Marc David Baer, Sultanic Saviors and Tolerant Turks: Writing Ottoman Jewish History, Denying the Armenian Genocide, Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Marc David Baer (MDB): Nearly three decades ago, in graduate school, an Armenian friend asked me why Jews deny the Armenian genocide. I answered weakly that not all of us do. I wrote this book as a detailed answer to the question, posed to me so long ago, as an exploration of the feelings and circumstances that have compelled Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, and abroad to promote the image of sultanic saviors and tolerant Turks.
As a Jewish American growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, I was exposed to the Holocaust from a young age. A number of survivors inhabited my world. When my family moved to West Germany, Grandpa Harvey, my father’s father, a first-generation Russian Jewish American, refused to visit us. When his US Air Corps plane was shot down during the Second World War, he joined Soviet guerrillas fighting against the Nazis behind the lines in Slovakia. He would never go to Germany. When I began graduate school and lived in Turkey for the first time in the early 1990s, Grandpa Harvey would not visit me there either, on account of what the Turks had done to the Armenians. He told me it was the same as what the Germans had done to us.
Unlike Grandpa Harvey—or Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide,” or Franz Werfel, the author of Forty Days at Musa Dagh for that matter—the most prominent Jewish historians of the Ottoman Empire including Stanford Shaw and Bernard Lewis publicly denied that the Armenian people had been subjected to genocide. I could not comprehend why Ashkenazi Jewish historians, not compelled by the same pressures as their Sephardic Jewish counterparts in Turkey, would deny the Armenian Genocide. Whether through silence or open denial of the Armenian Genocide, Turkish Jews and their historians proffered a utopian perspective on Turks as having been sent by God time and again to save God’s persecuted people from European barbarity. I wondered: what were the origins of this claim, where was the evidence to support it, and why was it still being repeated?
I wrote this book to address these and a number of other questions: What moral responsibility do the descendants of the victims of one genocide have to the descendants of the victims of another? What role have Jews played in genocide denial? What is the relationship between the utopian depiction of the experience of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic and efforts to counter recognition of the annihilation of the Armenians? Finally, what are the moral and ethical obligations of historians on these counts?
These are sensitive questions and not ones usually broached in the ethically challenged field of Ottoman studies. Armenian Genocide denial is widespread among scholars of the Ottoman Empire. One holder of a chair funded by the Turkish government was the point man for genocide denial activities in the United States. For these reasons I decided to wait to write this book until after I was granted tenure and then promoted to full professor. I did not want my career to be hindered by genocide deniers. For this reason, I put off writing about a topic which has been on my mind since the start of my career.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MDB: The book concerns what has compelled Jews to promote a positive image of Ottomans and Turks while they deny the Armenian Genocide and the existence of antisemitism in Turkey. The dominant historical narrative is that Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 were embraced by the Ottoman Empire, and then later, protected from the Nazis during the Second World War. If we believe that Turks and Jews have lived in harmony for so long, then it is hard for us to accept that the Turks could have committed genocide against the Armenians. The book confronts these convictions and circumstances to reflect on what moral responsibility Jews, the descendants of the victims of one genocide, have to Armenians, the descendants of victims of another. It delves into the history of Muslim-Jewish relations in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey to tease out the origin of these many tangled truths. The aim is to bring about reconciliation between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, not only to face inconvenient historical facts, but to confront it and come to terms with it. By looking at the complexities of interreligious relations, Holocaust denial, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and confronting some long-standing historical stereotypes, I set out to tell a new history that exposes Turkish antisemitism and admits to the Armenian Genocide.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MDB: As in my previous books on Ottoman history, Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe (Oxford, 2008), The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks (Stanford, 2010), and At Meydanı’nda Ölüm: 17. Yüzyıl İstanbul’unda Toplumsal Cinsiyet, Hoşgörü ve İhtida (Death on the Hippodrome: Gender, Tolerance, and Conversion in seventeenth-century Istanbul) (Koç, 2016), Sultanic Saviors and Tolerant Turks interrogates relations between Muslims and Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey and the interplay between history and memory. In The Dönme I analyze how the waning years of the Ottoman Empire witnessed changing perceptions of religious difference, intercommunal violence, and the rise of racialized nationalism (only accepting those with “Turkish blood”), ethnicized religion (conflating being Turkish with being Muslim), and antisemitism. These ominous changes served as the background for how the Dönme were pressured to dissolve as a group when bearing stigmatized racial and religious status in the Turkish Republic. Rather than focus on Jews and Muslims alone, Sultanic Saviors and Tolerant Turks takes into account the triangular relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, focuses on the annihilation of the Armenians, and the relation between antisemitism and genocide denial.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MDB: The target academic audience is made up of scholars and students of Jewish, Armenian, Ottoman, and Turkish history, and Holocaust and Genocide studies. But more important is the impact the book may have on the public. I have already received a great amount of positive feedback from Jewish and Armenian readers in the United States, Israel, Armenia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. I look forward to the book being translated into several languages. My hope is that the book will contribute toward Jewish-Armenian reconciliation, harmed for so long by, among other reasons, Jewish public denial of the Armenian Genocide.
After publishing an op-ed based on the book’s arguments, I received emails from leading members of the US Jewish community, who told me of their own struggles to convince other leaders of US Jewish organizations to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Recognition has finally begun in the past five years. I am hopeful that more Jews will turn away from denial and toward working together with Armenians on the common causes that bind us.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MDB: Conducting oral history research for The Dönme, I learned of Dönme and Turkish Jewish networks in Berlin, which compelled me to undertake years of research in that city. In previous articles, I critically examined the conflation of Turk with Muslim, explored the Turkish experience of Nazism, and examined Turkey’s relation to the darkest era of German history. Whereas many assume that Turks in Germany cannot share in the Jewish past, and that for them the genocide of the Jews is merely a borrowed memory, I have shown how intertwined the history of Turkey and Germany, and Turks and Jews are. I plan to write a monograph exploring these issues further.
The leading German Muslim during that same era was Jewish convert Hugo Marcus. Based mainly on Marcus’s private papers in German, I recently completed the first biography of this remarkable man, German, Jew, Muslim, Gay: The Life and Times of Hugo Marcus (Columbia, 2020). I use Marcus’s life and work to shed new light on German Jewish history and antisemitism, Islam in Europe, Muslim-Jewish relations, and the history of the gay rights struggle. His unconventional story reveals new aspects of the interconnected histories of Jewish and Muslim individuals and communities, including Muslim responses to Nazism and Muslim experiences of the Holocaust. The book on Marcus continues a central thrust of my work, exploring the limits of religious belonging by revealing the entangled histories of Jews and Muslims.
J: Finally, how do you respond to people who rather than engage with the aims and argument of Sultanic Saviors and Tolerant Turks, which concerns the writing of Jewish history, insist that the Armenian Genocide never occurred?
MDB: The Armenian Genocide is one of the most well-documented events in Ottoman history. Accordingly, there is no reason to enter into so-called debates about whether it happened. Denialists are like tobacco industry lobbyists, global warming skeptics, and anti-vaxxers who try to make denialism a legitimate position within an actual debate, fund biased research supposedly striving for objectivity, work with public relations firms (and professors!) to sow confusion, and throw up a fog of controversy (Mamigonian 2015, 62, 63). In this case they distract from the perpetration of the Armenian Genocide through boasts about heroics in another—the alleged rescue of Turkish Jews in Europe during the Second World War—and distort historical evidence surrounding both events. I did not see a need to adduce more evidence for the Armenian Genocide. What I have done instead is to write a book about the genocide from a unique and personal perspective, questioning why members of a group who were not perpetrators deny another people’s suffering.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-5)
In January 2014, high-level Turkish government officials participated for the first time in the Turkish Jewish community’s public commemoration of the Holocaust—an annual event first authorized only a few years earlier. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs, began his speech on that day filled with meaning for the Turkish Jewish community by honoring “the memory of millions of Jews, Roma people and other minorities who lost their lives in a systematic annihilation by the Nazi regime. This crime against humanity is the common grief and shame of humankind.” He then quickly pivoted to Turkey, which “not only embraced Jews who were sent into exile from Spain in 1492 in the Ottoman period, but also helped and protected its Jewish citizens and became a safe haven for all Jews, especially scientists and academicians, during World War II.” Based on these events, his conclusion was unambiguous. “There is no trace of genocide in our history. Hostility towards the other has no room in our civilization.”
In his statement, originally available in English on the Turkish Jewish community’s official website, Çavuşoğlu contrasted European Christian persecution of Jews from the medieval era to the Holocaust, which he termed “the shame of humankind,” with five centuries of Turkish tolerance of Jews. Embedded in his short speech is the straightforward implication that because Turks have always rescued Jews, they could not possibly have committed crimes against humanity, certainly not the Armenian genocide, perpetrated in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire by their ancestors. Thus, in a spare five sentences at an event meant to commemorate the murder of European Jewry—itself remarkable, as Holocaust denial is rampant in Turkey—the foreign minister of Turkey shifted the focus from the Holocaust to a performative conscience-clearing of his own country. To deny the Armenian genocide, the foreign minister deployed a specific, dominant, utopian narrative of Ottoman and Turkish Jewish history. That historical narrative, how it came to be, and how it functions, is the focus of this book.
Representatives of the Turkish Jewish community also deny the genocide by contrasting Turkish Muslim tolerance with Christian persecution of Jews. In 1989, Turkey’s chief rabbi, David Asseo, wrote in a letter sent to all one hundred US senators that the resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide then pending before the US Congress “is of great concern to our community . . . We cannot accept the label of ‘genocide;’ the groundless accusation is as injurious to us as to our Turkish compatriots.” Asseo went further in his grateful praise of the Turks. “As Turkish Jews, we have received for the last five hundred years the protection, the rights and the freedom granted to all Turkish citizens, at times when the concepts of human rights, liberty and tolerance were unknown in most Western countries.” Using the same logic that the Turkish foreign minister would use a quarter of a century later, the rabbi argued that the Armenian genocide never happened because Turks have always tolerated Jews.What both Çavuşoğlu and Asseo are asking us to accept is an if/then assumption about tolerance and genocide: if one buys the myth that Turks and Jews have lived in harmony as friends for five hundred years, then one trusts that Turks could not possibly have committed genocide against the Armenians.
In fact, Jews have been giving the Ottomans and Turks favorable press for five centuries. Here, I analyze the emotional frames of mind that have driven them to do so, demonstrating how for the past century Jews have been joined by Ottoman and Turkish Muslims in promoting an historical narrative of sultanic saviors, tolerant Turks, grateful and loyal Jews, and anti-Semitic Armenian and Greek traitors, a narrative that has simultaneously served to deny the very possibility of an Armenian genocide. Even during the genocide Talat Pasha asked Jewish American US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau why he bothered complaining about persecution of the Armenians when the Ottomans had always treated the Jews well. Such views have in fact been predominant in Jewish historiography until only recently.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Jews depicted the Ottoman sultan as their redeemer, as “God’s rod” who had struck down their enemies the Byzantine emperors as part of a divine plan. Giving refuge to Jews expelled from Christian Spain in 1492, the sultan thus also opened the way to Jerusalem and the dawning of the messianic age. After Jews proclaimed Sabbatai Zevi the messiah in 1665, they ceased referring to the Ottoman ruler in messianic terms. But in the nineteenth century, Ottoman Jewish intellectuals recycled medieval and early modern tropes, thereby converting the sultan—and by extension all Turks—into tolerant hosts of their Jewish “guests.” In 1892, during the four hundredth anniversary of the 1492 “welcome” given Iberian Jewry, Ottoman Jews promoted this new version of the Turk as humanitarian protector. Identifying with the Muslim, with whom there could be no conflict, Jews depicted themselves as loyal subjects. Armenians and Greeks, both Christian minorities within the empire, became eternal traitors and enemies, alleged anti-Semitic heirs of the Byzantines. Ninety-seven years later, the 500. yıl vakfı(Quincentennial Foundation), established by the Turkish state and Turkish Jewish elites in 1989, saw itself as the celebration of “five hundred years of friendship” between Turks and Jews. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, Jewish accounts in Turkey and abroad of the Ottomans and the Turks offered the same stock figures of tolerant Turks, loyal and useful Jews, and anti-Semitic Christians. It is my contention that to accomplish this staging of five hundred years of harmony, the most significant and influential Jewish historians needed to both deny the Armenian genocide and ignore or deny the existence of Turkish anti-Semitism.
In the 1970s, belief in the power of “world Jewry” was one of the motivating factors that led the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the president to turn to Turkish Jews to serve as lobbyists on their behalf, primarily so as to counter international recognition of the Armenian genocide. As part of this effort, in the early 1990s the myth of the Turk as rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust was introduced. The Turkish president and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkish Jewish elites and their foreign allies, historians of the Ottoman Empire, major American Jewish organizations and the state of Israel—together, they promoted the myth of the virtuous, humanitarian Turk for audiences in Europe and North America. A resurrected version of the 1892 propaganda efforts, this campaign was a brew made of one part Armenian genocide denial and one part stale Jewish tropes of a Muslim-Jewish alliance against the Christian enemy. Promoted by the Quincentennial Foundation, diplomats, politicians, journalists, filmmakers, novelists, and historians, until the turn of the millennium it had all but drowned out critical countervoices in both national and international arenas. This is similar to how fifteenth- and sixteenth-century utopian Sephardic accounts worked to muffle lachrymose fifteenth-century Byzantine Greek (Romaniot) Jewish narratives. Or how the Sephardic 1892 celebrations silenced socialist and Zionist protestations at the turn of the twentieth century. Counternarratives failed to gain traction because they were inconvenient. The dominant narrative succeeded, especially in the modern period, because it allied with the foreign interests of Ottoman and later Turkish Muslims.
Beginning with the turn of the new millennium, major transformations in Turkey have led to new approaches to the past. Among these, is the rise of critical Jewish and Muslim voices and the breaking of taboos in Ottoman and Turkish studies, both within and outside of Turkey. These new appraisals demonstrate the continued relevance of the concepts of friend and foe and the triangulated relationship among the three groups, which have in turn contributed to realignments in narrating Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations. What they establish is that the only way for Jews in Turkey or those defending Jews living in Turkey to end old enmities and forge new friendships is to divest themselves of those old affective dispositions in favor of new stances.
To those who would object that Ottoman and Turkish Jews generally enjoyed a better life than their European counterparts, I would point to the consequences of making such a blanket assertion. In my view, the more significant question and the one worthier of analysis is how such a claim has been politicized, instrumentalized, and deployed by Jews and Muslims alike over the past century so as to counter recognition of the Armenian genocide. Without critically engaging with the political uses of history we cannot hope to compel historians to uphold the ethical standards of the profession. Nor can we aspire to bring about reconciliation between Jew and Armenian, forged when each sees the other as victim of a common experience, rather than competitor in a zero-sum game of recognition.