Shabatai Tzvi, the charismatic rabbi and mystic revered as the messiah by his starry-eyed acolytes, converted to Islam in 1666 before the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet IV. Alienated by his apostasy, some of his followers lost faith and returned to normative Judaism.
Still others, the Shabateans, remained true to Judaism but continued to regard Tzvi as a prophet. A third group, consisting of 200 to 300 devoted families, followed him blindly into Islam and called themselves donmeler or donme (“converts” in Turkish).
Concentrated in the mainly Greek city of Salonika, and known as enlightened secularists and Turkish nationalists, the donme were widely accepted as Muslims, although they maintained a distinct ethno-religious identity, hewed to endogamous marriage practices and built separate schools and cemeteries.
Astute businessmen, they were instrumental in transforming Salonika into a cosmopolitan centre of commerce and trade. They also played a leading role in the formation of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the secret society of Young Turks that deposed a powerful sultan, Abdulhamid II, in the wake of the 1908 revolution.
A donme family in the early 20th century
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Republic of Turkey after World War I, the Muslims of Salonika, including the donme, were driven out of Greece and resettled in the Turkish homeland, where they were completely integrated into Muslim society.
To obscurantist Muslims, however, the donme were crypto-Jews who had been engaged in a satanic plot to dissolve the empire and replace it with a secular republic.
Until recently, the donme were not studied closely by academics, because members of this closed sect were outwardly indistinguishable from other Muslims and practised a culture of secrecy that kept outsiders at bay.
Marc David Baer, a professor of history at the University of California, has written a first-rate book that sheds new light on them. The Donme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries and Secular Turks (Stanford University Press) traces their journey from conversion in the 17th century to complete assimilation in the mid-20th century.
Baer, in his preface, says he could not have written it without much labour, imagination, chance encounter, good fortune and, of course, interviews with their descendants in Turkey, the United States and western Europe.
Although the donme were usually seen as a homogenous mass, they splintered into three sects after the death of Tzvi: the Yakubi, the Karakas and the Kapanci.
The Yakubis scrupulously observed Sunni Muslim religious obligations. The Karakas adhered more closely to Tzvi’s principles and attracted followers in Poland, including Jacob Frank, who converted to Islam and then to Christianity. The Kapanci represented the pietistic or revivalist streak among the donme. All three groups avoided relations with Jews.
Rabbis branded them as deviants. A circular published by the chief rabbi in Istanbul in 1914 accused them of immorality, sexual perversity, infidelity, dishonesty, lack of honour, religious blasphemy and trickery.
Incorporating elements of Kabbalah and Sufi Islam, and reciting prayers in Hebrew and Ladino, the donme effectively merged Judaism with Islam.
Though they were traditional and conservative, they were intellectually open to the world, establishing centres all over Europe.
Numbering perhaps 5,000 in the 19th century, the donme had a membership of 10,000 to 15,0000 by the turn of the 20th century, when they possessed their own lay and religious leaders and a network of communal courts, jails and mosques.
Not surprisingly, they lived together in the same neighbourhoods.
Since they were so clannish, they aroused suspicion in insular Muslim circles. In the late 19th century, Ottoman officials recognized that they were not quite like other Muslims.
But as Baer points out, more and more donme during this period abandoned the precepts of their founder and internalized Islamic values. Indeed, some donme became sincere and upstanding Muslims, advancing to exalted positions in Sufi orders, the civil service and the army, jobs that were generally off-limits to Jews and Christians.
None were faithful Jews, like conversos in Spain or Portugal. Yet this was a moot point, given that Jewish leaders did not even consider them Jews.
After Salonika fell to the Greeks, many donme headed to Istanbul. In a massive population transfer, upwards of 500,000 Muslims went to Turkey, while up to 1.2 million Christians in Turkey ended up in Greece.
Baer speculates that the donme, had they remained in Salonika, would probably have been categorized as Jews by Nazi Germany during its occupation of Greece and transported to Auschwitz.
“The population exchange saved the donme from certain murder at the hands of the Nazis,” he writes. “Over 95 per cent of Salonikan Jews were deported to Auschwitz and most gassed within hours of arrival.”
In Istanbul neighbourhoods such as Nisantasi and Bakirkoy, the donme tried to recreate their former lives, observing time-worn feasts, festivals and fasts and burying their dead in the Bulbuldere cemetery in the Uskudar district. As well, they attempted to maintain their textile, timber and tobacco businesses. Their clannishness and adherence to tradition had a lasting impact. As Baer puts it, “Muslims began to look more closely at [their] identity.”
He adds, “The uncertainty surrounding the donme was due to the fact that they appeared to hide their true identity, although there was little if anything that would outwardly distinguish them from other Muslims.”
Under the government’s Turkification policy, donme were intentionally dispersed throughout Turkey. Apart from Istanbul, they were resettled in Izmir, Ankara and Bursa.
During the 1920s, the identity of the donmes was debated in the Turkish press and parliament as prominent Turks denounced them. Many who had been CUP members were dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned and banned from journalism.
But some donme, such as Tevfik Rustu Aras, blended in perfectly. One of the republic’s first foreign ministers and a crony of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he was a descendant of the Karakas clan and served from 1925 to 1938.
By Baer’s reckoning, the donme ultimately came under attack due to the nature of their genes: “In the end, they were attacked, not for acting like Jews, but for being Jews, for their racial identity, which allegedly caused them to spread bad morals.”
When the Turkish government imposed its infamous wealth tax (varlik vergisi) on minorities in 1942, the donme had to shell out, too. Baer says that the tax, ostensibly described as a measure against war profiteers whatever their religious and ethnic backgrounds, should be viewed as ”the culmination of efforts” to liberate the economy from non-Muslims and thereby create a Turkish Muslim bourgeoisie. Baer compares the tax to the poll tax (jizya) that Christians and Jews had to pay during the Ottoman era. In any case, the tax hastened the departure of Jews from Turkey in the aftermath of World War II.
Unlike Jews, the donme did not emigrate. Having reached the conclusion that they were suspect in the eyes of some Turks, they found a path to complete acceptance through intermarriage with Muslims. Says Baer, “Facing strong prejudice, many donme decided to abandon their separate ethno-religious identity to defend themselves (and their descendants) from hatred and violence.”