• The real question is: Now that the ethnic-cleansing campaign of the Turkish regime has been "successfully" completed, and there are only two Jews left in Edirne, why is the governor of the city still so angry?

  • The sweet little secret in both Turkey and Europe is that anti-Semites do not need the existence of a Jewish state to attack or threaten Jews. Hatred of Jews did not start with the re-establishment of the state of Israel.

  • The truth is that those who carried out ethnic cleansing of Jews are the last persons who should whine about the non-existent Israeli "occupation." Israelis are not occupiers in Israel. Israel is the home of the Jews; you cannot be an occupier in your own home. Israel has the legal, moral and historical right to exist as a sovereign state.

The latest anti-Semitic statement in Turkey was made on November 21 by Dursun Ali Sahin, the governor of Edirne, a city in Eastern Thrace. Governor Sahin announced that because he was angry at Israel, he would turn the city's synagogue into a museum. "While those bandits [Israeli security forces] blow winds of war inside al-Aqsa and slay Muslims," he said, "we build their synagogues. I say this with a huge hatred inside me. We clean their graveyards, send their projects to boards. But the synagogue here will be registered only as a museum, and there will be no exhibitions inside it."

A view of the Great Synagogue" of Edirne, from 2010. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons/Yabancı)

In response to the uproar that followed, Governor Sahin phoned the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Ishak Haleva, to apologize and, according to the newspaper, Salom, said his statements had been misunderstood and distorted by the media.

The Director General of the General Directorate of Foundations, Adnan Ertem, then said that the synagogue would, after all, remain a house of worship.

More shocking, however, is the demographic makeup of Edirne's current population.

Before the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, the Jewish population of Edirne, for centuries a home to Jews, was 13,000, as reported in the detailed essay "The Jews of Edirne," by Rifat Bali, an independent scholar specializing in the history of Turkish Jewry. But by 1998, Edirne had three Jews left: Yasef Romano, who was born in 1938, and Rifat and Sara Miftani, a couple who owned a shop there.

Today, the current Jewish population of Edirne is two.

The Jewish presence in Edirne dates back to early Byzantine times, during the rule of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (reigned 379-395 CE). During the Ottoman Empire, Edirne -- home to many Jewish intellectuals, scientists, musicians, publishers and merchants -- was as central to Jews as Constantinople (Istanbul) and Thessaloniki.

What happened?

The "Turkification" of Turkey: Anti-Semitic Attacks against Jews during the Early Years of the New Republic

In January 1923, provoked by a series of anti-Semitic pieces published in the Pasaeli newspaper in Edirne, residents of Edirne gathered in the city center and shouted, "Your turn to leave this country will come, too! Jews, get out!" After the police were barely able to prevent attacks against Jewish shops, Jews who lived in small towns, such as Babaeski, moved to big cities, such as Istanbul.

Later that year, in December 1923, the Jewish community of several hundred living in Corlu, in Eastern Thrace, was ordered to leave the town within 48 hours. Although the decision was delayed at the request of the Chief Rabbi, a similar order, given to the Jews in Catalca, a town in Istanbul, was applied immediately.

The reason for the anger was clear: Within the Turkification campaign of the new Republic, Armenians and Greeks had been eliminated, but Jews, who were successful merchants, remained.

Prohibitions against Free Movement for Jews

In Anatolia, in June 1923, free movement for Jews was prohibited. Many Jewish merchants who had journeyed to Istanbul from the cities in Thrace -- such as Edirne, Kirklareli and Uzunkopru -- and Jewish mothers and children who had come to Istanbul because of health or other reasons, were unable to return.

The same prohibition was again imposed in 1925 when the Turkish Ministry of the Interior ordered there to be an area of about 110 km. between the towns of Gebze and Catalca in which Jews could travel. Jews were banned from entering Anatolia without the permission of the Turkish Ministry of the Interior.

"Citizen, Speak Turkish!"

On January 13, 1928, a campaign to force minorities to speak Turkish -- with the slogan of "Citizen, Speak Turkish!" -- was begun by the Student Union of the Law School of the Ottoman University (today's Istanbul University); the public use of languages other than Turkish was prohibited.

The whole country was covered with signs repeating this edict. Turkish youths warned minorities to speak Turkish. And the message further spread into the mass media and political circles across the country. Those who did not comply were threatened, beaten or brought to court. Hundreds were reportedly arrested for speaking languages other than Turkish, or had fines imposed.[1]

Committees were established throughout Turkey; posters of "Citizen, Speak Turkish!" were hung in public places and all citizens were urged to speak Turkish. In Edirne, the campaign was conducted by students in an even more severe and anti-Semitic way. Jews were told that those who did not speak Turkish would not be allowed to live a comfortable life or would be driven out of the country. Bakeries were not allowed to bake matzoh for Passover. Some mosques preached that Muslims should boycott Jews and not engage with them.[2]

This campaign, which had started in Istanbul, soon spread to other cities. Edirne's Jews established a commission that made the following recommendations: "Turkish will be spoken during all meetings. Rabbis will prompt people to speak Turkish in religious ceremonies and rituals. Girl and boy students at Hebrew schools will be obliged to speak Turkish at school as well as outside and in their homes. Signatures of merchants and shopkeepers will be taken [agreeing] that they speak Turkish. In places such as coffeehouses run and used by Jews, waitresses will serve their customers in Turkish." Coffeehouse owners hung signboards that read, "Speak Turkish;" Rabbis told Jews to cooperate.

The 1934 Turkish Resettlement Law

The 1934 Turkish Resettlement Law, based on being Turkish and having Turkish as a mother tongue, resulted not only in the forced assimilation of all non-Turks, but also in their forced displacement.

Jews who had lived in Eastern Thrace were forcibly sent to Istanbul; and scores of Kurds in Kurdish town and cities were forcibly moved to western cities across Turkey.

Article 7 states:

"Those who are not of the Turkish race, even if they do not seek the help of the government, are obliged to settle in the place that the government will choose and to stay there until they get permission from the government [to leave]. Those who go elsewhere without permission will first be sent back. If they repeat that, they will be expatriated with the decision of the cabinet council."

Article 11 states:

A) It is prohibited to re-establish villages, neighborhoods, worker and artist communities that would entirely consist of those whose mother tongue is not Turkish and for those persons to monopolize (restrict) a village, neighborhood, a business or art to their cognates.

B) With the decision of the cabinet council, the minister of the interior is obliged to take necessary measures…against those who are not attached to the Turkish culture or [who] use a language other than Turkish. Displacement, though not entirely, and expatriation are among those measures.

C) The population of non-Muslims in towns and cities cannot be more than 10% of the whole population and non-Muslims cannot establish separate neighborhoods.

And Article 13 states:

"It is obligatory to resettle those who are not of the Turkish race in villages, towns and cities in a way that they will be interspersed and not form separate neighborhoods or groups."

The Anti-Jewish Pogrom in Thrace in 1934

From June 21-July 4, 1934, masses of people, provoked by the anti-Semitic writings of authors such as Cevat Rifat Atilhan and Nihal Atsiz, attacked Jews in Edirne, Tekirdag, Canakkale, Gelibolu, Kirklareli, Luleburgaz, and Babaeski. As a result, thousands of Jews in Thrace abandoned their possessions and fled for their lives to Istanbul or out of the country. Jewish homes and shops were looted, and Jewish women were reportedly raped.

Another reason for the 1934 pogrom was that the ruling Republican People's Party [CHP] had allowed the obligatory Turkish Resettlement Law, which had primarily targeted Kurds in Kurdish regions, also to be applied to the Jews in Thrace, removing Jews from the area. Even if the pogrom was not directly organized by the ruling CHP, they had at least condoned it.

The attacks apparently started slowly.[3] First, authorities in Edirne ordered that animals not be slaughtered for meat according to Jewish religious rituals in slaughterhouses. Then, the authorities prevented Jews from going to work -- thereby facilitating the boycotts of Jewish workplaces. When Jews complained to the governor, they were told that these activities were nothing extraordinary; that Muslim people did not want Jews, and that it would be better for Jews to leave the city.

Turkish Jews who fled for their lives to Greece later said that the villagers had raided downtown Edirne. On July 2, 1934, villagers with stones and sticks in their hands shouted "Death to Jews!" and destroyed Jewish shops and homes. They beat Jews, took them to the train station and sent them to Istanbul.[4]

A harsh boycott was also placed on Jews. Bakery owners were ordered not to sell them bread, or if they did, to sell a slice for five liras, far more than the price charged to non-Jews.[5]

Ayse Hur, a Turkish historian and columnist, also describes the pogrom in Edirne:

"On 2 July 1934, a group of aggressors raided the Jewish neighborhood in Edirne, looting shops and homes. They beat the Jews and ordered them to go to Istanbul. Panicked, the wealthy ones headed for Istanbul using the first vehicle they were able to find, while the poor or those who were not able to find cars headed for the borders of Greece and Bulgaria on foot. A handful of terrified and destitute Jews were left behind. The bakeries did not sell them bread, the shops did not give them food and water carriers did not distribute them water. Administrative authorities, whose duty was to protect citizens regardless of their ethnic identity -- instead of carrying out their duty -- ordered, in a notice on July 3, that those who stayed in the city should leave in 48 hours."

"The most painful incidents were experienced in Kirklareli [a province in Thrace]. The incidents were escalated by a group of high school students who threw stones at the houses in Jewish neighborhoods. After unarmed soldiers and people also joined in those stonings, the incidents got out of hand and 65 houses were looted. The looters caught Moshe Fintz, the Rabbi of Kirklareli, in his house, stripped him naked, cut his beard with a razor and stole the money he had saved up. They cut off the fingers of a few young women in the streets to steal their rings and tried to rape a girl. As it dawned, 400 Jews in Kirklareli ran to the train station in terror to flee to Istanbul. Interestingly, in the train station where there had always been three wagons at most, there were 16 that morning."

At least 100 Jews complained about the attacks to Prime Minister Ismet Inonu. He replied on July 5, 1934, that, "according to the laws of the Republic, it is a crime to try to drive Jews out of Thrace." He advised that "the complainants should seek their rights by applying to the courthouse and prosecute their aggressors."[6]

But after President of the Turkish Assembly, Kazim Ozalp, spoke with President Ataturk regarding the incidents, he said that anti-Semitism had not spread to Turkey and these incidents were isolated acts of some individuals.

On July 14, 1934, Recep Peker, General Secretary of the ruling CHP, sent a "confidential" circular to the local branches of his party about the incidents. Among the questions he asked was: "Why had the general secretary of the party not been informed during the processes of the prompting, preparation and implementation of the issue?"

"Peker was angry," Hur writes, "that he had not been informed of 'the prompting, preparation and implementation' of the issue, not… that it had not been prevented. So even if the headquarters of the CHP had not been involved... its local branches in Thrace were. The fact that similar attacks were carried out in a large territory almost simultaneously increased suspicions that the attacks had been organized." Even after the people of Edirne calmed down, however, it became hard for Jews to restore their confidence in being able to live safely. In late July, threatening letters were still being sent to Jews, and new attempts were launched to boycott them.

Anti-Semitism in Edirne lingered on long after the pogrom. On October 7, 1934, for example, a news report said that schools were ordered not to enroll Jewish students.[7] The living conditions of Jews in the city deteriorated day by day. Jews were not given jobs; Jewish families began leaving Edirne every week. Eli Shaul, a Turkish-Jewish journalist who covered the pogroms, confirmed that Jewish girls and women were raped during the attacks. In 1950, Shaul, with his family, emigrated to Israel.

After the pogroms, 60 people, including the governor and chief of police of the province of Kirklareli and the president of the Kirklareli Chamber of Commerce, were arrested but later released. Only six people were found guilty and sentenced to prison -- for three to six months. Jews were extremely worried that similar attacks would take place again in the cities of Thrace, so people would lock their doors at 5:00 pm, and after that hour did not venture outdoors.

After the pogrom, daily persecution of Jews in Edirne continued. Jewish tradesmen were not allowed to sell their products in bazaars; they were jostled and assaulted, and when they sought help from police, they were advised to stay at home.

After the pogrom, Jews had to sell their properties and lands at cheaper than their actual value. Then government officials made a decision to ban Jews from selling their real estate to Turkish citizens at all. Jews were therefore forced to sell their real estate illegally, and prices fell even lower than before.

"Anti-Semitism in this country has never ended," according to Isil Demirel, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology in Istanbul's Yeditepe University. "In the Ottoman Empire, there were rules about what Jews could and could not do. Everything including the height of their houses and colors of their clothes was determined by laws. So the Jew is a figure that is always reconstructed as an enemy. It is seen as a snake that lifts its head behind all evil."

Zionism in Edirne

As Zionism -- support for the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland in the historic Land of Israel -- is for many Jews a heartfelt 2,000-year-old part of their history of being persecuted -- Jews in the Ottoman Empire as well as in Turkey engaged in Zionist activities.[8]

During the Ottoman Empire, Jews had been allowed to engage in Zionist activities, but during the rule of the new Republic, these were prohibited. The one-party regime of the CHP was neither pluralistic nor democratic. It persisted in its ideology of "one language, one ideal, one culture." It did not allow Zionism, an ideal different from "Turkishness."

In 1923, the Jews in Edirne, according to Yomtov Alkabes in his memoirs, stopped their Zionist activities. One night, some people had gone to Zionist organizations and had torn up photos of Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl, Nahum Sokolow, and Max Nordau. The police investigation bore no result.[9] Many Jewish youths lost hope, abandoned their businesses and emigrated to Palestine, the name of Israel under the British Mandate, until its independence in 1948.

In 1937, the last of the Alliance Israélite Schools in Thrace was closed down.[10]

During the 1930s, as reported by Alkabes[11], Jewish children in Turkish schools were mistreated by teachers. Even when they received good grades, they were failed because they were Jews. Jewish children were not allowed to express opinions; if they did, the teachers would call them "dirty Jew." Encouraged by their teachers, other students would also start shouting at and harassing the Jewish children. Anti-Semitism soon became rooted among students and families. Jewish students, tired of being insulted by their supposed friends, dropped out of school and began hanging around in coffee houses.

To stop them from going astray, Alkabes relates that he consulted Dr. Yosef Goldin, based in Istanbul, to help students throughout those times. Goldin went to Edirne, gathered all the Jewish boys and girls aged 13 to 15 and, started educating them on Jewish life, culture and Zionism. Students learned the Hebrew alphabet; Jewish holidays were secretly celebrated, and Jews such as Joseph Trumpeldor, who had lost their lives in their struggle for Zionist ideals, were quietly commemorated.

In 1944, the Jewish Agency invited a group of Jewish youths in Edirne to emigrate to Palestine.

During the years of the Second World War, Zionist activities in Edirne decreased but the Edirne Jewish community held classes to teach Jewish history to Jewish youths. In 1940, however, due to economic difficulties, the Jewish school owned by the Edirne Jewish community was closed down.

After the Jewish state was established on May 14, 1948, many Jews in Edirne and across Turkey started to emigrate to Israel. Jews, who had been going through hard times in Turkey, were looking for a new future in a new state.[12]

90 Years after the Anti-Semitic Attacks and Pogroms in Edirne and Thrace

The real question is: Now that the ethnic-cleansing campaign of the Turkish regime has been "successfully" completed, and there are only two Jews left in Edirne, why is the governor of the city still so angry and filled with such a "huge hatred"? Is he angry that there are almost no Jews left to persecute in Thrace, so that he has to threaten a synagogue instead?

The sweet little secret in both Turkey and Europe is that anti-Semites do not need the existence of a Jewish state to attack or threaten Jews. Anti-Semitism in Turkey and Europe has been around for more than 2,000 years. Hatred of Jews did not start with the re-establishment of the state of Israel. In modern Turkey, it has been promoted systematically for more than 90 years.

When the Jews in Edirne and across Turkey -- as well as in many places throughout the world -- were killed, attacked or forcibly assimilated, there was no Jewish state in Israel.

The truth is that those who carried out an ethnic cleaning against the Jews in Thrace are the last persons on earth who should whine about the non-existent Israeli "occupation." Israelis are not occupiers in Israel. Israel is the home of Jews; you cannot be an occupier in your own home.

Israel does not need to prove its legitimacy. It already has the legal, moral and historical right to exist as a sovereign state. Even if all Jews were completely safe and sound around the world, as they should be, they would still have the right to establish their state and live freely in their own historic homeland.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist based in Ankara.


[1] Lerna Ekmekcioglu (2010), Improvising Turkishness: Being Armenian in post-Ottoman Istanbul (1918-1933). Ann Arbor; Başak Ince (2012), Citizenship and Identity in Turkey: From Atatürk's Republic to the Present Day. London: I.B. Tauris; Soner Cagaptay (2006), Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk? London, Routledge.

[2] Rifat Bali (2013). Jews of Edirne. In Emin Nedret Isli (Comp.), Edirne: Serhattaki Payıtaht (Edirne: Capital on the Borderline). Istanbul, Yapi Kredi Publications.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Haker, Erol (2007). Edirne Jewish Community and Alliance Schools 1867-1937. Gozlem Publishing House.

[11] Rifat Bali (2013). Jews of Edirne. In Emin Nedret Isli (Comp.), Edirne: Serhattaki Payıtaht (Edirne: Capital on the Borderline). Istanbul, Yapi Kredi Publications.

[12] Ibid.

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