- Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era by Julia Phillips Cohen
The shaping of an Ottoman citizenry in the late Ottoman period, and its meanings and limits, has occupied scholars in the last decade. During this time of unprecedented political and structural reforms, cultural changes, as well as enduring crises engulfing the Ottoman Empire, different Ottoman communities attempted to adapt themselves to the changing circumstances by constructing their own, sometimes competing, discourses of Ottoman patriotism. In her thoroughly researched and documented study, Julia Phillips Cohen provides an impressive study of one community — the Ladino-speaking Jewish community (“The Sephardi Jews”) — and analyzes their responses to the “Ottomanist project” of creating a new form of imperial citizenship. She contextualizes it against the background of the multilingual and multireligious Ottoman Empire. Becoming Ottomans is therefore a major contribution to our understanding of the process during which the Sephardic Jewish elites, together with other Ottoman elites, attempted to adapt themselves to the new acquired roles of imperial citizens, offering their own interpretations. By analyzing different strategies promoted during a series of historical moments, Phillips Cohen demonstrates the ability of Jewish elites (lay and religious leaders, journalists, schoolteachers, merchants, and charitable women) to forge the image of model Ottoman patriots. In order to suggest a comprehensive discussion of the Ottoman Sephardic communities, the author chooses not to limit itself to Istanbul, but also to include Salonica and Izmir in her discussion.
The vivid Ladino press and publications, archival sources, visual testimonies (postcards and family photos), and different artifacts provide Phillips Cohen with the material with which she reconstructs the project of Becoming Ottomans. Promoted by Jewish media, communal schools, charitable societies, and synagogues, the much-publicized Jewish adherence to Ottoman patriotism enabled Ottoman Jews to be “counted and esteemed” by the Muslim majority but often worsened their relations with other non-Muslim groups (mainly Greeks and Armenians). Turning also to Ottoman archives, consular reports, and the Turkish-speaking press enables the author to discuss Jews’ responses as perceived and evaluated by the general Ottoman society. The book proceeds chronologically presenting [End Page 659] different historical moments and their imprint on the project of turning Jews into patriotic citizens who searched to gain the esteem of their state and its elites.
The Russian-Ottoman War of 1877 provides the first case in which Jewish publicists and leaders could propel the “Ottoman Jewish project.” Jewish leaders endeavored to promote philanthropy and patriotism in order to turn Jews into active citizens on both the home front and, on voluntary basis, on the battlefield. The attempt in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire serves the author to discuss an initiative from below, promoted by Jewish publicists aiming to invent their own version of patriotism and to construct is as a tribute to Muslim tolerance. At the same time, the reports published in the Ladino press on Jews’ participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), part of the much more famous centenary celebration of Christopher Columbus’s expedition to America, equally emphasized the bonds connecting the Jews with their state confirming the significance of the Jews’ patriotic project.
The Greco-Ottoman War of 1897 serves the author to discuss the Jewish patriotic project in a new atmosphere of Islamic Ottomanism that replaced the previous civic Ottomanism, the all-encompassing multireligious form of imperial identification. While I believe that this assumed shift from civic to Islamic Ottomanism should be further researched, Phillips Cohen analyzes Ottoman Jewish elites’ search to continue their public endorsement of an all-inclusive civic Ottomanism. Furthermore, as the war of 1897 remains very much in the margins of the study on the late Ottoman period, this chapter enables us to understand better the shaping of the Ottoman home front, modes of civic mobilization, and propaganda.
While the war of 1897 is still an under-researched topic, the Young Turk Revolution (1908) and its ramifications on communal identities and organizations...