important thing about these Dönme Muslim rituals is that they aren’t
some sort of fake display. They’re all honest and heartfelt.”

However, Cem says his sect, the Kapancıs, hasn’t been influenced by Islam at all, and is now completely secular.

“We
never really considered ourselves true Muslims at any point in
history,” he says. “To me, it’s an ethno-cultural identity, not a
religious identity.”

The Ottoman Dönme would purposefully break
traditional Jewish and Islamic rules, eating non-kosher foods, working
on the Sabbath, and breaking the Ramadan fast five minutes early. They
developed their own liturgy and beliefs, reading from tiny, easily
concealed prayer books, and following a unique religious calendar based
upon Jewish and Sabbatean holidays and respecting Muslim ones. The
Dönme holidays are more festive than Jewish ones, with no mourning. For
instance, even on Tisha B’Av, (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of
Av), a sad commemoration of the destruction of Judaism’s two sacred
temples in Jerusalem during which observant Jews fast for 24-hours, is a
time of rejoicing for the Dönme since it’s Sabbatai Zevi’s birthday.

“We
only have joyous holidays because there’s no reason for having
observances of grief after the coming of the Messiah,” Osman explains.

“We’re not so much of a fast people; we’re more of a feast people,” Cem adds.

Read article in full

Turkey’s crypto-Jews unsettled by threat to shrine

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