In July 1492, the new state of Spain expelled its Jewish and Muslim populations as part of the Spanish Inquisition. As a response, the Caliph of the Islamic state, Sultan Bayezid II, sent out the Ottoman Navy under the command of Admiral Kemal Reis to Spain in order to evacuate them safely to Ottoman lands. More than 150,000 Jewish refugees had sought refuge with the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan had sent out fermans (Imperial Edicts) throughout the Empire that the refugees were to be welcomed.
In his proclamation, the Sultan told the Jews that it was God’s command to take care of the descendants of the Prophets Abraham and Jacob, to see that they had food to eat and to take them under his protection. They should come and settle in Istanbul and live in peace in the shade of the fig tree where they could engage in free trade and own property.
Sultan Bayezid addressed a ferman to all the governors of his European provinces, ordering them not only to refrain from repelling the Spanish refugees, but to give them a friendly and welcome reception. He threatened all those who treated the Jews harshly or refused them admission into the Empire.
The Ottoman Caliph welcomes Jewish refugees on their arrival from Spain.
The Sultan ridiculed the conduct of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castilian for expelling an entire class of people.
“You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” he said to his courtiers — “he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”
The Ottoman empire which lasted more than 600 years and controlled a vast geographical area including Palestine, Iraq and Syria was the last of a succession of Islamic states from the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and history bears witness to the justice and humanity found within the caliphates. The caliphate would cater for the economical and social needs of the people – that of both Muslims and non Muslims – and allowed education, Science and arts to flourish.
Though empires like the Ottomans had their shortcomings the narrative of a caliphate or an Islamic state being only about violence, death and terrorism is dishonest and we mustn’t let a small group hi-jack a part of Islam which is an aspiration of Muslims worldwide.
The Ottoman Empire was a safe haven for the Jewish people, who experienced a golden age there similar to the Golden Age of Spain. During this period of history, Turkish-Jewish relations were phenomenal. It was a time of peace, prosperity, and serenity for Ottoman Jews.
Despite the inflammatory language frequently evoked by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in regards to the Jewish people, it is important to remember that there was a time in Jewish history when the Turkish and Jewish people were good friends. The Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of the Turkish Republic, was very much a pro-Jewish regime.
When the Ottoman Turks liberated Bursa in 1324 from the oppressive yoke of the Byzantine Empire, they discovered a heavily oppressed Jewish community. The Jews of Bursa treated the Ottoman Turks as their saviors. Sultan Orhan gave the Jews who previously couldn’t build synagogues permission to build the Etz Ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) Synagogue. Indeed, the liberation of the Jews of Bursa in 1324 from the tyranny of the Byzantines represented the beginning of the Turkish-Jewish friendship.
Starting in the early 14th century, Jews fleeing oppression began to settle in the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Turkey became the home to Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France in 1394, and from Sicily in the early 15th century. In the 1420’s, Jews living under Venetian controlled Salonika also migrated to the Ottoman Empire. In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II started to actively encourage Jews to settle in Ottoman lands. He issued a proclamation to all Jews stating, “Who among you of all my people that is with me, may his G-d he with him, let him ascend to Istanbul, the site of my imperial throne. Let him dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and beneath his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle. Let him dwell in the land, trade in it, and take possession of it.”
This statement was issued at a time when Jews across Europe were in great distress due to the persecutions they endured and were greatly in need of a safe haven. Rabbi Yitzhak Safarti sent out a letter to the Jewish communities of Europe soon after the Byzantine Empire collapsed completely in 1453, “inviting his co-religionists to leave the torments that they were enduring in Christendom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey.” Not too long after this letter was sent, in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain expelled the Jews from their country, which along with the Spanish Inquisition that followed it was arguably one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history prior to the Holocaust.
That same year, Sultan Bayazid II issued a proclamation ordering his officials to accept the Sephardic Jews into his country. Around 250,000 Jews came to settle in Ottoman lands, with most heading towards Istanbul and Salonika, which absorbed a total of 100,000 Jews. Immanual Aboab claimed that Bayazid II asserted that “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey.”
Given this history, it is hard not to have nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. It represented a time period in history when Jews and Muslims worked and thrived together for the greater good. It was a time of peace, tranquility, and serenity regarding Jewish-Turkish relations. Many modern Turks also have nostalgia for this period in history. Let’s hope that one day Turkish-Jewish relations can return to this.