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Book Review


Julia Phillips Cohen, Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xxi + 142. Notes, Bibliography and Index. $35.00 (hardcover).


     During the fervent age of nationalism of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many nation-states struggled with the dilemma of how to deal with the religiously and culturally different minority groups within their geographical and ethno-political boundaries. Most European states with a significant Jewish population tackled their own "Jewish Question" largely by exclusion and violence. However, as Julia Phillips Cohen so effectively argues in Becoming Ottomans, the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire had no "Jewish Question" at all (although it struggled with accommodating its Orthodox Christian population). The Jews in the Ottoman Empire lived largely on good terms with the state and remained unmolested, unlike in most of Europe. Moreover, during the later half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, when the weakening empire fought a number of wars with Russia and other European powers, Ottoman Jews declared their loyalty to the Ottoman state. As the author shows, Jewish leaders used every opportunity to express their community's patriotism—so much so, in fact, that they helped perpetuate the notion that a "special relationship" existed between the Ottoman Jews and their state. Phillips Cohen sets out to dispel this notion as a myth, and she does so pretty effectively.

     When Sephardi (i.e., Spanish) Jews in Istanbul, Izmir, and Salonica—three Ottoman cities with the largest Jewish population—celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of Jewish expulsion from Spain and arrival in Ottoman lands, they proclaimed their "eternal gratitude," "loyalty," and "devotion" to the Ottoman Empire for offering a home to their ancestors when no other (European) state would have them. These celebrations and discourses, according to the author, propelled the "myth" of a "special bond" between the Ottoman state and its Jewish population when, in actuality, Ottoman Jews were only responding to the exigencies of their turbulent times and protecting themselves by aligning with the state (some European countries were persecuting the Jews). They, therefore, had to—and did—become "model citizens" of the Ottoman Empire by declaring their loyalty to it and demonstrating their patriotism at every possible occasion, including during war times. In the process, they became imperial citizens and a model community, which enjoyed the trust of the state, took advantage of the civil liberties afforded to the members of all Ottoman millets (religious communities), and took their patriotic obligations very seriously as befitting a loyal millet.

     Becoming Ottomans is "the first book to tell the unparalleled story of Jewish political integration into a modern Islamic Empire" (xii), as Phillips Cohen herself puts it. This integration began with the Tanzimat reforms (1839–1876), when the empire embarked on a legal emancipation of its millets, reorganized its army, and centralized its political rule, among other things. In the context of expanding civil liberties in the Ottoman Empire in that period, Phillips Cohen speaks of the Jews, among other Ottomans, as citizens rather than subjects. She rightly considers her book a contribution to the emerging literature on imperial citizenship (xii), where subjects turned into citizens by formally obtaining political rights and by making use of these rights in daily life through the press, civic convention, and political engagement: "[A]lready by the mid-nineteenth century, Ottoman Jews as well as other Ottomans across the empire had begun to attempt to understand, debate, and perform their newly acquired roles of imperial citizens" (xiii).

     The book contains four main chapters, plus an introduction, a conclusion, and a very informative preface. Chapter 1, "Lessons in Imperial Citizenship," discusses how Sephardi Jews learned to become Ottoman citizens in a period of political turmoil, legal reformation, and contested loyalties. Chapter 2, "On the Streets and in the Synagogue: Celebrating 1892 as Ottomans," describes the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Jewish arrival in the Ottoman Empire from Spain and the way this celebration was designed to propel the myth of a "special bond." Chapter 3, "Battling Neighbors: Imperial Allegiance and Politicized Violence," examines the Jewish reaction to two events—the massacre of Armenians in Istanbul in 1896 and the Creek-Ottoman War of 1897—in the context of solidifying the reputation of Ottoman Jews as a model community and of the state's increasing suspicion toward its Christian (largely Armenian, as well as orthodox Greek, and Slavic) millets. Chapter 4, "Contest and Conflict: Jewish Ottomanism in a Constitutional Regime," analyzes the preparations and responses of the Jewish community of Salonica to Sultan Mehmed V's visit to the city in June 1911, revealing internal rivalries and divisions of the community between loyalists, socialists, Zionists, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi Jews.

     The novelty of the book is that it is almost entirely based on primary sources, and not from formal state institutions, but from within the author's target community, mostly, the Sephardi Jews of Salonica, Istanbul, and Izmir. These sources include newspapers, letters, photographs, postcards, and materials from communal schools, synagogues, clubs, and libraries. By tracing how the Ottoman Jews became a model community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Phillips Cohen attempts to dispel the myth of the "special relationship" between the Ottoman state and the Jews of the empire based on evidence from within. To that effect, she argues that in displaying their patriotism, Ottoman Jews only responded to the "requirements of their time." "Inspired by the new obligations and promises of imperial citizenship, Ottoman Jews learned to harness the regnant discourses of official circles and use them to their own advantage. In this sense, they learned to 'to speak Ottomanism,' even when they did not know Ottoman Turkish" (138). Moreover, she maintains that to understand the Jewish loyalty as "inherited loyalty," that is, as "passed down from one generation to the next [since 1492]," would be to assume that Ottoman Jews "remained unmoved by the world around them. This interpretation not only takes the historical sources at face value, it also treats modern Jews' expression of allegiance to their empire within a pre-modern frame, thus bypassing the question of precisely what motivated the particular forms their allegiance took in different contexts and at different moments" (138).

     I cite the author at length above because "dispelling the myth" is what I see as her main argument. It is also in this argument where I find one of the book's few—if not only—faults. As strange as it may sound, I find the book to suffer from excessive academic honesty in claiming that not only there was no "special relationship" between Ottoman Jews and the Ottoman state to speak of (it was a myth), but that Ottoman Jews were loyal Ottoman citizens only insofar as citizenship was "meaningful and useful" to them (138). Thus, it is all too easy to conclude that the Ottoman Jews only practiced opportunistic loyalty which, once no longer necessary, would turn to opportunistic indifference or even opportunistic hostility if new exigencies required it. This hardly invites a flattering image of any community, but especially not of Jewish communities who have historically been the victims of violent persecutions by various entities around the world. What helps ameliorate this harsh first impression of the book is the short closing chapter, which tells about Ottoman Jewish emigres in the United States (following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I) selling "Turkish coffee" to their compatriots and nostalgically referring to themselves as "turkinos." The author's reference to advertisements of Ottoman Jewish businesses, inviting Ottoman Jewish immigrants to "buy coffee where all turkinos shop" (135), reveals a touch of "patriotic" sentimentality among Ottoman Jewish immigrant in the U.S.A. that helps refute a hasty "opportunistic loyalty" conclusion.

     This reading is entirely my own and it should not distract from the overall quality of the book. The book is well-organized, superbly researched, and very readable. It can serve as an excellent case study in a course on emerging citizenship and on the history of the Ottoman Empire. The book will be an effective addition to a course in world history since the 1500s, especially as it pertains to the politics of Islamic societies toward non-Muslims, an issue still widely misunderstood in academia.

Fatme Myuhtar-May has written articles, book reviews, and a monograph related to Southeast-European history and nationalism. She is a production editor of the Journal of Economic Issues, based in Arkansas State University, and an adjunct humanities instructor at the same university. The author can be reached at


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