Wartell Lobel on Cohen, 'Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era'

Julia Phillips Cohen
Rebecca Wartell Lobel

Julia Phillips Cohen. Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 256 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-934040-8.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wartell Lobel (Monash University) Published on H-Judaic (March, 2017) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow

Ottoman Jews displayed their civic fidelity through a variety of expressions in the nineteenth century: economic, religious, military, and community institutional engagement were all forms of modern patriotism. In Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, Julia Phillips Cohen presents the complexities of social and political Jewish life in the last century of the empire. Cohen offers a nuanced history that considers a fascinating range of sources from Jewish communities with deeply ingrained Ottoman identities.

As the book title suggests, Cohen focuses her research on Ottoman Jews of Sephardi origin. Chapters 1 and 2 consider examples of public initiatives that were essentially justified by the “myth” of a special Ottoman-Jewish relationship (p. 4). According to Cohen, the trope of Ottoman benevolence toward the Sephardim after their expulsion from Iberia was used to inspire Jewish participation in larger Ottoman enterprises four centuries later. For example, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 saw the voluntary enlistment of Jews in the Turkish military after calls from local Jewish media and religious leadership. Wistful memories of Ottoman protection of the Jews were invoked to inspire participation in civic life: it was the Jewish community’s collective duty to serve the empire in honor of their ancestors’ asylum granted in 1492. Similar sentimentality was employed in the 1892 proposal of a new Ottoman Jewish holiday commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of the expulsion from Spain. The event, meant to be a “spectacle of loyalty,” also drew on the myth of Jewish-Ottoman accord as incentive for a public display of allegiance (p. 50).

In contrast to the planned commemorations of 1892, Cohen provides the example of the Ottomans’ participation in the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, in which Jews, Muslims, and Armenians joined in a display of religious diversity and cooperation. The celebration of Ottoman excellence was brought all the way to the New World, Cohen explains, where the World Fair gave the opportunity for Jews, along with their compatriots, to display their imperial pride. Rather than rely on the earlier myth of an exclusive Jewish-Ottoman relationship, the World Fair allowed for a new narrative to be constructed: one in which Ottoman Jews were valuable, integrated members of a larger diverse and vibrant empire.

The latter chapters in Cohen’s book consider the changing political landscape of the Ottoman Empire’s final years, and the ways in which Jewish communities adapted to this era of transformation. Cohen offers an interesting glimpse at the dynamics between Jews, Muslims, and Greek Christians in the third chapter, as the Ottomans lost their grip on the Mediterranean and entered into war with Greece in 1897. The Jews found themselves in solid alliance with Turkish Muslims, both culturally and politically, as opposed to those from Christian Europe. Cohen’s examples of tension between the different religious groups in Crete, Salonika, and Izmir all allude to the growing cultural divide between East and West, Islam and Christianity as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The Ottoman Jews’ unflinching loyalty to their beloved empire is exemplified by historical moments ranging from harassment of Greek soldiers to the extreme of public conversion to Islam by Jews before joining the Turkish military.

Not even the rise of modern Zionism could break the bond of Ottoman Jews to their imperial homeland. Cohen makes the case that, as Jews wrestled with issues of nationalism and self-determination, Ottoman Zionism was distinct from its European counterpart, as it was often viewed as compatible with allegiance to the empire. Many saw the potential for a Jewish state within Ottoman lands: Zionism, in essence, did not have to be a nationalist separatist movement, but rather it was a vision of a harmonious protectorate under an imperial umbrella. Not all Jews were captivated by Zionism, though, and chapter 4 covers the ideological diversification of Ottoman Jews in the early twentieth century. Cohen presents some very interesting gestures made by the Jews of Salonika, for instance, as they subtly demonstrated their political aims in a series of city arches built for the sultan's 1911 visit. Sponsorship of the construction of the arches by Jewish community organizations was meant to assure the state officials of the Jews’ loyalty. Meanwhile, anyone in Salonika considered to be antipatriotic, including those of socialist and nationalist Zionist persuasions, was silenced so as to give the impression of a united Jewish community. This impression was false, of course: by the time the Ottoman Empire came to an end, the Jews within its realm were as ideologically diverse as those in the West.

Cohen’s research for Becoming Ottomans gives the reader a compelling look at life for Ottoman Jews in the modern period. The earlier “myth” of Jewish-Ottoman symbiosis is dispelled in this book, replaced instead with real-world case studies that show the variety of experiences of Ottoman Jews. If there is a weakness in the book, it is that Cohen questions the Sephardi-centric narrative of Ottoman Jewish history and yet she limits her own research to Sephardi sources. It would be interesting to unpack the complexities of Ottoman Jewish identities in the modern era in the context of centuries of integration with Jews of Ashkenazi, Romaniote, and Arabic-speaking origin. As Cohen states, “Understanding Jewish Ottomanism as a form of inherited loyalty that Jews passed down from one generation to the next assumes that Ottoman Jews remained unmoved by the world around them” (p. 138). To the contrary, the fascinating story of the Jews reflects the story of the Ottoman Empire more broadly: transformation occurred through interaction with the people and ideas around them. 

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Citation: Rebecca Wartell Lobel. Review of Cohen, Julia Phillips, Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49130

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