(Also see A Messianic Epiphany The Conversion of the Dönme Sabbateans by Lillooet McDonnell )


In the following pages I would like to discuss the history of conspiracy theories about a cryptoJewish group Dönmes in Turkey I will start the discussion by describing the group’s story and then compare it with the conspiratorial accounts about them where I will basically summarise the history of the group Then I will go on to analyse the conspiracy theories surrounding the group so that historical explanation of Dönmes could be complemented by the social constructions or scaremongering about the community As hinted in the title it has been a century on the dot since these theories started to be circulated in Turkey In this sense I will also attempt to show the changing discourses of conspiracy theories about Dönme community in last hundred years

DönmesSecond Conversos

Dönmes one of the many different names like Avdeti Sabbatean (Sabatayci) Selanikli Salonican is given to a cryptoJewish community originated in seventeenth century However they call themselves ’Ma’aminim’ the believers (Sisman 2002b) The majority of the group has resided in Salonica and the rest in other cities such as Istanbul and Izmir ( Smyrna ) in Ottoman Empire until the population exchange between Turkey and Greece (Baer 2007) There is not much information about the group’s numbers networks and effects

According to Sisman (2008: 2526) there are four distinct periods in group’s history The first is when its founder Sabbatai Sevi has lived in seventeenth century The second period has started after his death and prolonged eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which the structure of the community has changed The third epoch is at the beginning of twentieth century when the Dönme group has been influenced by modernisation movements of Europe The fourth era of the group’s history has begun in 1990s (ibid) In my discussion I will follow these historical categories and will begin with Sabbatai Sevi’s story

Sabbatai Sevi the leader of the Jewish messianic movement in seventeenth century laid the foundations of Dönme community (ibid) He was a rabbi studied Talmud and Halakha (Jewish law) Later he was influenced by Lurianic interpretation of Jewish mysticism In 1665 his collaborator Nathan of Gaza who had a prominent role in Dönme movement declared Sabbatai Sevi as the expected messiah of Jews This claim gradually gained acceptance by the Jewish community As Neyzi (2002: 143) cites Sabbatai’s pronouncement created so much expectations in Jewish community that people started to believe that Sabbatai Sevi will topple the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the IV

Moreover he created a big impact not only in Jewish circles within Ottoman Empire but among different religious groups throughout the world For Sisman (2008; 2002a 2002b) millenarian Christian movements also recognized Sabbatai as the potential Jewish messiah who would provide the necessary conditions for the second arrival of Jesus and therefore they helped the spread of his message around the world In parallel Popkin and Chasin (2004) discuss these effects of Sabbatai Sevi among Protestants in the Netherlands In similar Hathaway (1997) mentions the controversy the group members created in Ottoman Egypt in seventeenth century In short Sabbatai Sevi became a very important religious figure in 17 th century all around the world

In response to the growing movement Jewish religious authorities requested Ottoman Empire to take action Sevi was taken to court and was forced to convert into Islam After conversion he was given the name Aziz Mehmet Efendi and employed by the Emperor with a high salary According to Sisman (2008) the palace showed him hospitality by giving him Emperor’s name as well as employing him in a good position Nonetheless Sabbatai was taken to court second time with the claim that he was not fully converted He was sent to small town Ülgün in today’s Albania where he spent the rest of his life

Despite Sabbatai Sevi’s conversion into Islam produced a great disappointment among Jews after his death in 1683 several hundred families of his followers followed him and converted into Islam (Scholem 1971) This group was the origins of Dönme community They publicly acted as Muslims but practiced their version of Judaism in private and did not marry with outsiders According to Danton (1997: 25) neither Turks nor orthodox Jews have liked Dönme community they had tense relationships It should not go without mentioning that not all of Sevi’s followers became Dönmes some others like Nathan of Gaza stayed in Judaism and some like Jacob Frank was converted to Christianity

In the second phase of their history Dönmes’ existence has stayed as an open secret (Baer 2004) in the Ottoman Empire In other words their existence has been acknowledged by others but no actions have been taken In this period Dönme community was divided into three subsects; Karakasli Kapanci and Yakubi due to different claims on who incarnated Sevi’s spirit (Baer 1997) People who believed Jacob Querido Sevi’s brotherinlaw as Sevi’s incarnation created Yakubi (Jacobites) group in 1683 Subsequently there were further arguments among the remaining group about whether Baruchya Russo (Osman Baba) was the incarnation of Sevi This dispute created another split of Russo adherents Karakaslilar from the remaining Kapanci group who continued to believe only in Sevi (ibid) This division shaped the basic structure of Dönme society and so these groups specialised in different trades and had limited contact with each other

The third period of Dönme history has been shaped in the late 19 th and early 20 th century The community has been influenced by modernisation movement in Ottoman Empire Accordingly they have established modern schools (Neyzi 144) and become a community with a good education and global commercial ties (Baer 2007) They were cosmopolitan figures and proponents of modern secular ideas in the Empire (Ortayli 1998) The relative freedom of Dönme women (Hanioglu 1994) has contributed to their fame of representing cosmopolitanism Besides young Dönmes have published a modernist journal Goncai Edeb in this era where they advocated the Enlightenment ideas against the dogmas and prejudices (Sisman 2002a) In the same period Salonica where most of the group members lived was the centre of Young Turks and the Committee of Union and Progress ie the modernist movement against the Sultan in Ottoman Empire Hence some Dönmes such as Mehmed Cavid Bey the Minister of Finance in 1908 have played important roles in the movement (Neyzi 145)

In this regard the third phase of Dönme history has been shaped by group’s modernisation and involvement in politics There have been a few other important incidences which have effected the destiny of the group as well; the fall of Salonica in 1913 to Greece 1917 fire in Salonica 1924 population exchange between Greece and Turkey Karakaszade Rüsdü affair and the Capital Levy To start with Salonica fell to Greece in 1913 and soon after that Greek authorities wanted to create a Greekified population by getting rid of the remaining Turkish citizens in the city (Baer 2007) Hence Dönme became unwanted in Greece as they were counted as Muslim Turks Furthermore as Bessemer (2003: 120) states the 1917 fire in Salonica has been another traumatic experience for the group: after losing their previous status they also lost an important amount of their religious texts

Subsequently Dönmes have been included in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey which was meant to be in between Muslim Turks in Greece excluding the Western Thrace and the Orthodox Greeks excluding the ones living in Istanbul (Baer 2004) Some Dönmes objected and claimed that they were Jews who wanted to convert back to Judaism However their appeal was refused by Jewish religious authorities who did not count them as Jews (Galante 1935: 7779 cited in Baer 2004: 693)

The Capital Levy law of 1942 in Turkey brought the community back into spot The law was intended to tax the citizens who made fortunes from the 2 nd World War time economy (Neyzi 146) However it was quite heavy handed on nonMuslim minorities What stroked Dönmes’ attention was their inclusion along with Christians Jews and other foreigners to taxation They were shocked by the incidence as they were thinking themselves as an invisible group It also created a belief that the government secretly kept secret records of Dönmes According to recent interviews (Yurddas 2004) with group members the fright is conserved until today and they also fear that it can happen again Therefore Capital Levy affair harmed group’s assimilation into Turkish society

Dönme group in their third historical phase has represented global cosmopolitan modernising face of the Ottoman Empire (Baer 2007) Accordingly they have played important roles in CUP and modernisation of Turkey Moreover it seems that the group has been seduced by the new promises of modern Turkey such as secularism equality of all citizens regardless of ethnicity and religion As some scholars mention (Baer 2004; Neyzi 2002) Dönmes have attached themselves with the ideas of modernity and secularism of newly born Turkish republic so that they could have been integrated into the society Nonetheless the conspiratorial accounts and blames about the group and Turkish state’s exclusionary practice exemplified by Capital Levy have disappointed Dönmes

After Capital Levy almost fifty years the groups’ existence was most of the time only cited in rightwing conspiracy theories as well as in academic literature but did not much concern the public However they got back to the spot in 1990s when the group entered into their fourth historical period During that era while Turkish society was becoming a more multicultural one the minorities gained more voice and acceptance Films such as Salkim Hanim’in Taneleri whose story line is about the injustices on minorities in Capital Levy had their sympathetic and nostalgic look towards nonMuslim minorities In the meantime the Dönme debate was called back through another acclaimed group member/confessor Ilgaz Zorlu He wrote articles about the history of the group and wanted to convince Dönmes and Jews for the necessity of Dönmes conversion back to Judaism

After the success of his works and acceptance especially by the Islamic spheres as the authentic voice of Dönmes Zorlu established his own publishing house Zvi/Geyik Publishing He published his works as well as conspiratorial accounts on Dönmes (Eygi) Zorlu’s appearance in the media later triggered more works on the subject predominantly conspiracy theories Another important event in 1990s was Halil Bezmen’s accusations of the existing discrimination against Dönmes in Turkey They created a controversy in Turkish media and heightened the interests on the community (see Bali 2008) In conclusion it could be asserted that the fourth and the last stage of the Dönme history witnesses an increased amount of attention to group’s characteristics in both academic and conspiratorial senses In the next section where I will talk about conspiracy theories I will be able to analyse this in more detail

Conspiracy Theories about Dönmes

This Dönme affiliation with modernisation movement has later produced one of the most classical themes of conspiracy theories The reactionary circles against modernisation have framed Young Turk movement as a Jewish/Dönme conspiracy These accusations have been voiced loudly after the 1908 coup d’etat by the Committee of Union and Progress in which Dönme Mehmed Cavid Bey and Jewishfreemason Emmanuel Carosso were among leaders overthrowing Sultan Abdulhamid II In addition Theodor Herzl the head of the World Zionist Organization came to Istanbul in 1899 to buy Palestine from Abdulhamid II for Jews to establish a state ( Bali 2008) Abdulhamid II did not grant the request In this regard when CUP toppled Abdulhamid II and exiled him to Salonica some conspiracy theories held Jews responsible from the coup d’etat

In parallel Kedorie () shows that British ambassador of the period Sir Gerard Lowther have been one of the conspiracy theoreticians Hepkon asserts (2007) that Lowther is the founder of the conspiracy theories about CUP Likewise wellknown antiSemites like Sergei Nilus the first publisher of the classical conspiracy theory The Protocols of Elders of Zion has supported Abdulhamid II against CUP (BenItto 2005: 93) In short the exile of the Abdulhamid II in 1908 and the involvement of Dönmes in CUP as well as their cosmopolitan appearance have culminated into conspiratorial explanations Dönmes for claimmakers of conspiracies have represented the change modernisation brought to the Ottoman Empire Therefore the reactionary movements have accused Dönme’s about those transformations Accordingly we see conspiratorial accusations on Dönmes in Islamist journals such as Volkan as early as 1908 (Baer 2004)

After the establishment of Turkish republic in 1923 CUP cadres have gradually become the founding elite For example Mustafa Kemal Atatürk the founding father and the first president of modern Turkey was a member of the party Besides he was born in Salonica and attended to a modern school established by a Dönme in his childhood Such facts have increased the suspicion about the people from Salonica and their origins as they seemed to constitute the founding elite They have also been used by far rightwing and Islamic conspiracy theories as proofs to delegitimise or Judaise the foundations of Turkish Republic

Subsequently before the deportation of Dönmes to Turkey a selfacclaimed member of the group Karakaszade Rüsdü has submitted a petition to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey against the incoming Dönmes He basically argued that they were a separate group who never mixed with Turkish community and therefore their deportation to Turkey should be subject to their willingness to assimilate in Turkish society ( Bessemer 2003) In other words he urged Dönmes either not to come to Turkey or to accept assimilation Rüsdü’s petition has fired different discussions on Dönmes including conspiratorial accounts In the end Karakaszade Rüsdü has retreated in the debate after the immense hostility shown to the group (ibid 123) As Bali (2008: 17) mentions the debate has gained an important amount of attention in contemporary media although lasted a few weeks

This trend was followed by ideological texts which claim for Dönme conspiracy theories from 1948 onwards The publications were mainly done by Islamic rightwing journals and newspapers such as Sebülressad Büyük Dogu For example the newspaper Büyük Dogu published confessions of an alleged Dönme Nazif Özge in 1952 ( Bali 2002) There are a couple of factors which could have been influential in rightwing’s ability and motivation to publish on the subject in that period First of all after 1946 the state censor on published materials has been decreased in Turkey due to the beginning of multiparty system This has meant the end of limitations on publications of rightwingers and especially Islamists Moreover on May 15 1948 Israel proclaimed its independence (Bensinger 2002: 25) which created a war right after between Israel and Arabic states Jordan Iraq Syria Lebanon and Egypt It created antiZionist or antiSemitic sentiments in the whole Islamic world

In the meantime the right wing conspiracy theories on Dönmes in Turkey generated violence on some group members such as Ahmed Emin Yalman who was an important journalist in Turkish media with a secularliberal and modern stance The hostility towards Yalman has gone so far that there was an armed attack to him on November 22 1952 (ibid 187) The rightwing conspiracies on an existence of Jewish press in Turkey also contributed to the assassination of wellknown journalist Abdi Ipekçi the editor in chief of newspaper Milliyet He was murdered by an ultranationalist urban guerrilla Mehmet Ali Agca in 1979 (ibid)

Afterwards the main boom in Dönme discussion has taken place in 1990s when the repressed identities in Turkey has started to be represented more in public space Moreover Zorlu’s attempts to bring Dönme issue to public concern have increased the interest Like Karakaszade Rüsdü Zorlu has attracted the interests of rightwing circles as an authentic voice Islamic writers such as Eygi and Dilipak have found chances to support their perspective through engaging debates with Zorlu as well as corroborating with him In short in 1990s there was a significant increase in Dönmes ranging from newspaper articles to alleged Dönme lists in internet from conspiracy theories to academic works on the subject

Accordingly the conspiratorial perspective has not only been confined to right wing or Islamic perspectives in 1990s The left wing writers have been affiliated with Dönme conspiracy theories as well A wellknown Marxist professor Yalçin Küçük has published articles about Dönme community He has been followed by a journalist Soner Yalçin His opus magnum Efendi series which will be discussed in the following chapter has become the one of the most popular conspiracy theories in Turkey Leftist conspiracy theories have updated the reactionary stance of Islamic and rightwing conspiracy theories in a different manner Despite having a very different methodology and content they have attributed their political discontents to secret Dönme/Jewish activities In other words they have framed the current transformations in Turkey in a Dönme conspiracy theory Furthermore unlike previous theories they do not only talk about alleged Dönme politicians They have had many wellknown or successful people such as Eurovision song contest winner Sertab Erener or Nobel Prize winner novelist Orhan Pamuk Unlike the rightwing accounts the leftwing discussions have attracted the attention of the general public For example Yalcin’s Efendi series was published by Dogan Yayincilik (Dogan Publishing House) one of the most popular publishing houses of Turkey As a result the leftist writers have popularised the Dönme debate

Their popularity lies in their ability in promoting books with more sophisticated appeals They use scientific language footnote citations which promote a more stylish appearance compared the religious or ideologically biased language of rightwing conspiracy theories For example both Küçük and Yalçin make use of onomastics in their search for people’s origins Besides the leftwing approaches promote a more complete picture of the political structure of Turkey by including whoever is successful in their schemes In this regard they transgress the limitations of the previous theories and reach to a wider audience It should not go without mentioning that while some leftwing originated approaches have entered into Dönme conspiracy theory domain majority of leftwing socialist movements condemn these allegations (see Kurtulus Cephesi)

In 1990s Islamic and the rightwing interest in Dönmes have remained unchanged They have seen Dönmes as controlling the media causing the moral decay and keeping their religious heresy In addition we see the mention of Kurdish nationalists to the issue of Dönmes Bali (2008) cites that Kurdish nationalist figures such as Musa Anter used to accuse a member of parliament Coskun Kirca for being a Dönme and trying to throw Kurds out of their lands (ibid 176) All in all it could be argued that Dönme theme has become a popular political theme in 1990s


To sum up the discussion it could be argued that although the Dönme community has existed since 17 th century the conspiratorial accounts have started in the beginning of the 20 th century This points an important fact of the dependence of these theories on political and cultural discourses rather than the existing realities This aspect should be carefully noted while talking about conspiratorial accounts especially on cryptoJewish communities


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Baer M 2004 “The Double Bind of Race and Religion: The Conversion of the Dönme to Turkish Secular Nationalism” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol 46 no 4 pp 678712
Bali R 2008 (forthcoming) A Spacegoat for All Seasons: The Dönmes or CryptoJews of Turkey ISIS
Hathaway J 1997 “The Grand Vizier and the False Messiah: The Sabbatai Sevi Controversy and the Ottoman Reform in Egypt ” Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol117 No 4 pp 665671
Neyzi L 2002 “Remembering to Forget: Sabbateanism National Identity and Subjectivity in Turkey ” Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol 44 No 1 pp 137158
Sisman C 2008 Sabatay Sevi ve Sabataycilar: Mitler ve Gerçekler Asina Kitaplar: Istanbul
Sisman C 2002a “’Selanikli’ Gençlerin Düsünce Dünyalari Hakkinda: Goncai Edeb’ten Iki ’Söz’” Tarih ve Toplum vol 223 pp 1011
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