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DÖNMEH . The followers of the Ottoman Jewish messiah Shabbetai Tsevi (or Shabtai Zvi; 16261676), subsequent to his conversion to Islam, are known as the Dönmeh. Despite hostility originating from the belief that they had converted to Islam deceitfully, though perhaps with a salvific intent, the Dönmeh adhered to Tsevi and his successors. They maintained a certain degree of unity even after their removal in 1924 from Salonika, which had become their capital early on, to Turkey (where they are still present). Tsevi's conversion is understood to have been the model for their own, undertaken in imitation of his and intended to assist him in his attempt to defeat demonic forces associated with Islam by descending among them. There were, however, several different theologies and theologians of the Shabbatean sects, including some that did not convert to Islam or counsel conversion until long after the seventeenth century, and several that converted sincerely, whether to Christianity, to Islam, or to Turkish secular, progressive nationalism. All the sects retained a certain unity based in their history, their belief (or the memory of one) in Tsevi's divine role and destiny, and their practice of a number of rituals and customs from the late seventeenth century recalling Tsevi's passion and his liberationist, even antinomian, praxis. In general it may be more useful to consider the Dönmeh as a movement of revitalization, looking back to the conversos of Iberia, and as counterparts of their contemporaries, the Portuguese-Dutch Jews.

Among themselves the Dönmeh (Turkish: turners, converts) are known collectively as the maʾaminim (Hebrew, believers); few of the earlier sectarian groupsIzmirli (from Izmir), also known as kabayeros (knights); Yakubiler (followers of Tsevi's brother-in-law); Konyousos (followers of Tsevi's chief successor, Barukhya Russo Counio)remained distinct after the rise of secular Turkey and the population transfer of 1924. The members of the groups occupied themselves as merchants, bureaucrats, and artisans and developed a great interest in progressive schooling, religion serving as moral instruction, and scientific training served by modern pedagogy. Basic beliefs (in the messiahship of Shabbetai Tsevi and in his "spiritual [antinomian] Torah" and its trinity), practices (spousal exchanges, consumption of ritually impure foods), and festivals (invented by Tsevi or commemorating deeds of his passion) have held the Dönmeh together to a certain degree. This cohesion has been assisted by bonds of secrecy and privacy and by the marginalization of the group from both Jewish and Islamic communities. Dönmeh attachment to progressive social politics has been of great importance and can be seen as arising from this marginalization.

The most important literature of the Dönmeh that remains from the early periods includes their prayer book, collections of praise-songs, and some homiletic material. The late nineteenth century witnessed the rise to prominence of Dönmeh in Ottoman Salonika. Dönmeh bankers and textile and tobacco merchants played a large role in global trade and finance; headed the city's Chamber of Commerce; founded influential progressive schools, literary journals, and architectural styles; and engaged in local and then imperial politicsserving as mayors, members of parliament, and ministers, and generally espousing modernization and, in time, secularization. Some Dönmeh became so committed to radical new philosophies and political ideas that they played an important role in the revolutionary movement that deposed the sultan in 1908 and laid the groundwork for the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. At the same time, many remained faithful to ancestral Shabbatean traditions.

Because they were considered Muslims by the Greek government, the Dönmeh of Salonika were subject to deportation to Turkey as part of the population exchange of 19231924. Relying on their Jewish origins, some Dönmeh asked the Greek government to excuse them from the expulsion, as other Dönmeh approached Turkish officials with the same aim. Despite their protests, the estimated ten to fifteen thousand Dönmeh were compelled to abandon their native Salonika. Immediately following their arrival in Turkey in 1924, the Dönmeh faced a wave of controversy as Muslims sought to determine whether they were Jews or Muslims, foreigners or Turks. For over two decades, newspapers published sensationalized accounts of Dönmeh beliefs and practices. Throughout the 1930s many kept Shabbetai Tsevi's memory, traditions, and customs fully alive. Actively practiced customs included the recitation of passages from traditional Dönmeh literaturesuch as "Shabtai Zvi, esperamos a ti" (from the kaddish, as in the Dönmeh prayer book)at the Festival of the Lamb held on the seashore, and at other Dönmeh feasts, fasts, burials, and festivals.

After World War II the Dönmeh managed to integrate into the mainstream of Turkish society, marrying into secularized Muslim families and almost entirely losing their distinctive religious beliefs and customs, other than rituals attending burial at predominantly Dönmeh cemeteries in Istanbul. At the same time, Dönmeh retained social ties among themselves by sending their children to the originally Salonikan Dönmeh schools relocated to Istanbul and serving on their boards, residing in the same neighborhoods in Istanbul, maintaining the textile and tobacco businesses and business relationships established in Salonika, and retaining membership in the same Masonic lodges.

Anti-Dönmeh journalism in Turkey has increased in intensity since the 1990s. Typically driven by anti-Semitic, populist, and religious motives, this writing has defined the Dönmeh community in ways that stress its alienation from Turkish social, political, and religious norms.

See Also

Messianism; Shabbetai Tsevi.


Baer, Marc David. "Revealing a Hidden Community: Ilgaz Zorlu and the Debate in Turkey over the Dönme/Sabbatians." Turkish Studies Association Bulletin 23, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 6875. An important review of the book by Zorlu listed below, and an updating of research on the Dönmeh.

Scholem, Gershom. "Doenmeh." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder, vol. 6. Jerusalem, 1971. Summarizes much of this scholar's work on the topic (with bibliography to that date) including his own essays and publications of Dönmeh literature and religion.

Zorlu, Ilgaz. Evet, Ben Salanikliyim: Türkiye Sabetaycilik üstüne Makalaer. Istanbul, 1998. A modern "confession."

Harris Lenowitz (2005)

Marc David Baer (2005)

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