At the core of the Young Turk revolution of July 23, 1908, is what Michelle Ursula Campos has called "civic Ottomanism," a grassroots imperial citizenship project that promoted a unified sociopolitical identity among a people struggling over their new rights and obligations (Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, Stanford University Press, 2010). Using her close reading of Ottoman Turkish documents, she points out that, surprisingly, this dynamic process of creating an Ottoman nation remains in the margins of the history of the modern Middle East as well as of the modern history of empires. Despite the fact that virtually every book on late Ottoman history mentions the nineteenth-century project of fostering an imperial loyalty known as Ottomanism, this notion remains widely underestimated, considered either an official state project or the nucleus of an Islamist or Turkish ethnic nationalism. Campos is correct to argue that several important studies of the overlapping Ottoman loyalties of outstanding Arab notables and intellectuals have partially addressed this gap, but the extent, content and power of Ottomanism are still not well understood. Julia Phillips Cohen's concise and well-researched study Becoming Ottomans is an effort to change that. She succeeds in this ambitious task and helps to fill a major need in Ottoman-Jewish studies. Becoming Ottomans won the 2014 National Jewish Award in the category of "Writing Based on Archival Material."
Cohen, an associate professor in the Jewish studies program and the department of history at Vanderbilt University, shows courage in beginning her academic career with an outright challenge to politically correct thinking in her field. She persuasively argues that Sephardi Jews transformed themselves into a model Ottoman community during the last century of the empire.
Chapter One, "Lessons in Imperial Citizenship," discusses the emergence of civic models. It opens with the proclamation of the Ottoman Constitution of December 23, 1876, and concludes with the Ottomans' defeat in the war with Russia, 1877-78. The empire's successive wars with Montenegro, Serbia and Russia during these years brought Ottoman non-Muslims one of the first opportunities to put their newfound citizenship into practice. Jewish leaders did everything in their power to have their flock contribute to the empire's war effort, not solely by means of prayers and donations but by encouraging young, able-bodied Jewish men to sign up for the army and telling men and women alike to subordinate their personal needs to the state. They put the interests and the laws of their country above all else.
Chapter Two, "On the Streets and in the Synagogue: Celebrating 1892 as Ottomans," analyzes the participation of Ottoman Jews in two different commemorations of the year 1492. Jews decided to treat the four-hundredth anniversary of their ancestors' expulsion from Spain as a cause for patriotic celebration, transforming it into a holiday marking their arrival in Ottoman lands. The chapter explores the genesis of this invented holiday in the political context of its time, noting that it emerged just as the Ottoman government was deciding whether to allow large numbers of Jews fleeing Russia, Romania and Corfu to settle within its borders. The celebration thus served a dual purpose. Its architects hoped to persuade the sultan to offer safe haven to Jews fleeing persecution and to encourage Ottoman Jews to honor the state in new ways. The second commemorative event featured in this chapter honored a journey to different shores in 1492. This was the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, which offered Ottoman Jews a number of opportunities to assert their Ottomanness in a foreign land. As Jewish merchants crossed the Atlantic to represent their state in Chicago, Ottoman-Jewish journalists sought to instill in their readers a sense of pride in their coreligionists' activities abroad and to reflect on what it meant to call their empire home.
Chapter Three, "Battling Neighbors: Imperial Allegiance and Politicized Violence," explores Ottoman Jews' responses to two moments of heightened tension and politicized violence in the empire: Armenian events in İstanbul in 1896 and the Ottoman-Greek War of 1897. The strategies of self-representation that Jewish elites employed during these moments attest to their willingness to work within a framework of Ottomanness in response to the changing political climate in the empire. Their statements of Jews' special affinity with Muslims during this period helped solidify the image of Jews as a model millet (ethnoreligious community) precisely as the relationship between the Sublime Porte and its Armenian and Greek citizens became increasingly strained. Yet the choice of Jewish elites to publicly side with their Muslim neighbors, and thus with the state, during both moments also resulted in a number of more troubling developments. The increasing polarization of the period prompted new rifts between Ottoman Jews and their Christian neighbors, some of which would prove long-lasting.
The final chapter, "Contest and Conflict: Jewish Ottomanism in a Constitutional Regime," considers Jews' responses to the visit of Sultan Reşad to Salonika during his tour of Ottoman Macedonia in the summer of 1911. By this time, the empire had witnessed an explosion of new political parties and ideologies following the Young Turk revolution. In this context, Zionist, "assimilationist" and socialist Jewish groups competed for the attentions of their sovereign and their state as well as the support of various constituencies. Although they continued to speak of their community's special relationship to the state under the new government, Ottoman Jewish leaders found it increasingly difficult to speak in one voice. Indeed, while under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), Jewish elites had often attempted to distance themselves and their communities from groups imperial authorities had deemed suspect, various Jewish activists and authors now sought to distance themselves from members of their own community whose politics they rejected. Despite the fierce competition among different Jewish patriots during the sultan's visit, no clear victor emerged. New and divergent definitions of Jewish Ottomanism coexisted on an expanded political stage.
The author challenges a number of commonly held assumptions and explains much that is obscure or puzzling. A very welcome feature of this book, all too rare in current Ottoman studies, is its consistent standard of accuracy. The overview-cum-assessment sections, one in each chapter, stimulate ideas and suggest different lines of interpretation.
All of the chapters are solid and will serve as useful references for years to come. Chapter Four is especially noteworthy, as it mainly deals with the restoration of the constitution. It was in this period that press censorship was lifted, palace spies were suppressed and a general amnesty for political offenders was granted. Probably the most beneficial aspect of the constitution was its emphasis on the equality of all Ottoman citizens. The enumeration of civil liberties was subject to no qualifications of race or creed. The Young Turk ideals summarized in the constitution aimed to build a society where all communities cooperated with one another in the spirit of fraternity and lived as equals. The different communities met together in a parliamentary structure, sending representatives to İstanbul for regular sessions. Progressive reforms were inaugurated and religious tolerance was declared. The Turk was changing. He was looking at other religions and non-Muslims with new eyes, with more interest and respect. A liberal spirit of inquiry and thought was apparent.
There is one glaring omission in Chapter Four, however. The influential Ottoman Jewish politicians of the Second Constitutional Period (1908-18) are not referred to. There is virtually no mention of Emmanuel Carasso, who was elected from Salonika to the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies in 1908 and 1912 and moved to İstanbul when Salonika was captured by Greece in October 1912. Carasso represented the capital in the 1914 Chamber. He joined the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, which ruled the Ottoman Empire 1908-18) before 1908 and was able to further its activities. Carasso was part of the inner circle of the CUP and had long been an intimate friend of Talat Pasha (minister of the interior and later grand vizier). Being eloquent in his defense of the Young Turk administration, he spoke warmly of the friendship of Talat Pasha for the Jews and of the reforms that were introduced. A man of unusual energy and administrative capacity, Carasso was put in charge of food distribution during World War I. His advice was often sought in matters of foreign relations. In 1912, he had been sent on a secret mission to Rome to discuss the end of hostilities with Italy; in August 1915, he was one of the founders of the Ottoman-Israelite Union, the brainchild of Dr. Alfred Nossig. In July 1918, along with some other influential Unionists, he formed the commissions to negotiate an "Ottoman Balfour Declaration" with German Zionists. His ties with Unionist leaders in European exile remained very close after the end of the Ottoman Empire. He was among the deputation consisting of two Muslims, an Armenian and a Jew who presented Sultan-Caliph Abdulhamid II, "God's shadow on the earth," with the fetva (legal ruling) confirming his deposition.
Nor is there a word about Nissim Mazliyah, Vitali Faraci and Hasqual Sassoun — the other Jewish members of the Chamber of Deputies in the Young Turk period. They were all active and committed Unionists whose influence was considerable. Their Jewish identity coexisted with loyalty to the Ottoman state. Culturally, they were Ottoman as well as Jewish; politically, they remained avowed Ottomans until the end.
The author pays little attention to the special relationship between the Jews and the CUP (pp. 105-7). The relationship was strengthened after the revolution, when Haim Nahum replaced Moshe Halevi as the chief rabbi on January 24, 1909. Halevi had been closely associated with the old regime, while Nahum had developed a connection with the Young Turks while attending the rabbinical seminary in Paris 1893-97. He was a liberal with close links to the Alliance Israélite, an institution much respected by the Young Turks. Talat Pasha had taught Turkish in the Alliance school in Edirne and had been instructed in French by the daughter of the school director. Nahum's relationship with Talat Pasha remained cordial until the end of the empire. It is striking that Sir Gerald Lowther, the British ambassador in İstanbul 1908-13, in his dispatch of August 22, 1910, to Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, could wryly note that the CUP appeared to be a Judaeo-Turkish alliance, the Turks supplying the military material and the Jews the brains, enterprise, money and a strong press influence in Europe. According to Lowther, the Jews after 1908 also seemed to inspire and control the interior machinery of the state and were bent on the economic and industrial capture of young Turkey. The birthplace of the revolution that culminated in the new regime was Salonika, a place where Jews were so numerous and powerful that it might have been called a Jewish city.
Cohen's pioneering study is distinguished by its broad compass — more than a four-decade span from the proclamation of the Ottoman Constitution on December 23, 1876, to the end of World War I — as well as an exceptional diversity of primary material. The author has used English, French, German, Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew, Greek and Turkish sources, including newspapers, memoirs, letters, oral and family histories, and general printed matter. She benefited from archival repositories in Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Israel. Colleagues will plausibly suggest that her analysis would be sharper and her assertions more convincing if she had consulted more extensively the array of materials in the Ottoman archives in İstanbul. These holdings contain an enormous amount of relevant information and are superior to most of the other sources on which she bases so much of her argument.
The impressive bibliography lacks one notable work, Yusuf Hikmet Bayur's monumental Türk İnkılabı Tarihi (second edition, 1991), which should be consulted in any study of the Ottoman Second Constitutional Period. Its three volumes of text (some in two or three parts) are bolstered by a vast quantity of original documents, the whole being published over the period from 1940 to 1967. The offices that Bayur filled in the Turkish government gave him access to much material and firsthand information, which he fully utilized in preparing his guide to the history of the Turkish Revolution. Materials are presented reflecting the positions of Turkish leaders, minority groups and the Western powers. The other exception is Yusuf Belasel's Osmanlı ve Türkiye Yahudileri (2004), a survey of great insight and originality.
Although the book is adapted from Cohen's 2008 Stanford doctoral dissertation, "Fashioning Imperial Citizens: Sephardi Jews and the Ottoman State (1856-1912)," it is very readable and well-edited. Extensive endnotes provide an abundance of detailed background information. There are 22 illustrations enhancing the pleasure of reading the book. Cohen's conceptual frameworks and sources make the work relevant beyond its field.