Soltes weaves tale of Jews’ history in Turkey

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Ori Soltes, Goldman Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown University, speaks on the history of Jews in Turkey at Thursday afternoon’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

For his Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, Ori Soltes took the audience on a journey through the history of Jews in Turkey. Soltes teaches theology, philosophy and art history at Georgetown University. For seven years, he was the director and chief curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C.

Emperor Justinian I was the first in the history of the Byzantine Empire to make decrees specifically related to Jews, Soltes said. One of the decrees, for example, required that any synagogue that was needed as a church should be converted to one.

“Most famously, in order to underscore the importance of primacy … if Passover fell on the calendar before Easter, the Jews were forbidden to celebrate it until after Easter,” Soltes said.

Almost 1,000 years later, Bayezid II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, also did something unprecedented in that area’s relations with the Jews: After the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella declared in 1492 that Jews were no longer permitted to remain in Spain, Bayezid offered his kingdom to the Jews as a refuge.

“He was not a true altruist — what politician is? — and what he hoped to gain by the Jewish influx was probably access to a kind of international trade network,” Soltes said.

Jews were dispersed across the world, and they were also a minority with a language — Hebrew — that they were all at least familiar with. All else being equal, Soltes argued, Jews would have been more likely than any other group to be hospitable toward each other, and trade connections would have been easily established among them.

“The Jews would also bring some technology from Christendom that the Ottomans didn’t yet have, such as the printing press,” Soltes said.

He noted that the first books published in Istanbul were in Hebrew.

“A second technology … Bayezid hoped to gain from this influx was the knowledge of gunpowder, canonry — weapons technology,” Soltes said.

Moving forward to the 16th century, Soltes told the story of one Jew who was able to achieve a status in the Ottoman Empire unheard of among Jews. Joseph Nasi, under Sultan Suleiman I, was appointed Lord of Tiberias and then Duke of Naxos.

“The significance of this is, above all, that … the range of possibilities for non-Muslims in the Ottoman territories both depend, of course, on who happens to be the sultan and what his personal views are, and/or on how close or far you are from Istanbul,” Soltes said.

In 1933, Albert Einstein was able to convince Turkish officials to open their doors to Jews, especially Jewish intellectuals, that were being driven out of Germany at the time by the Nazis.

“You’ve got this influx by invitation,” Soltes said. “You also have a problem that takes place a few years later where a ship that is looking to deposit its refugees [in Turkey] — the Struma — is not allowed to do so, and that ship ultimately sinks …into the Mediterranean.”

Turkey was, in a way, a bastion for Jewish refugees, Soltes said, though it didn’t have a perfect record. But neither did the United States, a place even more difficult for Jews to immigrate to during that time.

After the formation of the state of Israel, there was a significant migration of Jews out of Turkey, either for ideological or economic reasons, Soltes said; few were fleeing persecution.

“In my own personal experience, I have found Jews in Turkey not at all uncomfortable with being Jews in Turkey,” he said. “Jews who leave … and go to Israel retain a strong tie to Turkey, even as they become comfortable as Israelis. It’s hard to quantify or qualify how solid all of that is because we live in a volatile world, and that part of the world is an even more volatile part of the world than the rest.”

Soltes then changed the topic of discussion to Fethullah Gülen, a man of controversy who nevertheless offers Turkey a new perspective regarding Islam and Judaism. Gülen was accused in the mid-1990s of trying to introduce Islamicism into the secular Turkish government and currently lives in the U.S., where he writes about the futures of Turkey and Islam.

“[Gülen] is what I would call an Islamist, a universalist and jihadist,” Soltes said.

Gülen argues Islam is the soul of Turkey, which Atatürk disregarded when he turned Turkey into a secular state. Without religion, humans lose their means of connecting with the metaphysical world of virtue, beauty and goodness, Gülen said.

“[Gülen] is also a universalist, because he feels equally strongly that other countries … have other religious souls which they should also promote,” Soltes said.

Gülen argues that people need to do more than coexist; they also need to embrace those of other faiths.

“So he is … an Islamist and a universalist,” Soltes said. “I believe that’s possible because he is fundamentally a Sufi, he is fundamentally a mystic. And the mystic recognizes that to be filled with God, which is the goal of the mystic, one must be empty of oneself. And it is the self, the ego, that causes me to say, ‘My form of faith is the only true form of faith.’ ”

God didn’t create a diverse planet and human race, while expecting religion to remain entirely homogeneous, Soltes said.

Finally, Gülen is also a jihadist, Soltes said, in the sense of one who struggles.

“A Muslim is one who surrenders to the word of God,” Soltes said, “which is why anyone who surrenders to the will of God can be called — ‘small m’ — ‘muslim.’ So a jihadist, in the Gülenian sense, is someone who struggles to make him or herself a better person by connecting him or herself both … to God and … to all other human beings through whatever means are most obvious.”

The movement that follows Gülen calls itself “Hizmet,” which means “service” in Turkish. And it’s clear to Soltes that those affiliated with Gülen make every effort to fix the world. This mindset of service to humanity is available to Turkey, Soltes said, and it could profoundly change Turkey’s future and interactions with its religious minorities.

There is one comment

Comments are closed.