Thank you Barry Lanza for sharing this article

  • from Zack_ashi  to Barry  then to me /  Jul 27, 2008

    By HILLEL HALKIN | July 24, 2007

    Some 12 or 13 years ago, when I was reporting from Israel for the New
    York weekly, the Forward, I wrote a piece on Kemal Ataturk, the
    founder of modern secular Turkey, that I submitted to the newspaper
    with some trepidation.

    In it, I presented evidence for the likelihood of Ataturk’s having had
    a Jewish — or more precisely, a Doenmeh — father.

    The Doenmeh were a heretical Jewish sect formed, after the conversion
    to Islam in the 17th century of the Turkish-Jewish messianic pretender
    Sabbetai Zevi, by those of his followers who continued to believe in him.

    Conducting themselves outwardly as Muslims in imitation of him, they
    lived secretly as Jews and continued to exist as a distinct, if
    shadowy, group well into the 20th century.

    In the many biographies of Ataturk there were three or four different
    versions of his father’s background, and although none identified him
    as a Jew, their very multiplicity suggested that he had been covering
    up his family origins.

    This evidence, though limited, was intriguing. Its strongest item was
    a chapter in a long-forgotten autobiography of the Hebrew journalist,
    Itamar Ben-Avi, who described in his book a chance meeting on a rainy
    night in the late winter of 1911 in the bar of a Jerusalem hotel with
    a young Turkish captain.

    Tipsy from too much arak, the captain confided to Ben-Avi that he was
    Jewish and recited the opening Hebrew words of the Shema Yisra’el or
    “Hear O Israel” prayer, which almost any Jew or Doenmeh — but no
    Turkish Muslim — would have known. Ten years later, Ben-Avi wrote, he
    opened a newspaper, saw a headline about a military coup in Turkey,
    and in a photograph recognized the leader that the young officer he
    had met the other night.

    At the time, Islamic political opposition to Ataturk-style secularism
    was gaining strength in Turkey. What would happen, I wondered, when a
    Jewish newspaper in New York broke the news that the revered founder
    of modern Turkey was half-Jewish? I pictured riots, statues of Ataturk
    toppling to the ground, the secular state he had created tottering
    with them.

    I could have spared myself the anxiety. The piece was run in the
    Forward, there was hardly any reaction to it anywhere, and life in
    Turkey went on as before. As far as I knew, not a single Turk even
    read what I wrote. And then, a few months ago, I received an e-mail
    from someone who had. I won’t mention his name. He lives in a European
    country, is well-educated, works in the financial industry, is a
    staunchly secular Kemalist, and was writing to tell me that he had
    come across my article in the Forward and had decided to do some
    historical research in regard to it.

    One thing he discovered, he wrote, was that Ataturk indeed traveled in
    the late winter of 1911 to Egypt from Damascus on his way to join the
    Turkish forces fighting an Italian army in Libya, a route that would
    have taken him through Jerusalem just when Ben-Avi claimed to have met
    him there.

    Moreover, in 1911 he was indeed a captain, and his fondness of
    alcohol, which Ben-Avi could not have known about when he wrote his
    autobiography, is well-documented.

    And here’s something else that was turned up by my Turkish e-mail
    correspondent: Ataturk, who was born and raised in Thessaloniki, a
    heavily Jewish city in his day that had a large Doenmeh population,
    attended a grade school, known as the “Semsi Effendi School,” that was
    run by a religious leader of the Doenmeh community named Simon Zvi.
    The email concluded with the sentence: “I now know — know (and I
    haven’t a shred of doubt) — that Ataturk’s father’s family was indeed
    of Jewish stock.”

    I haven’t a shred of doubt either. I just have, this time, less
    trepidation, not only because I no longer suffer from delusions of
    grandeur regarding the possible effects of my columns, but because
    there’s no need to fear toppling the secular establishment of Kemalist

    It toppled for good in the Turkish elections two days ago when the
    Islamic Justice and Development Party was returned to power with so
    overwhelming a victory over its rivals that it seems safe to say that
    secular Turkey, at least as Ataturk envisioned it, is a thing of the past.

    Actually, Ataturk’s Jewishness, which he systematically sought to
    conceal, explains a great deal about him, above all, his fierce
    hostility toward Islam, the religion in which nearly every Turk of his
    day had been raised, and his iron-willed determination to create a
    strictly secular Turkish nationalism from which the Islamic component
    would be banished.

    Who but a member of a religious minority would want so badly to
    eliminate religion from the identity of a Muslim majority that, after
    the genocide of Turkey’s Christian Armenians in World War I and the
    expulsion of nearly all of its Christian Greeks in the early 1920s,
    was 99% of Turkey’s population? The same motivation caused the banner
    of secular Arab nationalism to be first raised in the Arab world by
    Christian intellectuals.

    Ataturk seems never to have been ashamed of his Jewish background. He
    hid it because it would have been political suicide not to, and the
    secular Turkish state that was his legacy hid it too, and with it, his
    personal diary, which was never published and has for all intents and
    purposes been kept a state secret all these years. There’s no need to
    hide it any longer. The Islamic counterrevolution has won the day in
    Turkey even without its exposure.

    Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.






    There were two questions I wanted to ask, I said over the phone to
    Batya Keinan, spokeswoman for Israeli president Ezer Weizman, who was
    about to leave the next day, Monday, Jan. 24, on the first visit ever
    made to Turkey by a Jewish chief of state. One was whether Mr. Weizman
    would be taking part in an official ceremony commemorating Kemal Ataturk.

    Ms. Kenan checked the president’s itinerary, according to which he and
    his wife would lay a wreath on Ataturk’s tomb.

    Excited and Distressed

    I thanked her and hung up. A few minutes later it occurred to me to
    call back and ask whether President Weizman intended to make any
    reference while in Turkey to Ataturk’s Jewish antecedents. “I’m so
    glad you called again,” said Ms. Kenan, who now sounded excited and a
    bit distressed. “Exactly where did you get your information from?”

    Why was she asking, I countered, if the president’s office had it too?

    Because it did not, she confessed. She had only assumed that it must
    because I had sounded so matter-of-fact myself. “After you hung up,”
    she said, “I mentioned what you told me and nobody here knows anything
    about it. Could you please fax us what you know?”

    I faxed her a short version of it. Here is a longer one.

    Stories about the Jewishness of Ataturk, whose statue stands in the
    main square of every town and city in Turkey, already circulated in
    his lifetime but were denied by him and his family and never taken
    seriously by biographers. Of six biographies of him that I consulted
    this week, none even mentions such a speculation. The only scholarly
    reference to it in print that I could find was in the entry on Ataturk
    in the Israeli Entsiklopedya ha-Ivrit, which begins:

    “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – (1881-1938), Turkish general and statesman
    and founder of the modern Turkish state.

    “Mustafa Kemal was born to the family of a minor customs clerk in
    Salonika and lost his father when he was young. There is no proof of
    the belief, widespread among both Jews and Muslims in Turkey, that his
    family came from the Doenme. As a boy he rebelled against his mother’s
    desire to give him a traditional religious education, and at the age
    of 12 he was sent at his demand to study in a military academy.”

    Secular Father

    The Doenme were an underground sect of Sabbetaians, Turkish Jews who
    took Muslim names and outwardly behaved like Muslims but secretly
    believed in Sabbetai Zevi, the 17th-century false messiah, and
    conducted carefully guarded prayers and rituals in his name. The
    encyclopedia’s version of Ataturk’s education, however, is somewhat at
    variance with his own. Here is his account of it as quoted by his

    “My father was a man of liberal views, rather hostile to religion, and
    a partisan of Western ideas. He would have preferred to see me go to a
    lay school, which did not found its teaching on the Koran but on
    modern science.

    “In this battle of consciences, my father managed to gain the victory
    after a small maneuver; he pretended to give in to my mother’s wishes,
    and arranged that I should enter the (Islamic) school of Fatma Molla
    Kadin with the traditional ceremony. …

    “Six months later, more or less, my father quietly withdrew me from
    the school and took me to that of old Shemsi Effendi who directed a
    free preparatory school according to European methods. My mother made
    no objection, since her desires had been complied with and her
    conventions respected. It was the ceremony above all which had
    satisfied her.”

    Who was Mustafa Kemal’s father, who behaved here in typical Doenme
    fashion, outwardly observing Muslim ceremonies while inwardly scoffing
    at them? Ataturk’s mother Zubeyde came from the mountains west of
    Salonika, close to the current Albanian frontier; of the origins of
    his father, Ali Riza, little is known. Different writers have given
    them as Albanian, Anatolian and Salonikan, and Lord Kinross’
    compendious 1964 “Ataturk” calls Ali Riza a “shadowy personality” and
    adds cryptically regarding Ataturk’s reluctance to disclose more about
    his family background: “To the child of so mixed an environment it
    would seldom occur, wherever his racial loyalties lay, to inquire too
    exactly into his personal origins beyond that of his parentage.”

    Learning Hebrew

    Did Kinross suspect more than he was admitting? I would never have
    asked had I not recently come across a remarkable chapter while
    browsing in the out-of-print Hebrew autobiography of Itamar Ben-Avi,
    son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the leading promoter of the revival of
    spoken Hebrew in late 19th-century Palestine. Ben-Avi, the first child
    to be raised in Hebrew since ancient times and later a Hebrew
    journalist and newspaper publisher, writes in this book of walking
    into the Kamenitz Hotel in Jerusalem one autumn night in 1911 and
    being asked by its proprietor:
    ” `Do you see that Turkish officer sitting there in the corner, the
    one with the bottle of arrack?’ ”
    ” `Yes.’ ”
    ” `He’s one of the most important officers in the Turkish army.’ ”
    ” `What’s his name?’ ”
    ” `Mustafa Kemal.’ ”
    ” `I’d like to meet him,’ I said, because the minute I looked at him I
    was startled by his piercing green eyes.”

    Ben-Avi describes two meetings with Mustafa Kemal, who had not yet
    taken the name of Ataturk, `Father of the Turks.’ Both were conducted
    in French, were largely devoted to Ottoman politics, and were doused
    with large amounts of arrack. In the first of these, Kemal confided:

    “I’m a descendant of Sabbetai Zevi – not indeed a Jew any more, but an
    ardent admirer of this prophet of yours. My opinion is that every Jew
    in this country would do well to join his camp.”

    During their second meeting, held 10 days later in the same hotel,
    Mustafa Kemal said at one point:

    ” `I have at home a Hebrew Bible printed in Venice. It’s rather old,
    and I remember my father bringing me to a Karaite teacher who taught
    me to read it. I can still remember a few words of it, such as—’ ”

    And Ben-Avi continues:

    “He paused for a moment, his eyes searching for something in space.
    Then he recalled:

    ” `Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad!’
    ” `That’s our most important prayer, Captain.’
    ” `And my secret prayer too, cher monsieur,’ he replied, refilling our

    Although Itamar Ben-Avi could not have known it, Ataturk no doubt
    meant “secret prayer” quite literally. Among the esoteric prayers of
    the Doenme, first made known to the scholarly world when a book of
    them reached the National Library in Jerusalem in 1935, is one
    containing the confession of faith:

    “Sabbetai Zevi and none other is the true Messiah. Hear O Israel, the
    Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

    It was undoubtedly from this credo, rather than from the Bible, that
    Ataturk remembered the words of the Shema, which to the best of my
    knowledge he confessed knowing but once in his adult life: to a young
    Hebrew journalist whom he engaged in two tipsily animated
    conversations in Jerusalem nearly a decade before he took control of
    the Turkish army after its disastrous defeat in World War I, beat back
    the invading Greeks and founded a secular Turkish republic in which
    Islam was banished – once and for all, so he thought – to the mosques.

    Ataturk would have had good reasons for concealing his Doenme origins.
    Not only were the Doenmes (who married only among themselves and
    numbered close to 15,000, largely concentrated in Salonika, on the eve
    of World War I) looked down on as heretics by both Muslims and Jews,
    they had a reputation for sexual profligacy that could hardly have
    been flattering to their offspring. This license, which was
    theologically justified by the claim that it reflected the faithful’s
    freedom from the biblical commandments under the new dispensation of
    Sabbetai Zevi, is described by Ezer Weizman’s predecessor, Israel’s
    second president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, in his book on lost Jewish
    communities, “The Exiled and the Redeemed”:

    `Saintly Offspring’

    “Once a year (during the Doenmes’ annual `Sheep holiday’) the candles
    are put out in the course of a dinner which is attended by orgies and
    the ceremony of the exchange of wives. … The rite is practiced on
    the night of Sabbetai Zevi’s traditional birthday. … It is believed
    that children born of such unions are regarded as saintly.”

    Although Ben-Zvi, writing in the 1950s, thought that “There is reason
    to believe that this ceremony has not been entirely abandoned and
    continues to this day,” little is known about whether any of the
    Doenmes’ traditional practices or social structures still survive in
    modern Turkey. The community abandoned Salonika along with the city’s
    other Turkish residents during the Greco-Turkish war of 1920-21, and
    its descendants, many of whom are said to be wealthy businessmen and
    merchants in Istanbul, are generally thought to have assimilated
    totally into Turkish life.

    After sending my fax to Batya Keinan, I phoned to check that she had
    received it. She had indeed, she said, and would see to it that the
    president was given it to read on his flight to Ankara. It is
    doubtful, however, whether Mr. Weizman will allude to it during his
    visit: The Turkish government, which for years has been fending off
    Muslim fundamentalist assaults on its legitimacy and on the secular
    reforms of Ataturk, has little reason to welcome the news that the
    father of the `Father of the Turks’ was a crypto-Jew who passed on his
    anti-Muslim sentiments to his son. Mustafa Kemal’s secret is no doubt
    one that it would prefer to continue to be kept.

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