The Republic of Turkey, a transcontinental country located mostly on Anatolia in Western Asia and East Thrace in Southeastern Europe, has a Jewish history dating back possibly to the 4th century B.C.E. Today the Jewish population of Turkey is approximately 14,500, with most living in Istanbul.
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At midnight on August 2, 1492, when Columbus embarked on what would become his most famous expedition to the New World, his fleet departed from the relatively unknown seaport of Palos because the shipping lanes of Cadiz and Seville were clogged with Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain by the Edict of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain.
The Jews were forced either to convert to Christianity or to “leave” the country under menace “they dare not return... not so much as to take a step on them not trespass upon them in any manner whatsoever” left their land, their property, their belongings all that was theirs and familiar to them rather than abandon their beliefs, their traditions, their heritage.
In the faraway Ottoman Empire, one ruler – Sultan Bayazid II – extended an immediate welcome to the persecuted Jews of Spain, the Sephardim.
The history of the Jews in Anatolia, however, started many centuries before the migration of Sephardic Jews. Remnants of Jewish settlement from the 4th century B.C.E. have been uncovered in the Aegean region, where Jews lived and traded in the ancient cities of Ephesus, Sardis, Pergamon, and Smyrna (renamed Izmir by the Turks). The historian Josephus Flavius relates that Aristotle “met Jewish people with whom he had an exchange of views during his trip across Asia Minor.”
Second and third-century Greek inscriptions tell of a flourishing Jewish community in Smyrna. Ancient synagogue ruins have also been found in Sardis, near Izmir, dating from 220 B.C.E., and traces of other Jewish settlements have been discovered near Bursa, in the southeast and along the Aegean, Mediterranean, and the Black Sea coasts. A bronze column found in Ankara confirms the rights Emperor Augustus accorded the Jews of Asia Minor.
Second and third-century Greek inscriptions tell of a flourishing Jewish community in Smyrna. Ancient synagogue ruins have also been found in Sardis, near Izmir, dating from 220 B.C.E., and traces of other Jewish settlements have been discovered near Bursa, in the southeast and along the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Sea coasts. A bronze column found in Ankara confirms the rights Emperor Augustus accorded the Jews of Asia Minor.
Jewish communities in Anatolia flourished and continued to prosper through the Turkish conquest. When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1324 and made it their capital, they found a Jewish community oppressed under Byzantine rule. The Jews welcomed the Ottomans as saviors. Sultan Orhan permitted them to build the Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) synagogue, which remained in service until 50 years ago.
Early in the 14th century, when the Ottomans had established their capital at Edirne, Jews from Europe, including Karaites, migrated there.1 Similarly, Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France by Charles VI in September 1394, and from Sicily early in the 15th century found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1420s, Jews from Salonika, then under Venetian control, fled to Edirne.2
When Mehmet II, “the Conqueror,” took Constantinople in 1453, he encountered an oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community which welcomed him with enthusiasm. Sultan Mehmet II proclaimed to all Jews “... to ascend the site of the Imperial Throne, to dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his Dine and his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle...”4
In 1470, Jews expelled from Bavaria by Ludwig X found refuge in the Ottoman Empire.5
Sultan Bayezid II’s offer of refuge gave new hope to the persecuted Sephardim. In 1492, the Sultan ordered the governors of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire “not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially.”6 According to Bernard Lewis, “the Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled.”
Immanuel Aboab attributes to Bayezid II the famous remark that “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey.”7
The arrival of the Sephardim altered the structure of the community, and the original group of Romaniote Jews was absorbed.
These Jews settled in various Ottoman cities, such as Salonika, but it was not until the late sixteenth century that they moved to Smyrna, which has become a significant port city. The arrival of the Sephardim altered the structure of the community, and the original group of Romaniote Jews (descendants of Greek-speaking Jews) was absorbed.
Over the centuries, many European Jews, escaping persecution in their native countries, settled in the Ottoman Empire. In 1537, the Jews were expelled from Apulia (Italy) after the city fell under Papal control; in 1542, those expelled from Bohemia by King Ferdinand found a haven in the Ottoman Empire.8 In March of 1556, Sultan Suleyman “the Magnificent” wrote a letter to Pope Paul IV asking for the immediate release of the Ancona Marranos, which he declared Ottoman citizens. The pope had no other alternative than to release them, the Ottoman Empire being the “Superpower” of those days.
By 1477, Jewish households in Istanbul numbered 1,647 or 11% of the total. Half a century later, 8,070 Jewish houses were listed in the city.
For 300 years following the expulsion, the prosperity and creativity of the Ottoman Jews rivaled that of the Golden Age of Spain. Istanbul, Izmir, Safed, and Salonica became the centers of Sephardic Jewry. The Tu B’Shevat seder was developed in Izmir in the seventeenth century. The creator may have been Shabbetai Zvi, the pseudo-Messiah, and founder of the Sabbatean movement. In reaction to Zvi, Izmir’s Jews withdrew from any secular pursuits.
Most of the court physicians were Jews: Hakim Yakoub, Joseph and Moshe Hamon, Daniel Fonseca, and Gabriel Buenauentura, to name only very few.
The printing press was one of the most significant innovations Jews brought to the Ottoman Empire. In 1493, only one year after their expulsion from Spain, David & Samuel ibn Nahmias established the first Hebrew printing press in Istanbul.
Jews often carried out Ottoman diplomacy. Joseph Nasi, appointed the Duke of Naxos, was the former Portuguese Marrano Joao Miques. Another Portuguese Marrano, Aluaro Mandes, was named Duke of Mytilene in return for his diplomatic services to the Sultan. Salamon ben Nathan Eskenazi arranged the first diplomatic ties with the British Empire. Jewish women such as Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi “La Seniora” and Esther Kyra exercised considerable influence in the Court.
In the free air of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish literature flourished. Joseph Caro compiled the Shulkhan Arukh. Shlomo haLevi Alkabes composed the Lekhah Dodi, a hymn that welcomes the Sabbath according to Sephardic and Ashkenazi rituals. Jacob Culi began to write the famous MeAm Loez. Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac Assa became known as the father of Judeo-Spanish literature.
On October 27, 1840, Sultan Abdulmecid issued his famous ferman concerning the “Blood Libel Accusation,” saying: “... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth...”.
Under Ottoman tradition, each non-Muslim religious community was responsible for its institutions, including schools. In the early 19th century, Abraham de Camondo established a modern school, “La Escola,” causing a severe conflict between conservative and secular rabbis, which was only settled by the intervention of Sultan Abdulaziz in 1864. The same year the Takkanot haKehilla (By-laws of the Jewish Community) was published, defining the structure of the Jewish community.
Efforts to reform the Ottoman Empire led to the proclamation of the Hatti Humayun in 1856, which made all Ottoman citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, equal under the law. As a result, the leadership of the community began to shift away from the religious figure to secular forces.
World War I brought to an end the glory of the Ottoman Empire. In its place rose the young Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was elected president, the Caliphate was abolished, and a secular constitution was adopted.
Recognized in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne as a fully independent state within its present-day borders, Turkey accorded minority rights to the three principal non-Muslim religious minorities and permitted them to carry on with their own schools, social institutions, and funds. In 1926, on the eve of Turkey’s adoption of the Swiss Civil Code, the Jewish Community renounced its minority status on personal rights.
During the tragic days of World War II, Turkey managed to maintain its neutrality. As early as 1933, Ataturk invited prominent German Jewish professors to flee Nazi Germany and settle in Turkey. Before and during the war, these scholars contributed a great deal to the development of the Turkish university system.
During World War II, Turkey served as a safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors of Nazism. While the Jewish communities of Greece were wiped out almost entirely by Hitler, the Turkish Jews remained secure. Several Turkish diplomats, Ambassadors Behic Erkin and Numan Menemencioglu; Consul Generals Fikret Sefik Ozdoganci, Bedii Arbel, Selahattin Ulkumen; Consuls Namik Kemal Yolga and Necdet Kent, to name a few, spent all their efforts to save from the Holocaust the Turkish Jews in those countries and succeeded.9 Mr. Salahattin Ulkumen, Consul General at Rhodes from 1943-1944, was recognized by the Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile (“Hassid Umot ha’Olam”) in June 1990. Turkey continues to be a shelter, a haven for all who have to flee dogmatism, intolerance, and persecution.
Most Jewish children attend state schools or private Turkish or foreign language schools, and many are enrolled in the universities. Additionally, the Community maintains a primary school for 300 pupils, a secondary school for 250 students in Istanbul, and an elementary school for 140 children in Izmir. Turkish is the language of instruction, and Hebrew is taught 35 hours a week.
While younger Jews speak Turkish as their native language, the older generation is more at home speaking in French or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). A conscious effort is spent to preserve the heritage of Judeo-Spanish.
For long years Turkish Jews have had their own press. La Buena Esperansa and La Puerta dew Oriente started in Izmir in 1843, and Or Israel began to be published in Istanbul ten years later. Now one newspaper survives, SALOM (Shalom), an eight-page weekly with seven pages written in Turkish and one in Judeo-Spanish.
A Community Calendar (Halila) is published by the Chief Rabbinate every year and distributed free of charge to all who have paid their dues (Kisba) to the welfare bodies. The Community cannot levy taxes but can request donations.
Two Jewish hospitals, the 98-bed Or haHayim in Istanbul and the 22-bed Karatas Hospital in Izmir serve the Community. Both cities have homes for the aged (Moshav Zekinim) and several welfare associations to assist the poor, the sick, the needy children, and orphans.
Social clubs containing libraries, cultural and sports facilities, and discotheques give young people the chance to meet.
The Jewish Community is a tiny group in Turkey today, considering that the total population, which is 99% Muslim exceeds 57 million. Despite their number, the Jews have distinguished themselves. Several Jewish professors are teaching at the universities of Istanbul and Ankara, and many Turkish Jews are prominent in business, industry, and liberal professions.
The present (2021) size of the Jewish Community is estimated at around 14,500, out of a total population of 70 million. This is a small number compared to the 80,000 Jews who lived in Turkey at the time of Israel’s establishment. The vast majority, about 17,000, live in Istanbul, with a community of about 1,500 in Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Canakkale, Iskenderun, and Kirklareli. Sephardim make up 96% of the Community, with Ashkenazim accounting for the rest. There are about 100 Karaites, an independent group that does not accept the authority of the Chief Rabbi.
Turkish Jews are legally represented, as they have been for many centuries, by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi is assisted in his affairs by a religious Council of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Rav David Asseo held the position of Chief Rabbi from 1961 until he died in 2003. The current Chief Rabbi of Turkey is Ishak Haleva, who held the position of Rav David’s Asseo’s deputy for seven years before his death. Thirty-five Lay Counselors look after the secular affairs of the Community, and an Executive Committee of fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay Counselors, runs the daily affairs.
Synagogues are classified as religious foundations (Vakifs). There are 19 active synagogues in Turkey, 16 in Istanbul, and six rabbis. Three are in service in holiday resorts during summer only. Some of them are very old, especially Ahrida Synagogue in the Balat area, which dates from the middle 15th century. The 15th and 16th-century Haskoy and Kuzguncuk cemeteries in Istanbul are still in use today. There are eleven Kosher butcher shops, a Jewish newspaper, and two exclusively Jewish senior living facilities in Turkey.
In October 2013, Nesim Güveniş, deputy chairman of the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel, reported that hundreds of young Turkish Jews emigrated to the United States or Western Europe triggered by increased anti-Semitism led by the Turkish government. The hostile atmosphere in the country toward Jews and Israel emerged with the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was aggravated by the deadly Gaza Flotilla incident in 2010.
Turkey has experienced underlying anti-Semitism for much of its history, but the anti-Semitic ideas started to show publicly after Erdogan’s rise to power. Erdogan’s government platform comes from a strict Islamist ideology.
According to the 2015 Anti-Defamation League Global 100 index of anti-Semitism, 69% of Turks hold some anti-Semitic beliefs. This figure is significantly higher than other European averages and only slightly lower than the Middle East average.
Rifat Bali is a scholar who has spent years of his life studying the Jewish community and observed that Jews have never been accepted as full citizens by a country that claims to be secular. Turkey According to Bali, anyone who is a non-Muslim is not welcomed warmly into Turkish arms.
Jews in Turkey have been the victims of senseless violence directed at them because of their religion on multiple occasions. On September 6, 1986, a member of the Palestinian terror group Abu Nidal opened fire on Jewish worshipers participating in services at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, killing 22 Jewish individuals. Neve Shalom synagogue was again the target of a terror attack on November 15, 2003, when multiple truck bombs went off all around Istanbul, one exploding in front of Neve Shalom and another exploding in front of the Bet Israel congregation. The blasts killed 57 and injured over 700.
The ADL survey demonstrated that Turkey harbors more anti-Semitic sentiments than Iran and most other Middle-Eastern countries. The 2014 survey found that 75% of Turkish citizens believe that Jewish individuals have too much power in the business world. Also, 69% of Turkish citizens believe Jewish Turks are more loyal to Israel than Turkey. According to Turkish politician Aykan Erdemir anti-Semitism, hate crimes, discrimination, hate speeches, and violence directed at minorities are all on the rise in Turkey, creating a hostile environment for the few thousand Jews left there.
In mid-2014, Operation Protective Edge sparked worldwide criticism of Israel’s actions. Over 30,000 Turkish-language tweets were published during and after the operation that stated positive things about Hitler and his atrocities against the Jews during the Holocaust. A popular Turkish pop music singer with over 500,000 followers, Yildiz Tilbe, tweeted the message “May God Bless Hitler.”
Despite this increasingly anti-Semitic environment, Jews are not choosing to flee to Israel. Only 74 Jews made Aliyah to Israel from Turkey in 2013. Jews looking to escape Turkey have turned to the United States and Eastern European countries for a new beginning instead of Israel.
A Pew Research Center Poll released in November 2014 detailed the true feelings of the Turkish population towards Israel. According to the poll, 86% of Turkish citizens hold a negative view of Israel, with only 2% of Turkish individuals viewing Israel in a positive light. Of the nine countries in the survey, including Israel, Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others, Israel was viewed as the least favorable, followed by Iran. Turks had the most favorable view of Saudi Arabia of the choices offered.
After a 5-year, $2.5 million restoration project, in March 2015, the Great Synagogue in Edirne was reopened after over 40 years of decay. In the Great Synagogue’s heyday, after it opened in 1909, it served a population of approximately 20,000 Jews. Thousands of Jews fled the town of Edirne in 1934 following a mob attack against the people, but many remained and rebuilt their lives. The Great Synagogue was Turkey’s first temple to open in two generations. As of its reopening, the Synagogue does not serve a congregation and serves mainly as a museum rather than a functioning place of worship. In 2015, there were only three Jewish families left in the town of Edirne.
The island of Buyukada is a beautiful summer getaway for all Turks, but the island is especially popular with Jews. During the summer months, 4,000+ of the 17,000 Jews in Turkey flock to the island paradise for vacation and relaxation. The island boasts two kosher butchers, a kosher restaurant, and various other services and shops.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented on the recent improvement of relations between Turkey and Israel in December 2015, stating that “this normalization process has a lot to offer to us, to Israel, to Palestine and also to the region... The region needs this.” Turkey-Israel relations had been strained since the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Incident, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.
Turkish citizens celebrated Hanukkah in a public display for the first time on December 14, 2015. Turkish Jews lit a giant menorah in Istanbul’s historical Ortakoy Square, and traditional Chanukah blessings were recited via loudspeaker. The head of Turkey’s Jewish community, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, spoke at the event, which many government officials attended. In a statement released on December 7, Turkey’s President Erdogan commented, “I wish peace, happiness and welfare to all Jews, primarily Turkey’s Jewish citizens who are an inseparable part of our society, on the occasion of Hanukkah.”
The Istopol Synagogue in Istanbul was vandalized in January 2016, following the first service held in the building in 65 years. “Terrorist Israel, there is Allah,” was scrawled on an outer wall of the building in white paint. The synagogue, located in a majority Jewish neighborhood, goes largely unused.
In July 2017, an attempted coup was violently suppressed by the government. Hundreds of posts on Twitter blamed the coup on Jews. This, along with Erdogan’s anti-Semitic policies, prompted a dramatic increase in the number of Turkish Jews immigrating to Israel from 164 in 2016 to 400 in 2017.
Istanbul is a popular destination for Jewish travelers, and its airport, one of the busiest in Europe, is often a transit point for other destinations. In 2022, the airport introduced a kosher vending machine and hot kosher meals sold in some of the airport’s lounges. This is a welcome development for the many observant Jews who had difficulty finding meals.
In February 2023, Istanbul police arrested 15 suspects connected to ISIS who were plotting to target synagogues and churches.
Chief Rabbinate of Turkey
Yemenici Sokak 23 Beyoglu, Istanbul
Tel. 90 212 244 8794
Fax. 90 212 244 1980
Mahatma Gandhi Sok. 85, Ankara
Tel. 90 312 446 3605, Fax. 90 312 426 1533
Beth Israel Synagogue
265 Mithatpasa Street
Sources: Guleryuz, Naim Avigdor. “The Turkish Jews: 700 Years of Togetherness”, Gozlem (2009);
The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Annual Report 2005 - Turkey;
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
“Poll: Turkish People Dislike Israel Slightly More Than ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas,” Haaretz (November 3, 2014);
Jean Yackley, Ayla. “Turkey unveils Great Synagogue as Jewish population fades,”Reuters (March 25, 2015);
“Reconciliation pact struck with Turkey: Israel,” Yahoo News (December 17, 2015);
Sibel Ekin, “More Turkish Jews seek new life in Israel,” Ahval, (March 3, 2018).
David I. Klein, “Istanbul Airport opens a kosher meal vending machine for its many Jewish travelers,” JTA, (March 8, 2022).
David I. Klein, “Turkey arrests ISIS members allegedly targeting Istanbul synagogues,” JTA, (February 6, 2023).
(1) Mark Alan Epstein, "The Ottoman Jewish Communuties and their role in the 15th and 16th centuries"
(2) Joseph Nehama, "Histoire des Israelites de Salonique"
(3) Bernard Lewis, "The Jews of Islam"
(4) Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 16 page 1532
(5) Avram Galante, "Histoire des Juifs d'lstanbul", Volume 2
(6) Abraham Danon, in the Review Yossef Daath No. 4
(7) Immanual Aboab, "A Consolacam as Tribulacoes de Israel, III Israel"
(8) H. Graetz, "History of the Jews"
(9) Immanual Aboab, "A Consolacam as Tribulacoes de Israel, III Israel"