Becom­ing Ottomans: Sephar­di Jews and Impe­r­i­al Cit­i­zen­ship in the Mod­ern Era

Julia Phillips Cohen
  • From the Publisher
December 22, 2014

The Ottoman-Jew­ish sto­ry has long been told as a romance between Jews and the empire. The pre­vail­ing view is that Ottoman Jews were pro­tect­ed and priv­i­leged by impe­r­i­al poli­cies and in return offered their unflag­ging devo­tion to the impe­r­i­al gov­ern­ment over many cen­turies. In this book, Julia Phillips Cohen offers a cor­rec­tive, argu­ing that Jew­ish lead­ers who pro­mot­ed this vision were doing so in response to a series of reforms enact­ed by the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ottoman state: the new equal­i­ty they gained came with a new set of expec­ta­tions. Ottoman sub­jects were sud­den­ly to become impe­r­i­al cit­i­zens, to con­sid­er their neigh­bors as broth­ers and their empire as a homeland.

Becom­ing Ottomans is the first book to tell the sto­ry of Jew­ish polit­i­cal inte­gra­tion into a mod­ern Islam­ic empire. It begins with the process set in motion by the impe­r­i­al state reforms known as the Tanz­i­mat, which spanned the years 1839 – 1876 and legal­ly eman­ci­pat­ed the non-Mus­lims of the empire. Four decades lat­er the sit­u­a­tion was dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize. By the close of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Ottoman Mus­lims and Jews alike reg­u­lar­ly referred to Jews as a mod­el com­mu­ni­ty, or mil­let-as a group whose lead­ers and mem­bers knew how to serve their state and were deeply engaged in Ottoman pol­i­tics. The strug­gles of dif­fer­ent Jew­ish indi­vid­u­als and groups to define the pub­lic face of their com­mu­ni­ties is under­scored in their respons­es to a series of impor­tant his­tor­i­cal events.

Chart­ing the dra­mat­ic rever­sal of Jews in the empire over a half-cen­tu­ry, Becom­ing Ottomans offers new per­spec­tives for under­stand­ing Jew­ish encoun­ters with moder­ni­ty and cit­i­zen­ship in a cen­tral­iz­ing, mod­ern­iz­ing Islam­ic state in an impe­r­i­al, mul­ti-faith landscape.

Discussion Questions