Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, by Julia Phillips Cohen – Reaction Essay

In Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, Julia Phillips Cohen examines the ways in which the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire engaged in image management and identity construction through media, philanthropy and by engaging in patriotic behaviors. Cohen’s goal is to use the Ottoman Jewish example to show that the concept of imperial citizenship emerged earlier than what had been suggested by earlier works. Using newspapers, letters, consular reports, photographs, and postcards, Cohen creates a narrative that shows how the Jewish community conceptualized their place in the Ottoman Empire and how that self-image changed over time.

Cohen argues that prior to her work on the Jewish community’s relationship with the Ottoman state, previous scholarship had created a distorted narrative by relying on a narrow group of Jewish chroniclers who were sympathetic to the Ottoman state. Throughout her work, she gives examples of how the trope of a special relationship existing between the empire and the Jewish community was used to create and maintain an image of loyalty and patriotism, but shouldn’t be taken at face-value, because it oversimplifies a complex and constantly changing dynamic that reflected contemporary issues and needs.

Becoming Ottomans has a narrow focus on the Jewish community, but the narrative Cohen has produced can be used as a basic model for understanding how minority communities and their relationship to the state apparatus changed over time. Initially, Cohen states that the Jewish community was not even included in the imperial government’s considerations, but that oversight does not seem to have been malicious. There were simply too few total Jews and too few in positions of power for the government to have given them any consideration. It is also probably the Jews did not figure into imperial decisions very often because the Ottomans’ primary problem was Christian Europe.

With effort, the Jews were able to make their presence felt and gain recognition for their patriotism and loyalty to the state. Jewish attempts to appear patriotic was initially a response to a fear of being considered “inside outsiders”, a potential threat to the empire. This is an important concept that touches on the tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire and shows that despite official rhetoric about equality, there was always a sense of the empire belonging to Muslims. Cohen did an excellent job of exploring this idea by showing how Jews attempted to adopt the language and symbols of Islam in an effort to fit in. By the end of Cohen’s narrative, Ottoman Jews in other countries identified with the empire, so the constant efforts of the community’s elite to mold Jews into citizens with a sense of loyalty to the empire were successful.

The final chapter of Cohen’s book, dealing with “Contest and Conflict,” was confusing and spent too much time describing competition between Jewish clubs, almost obscuring the more important conflict between pro and anti-Zionists, which has greater implications for later Middle Eastern history. I also felt like Cohen should have spent more time discussing the impact of the Sephardic cooption of the Ottoman Jewish narrative on the Mizrahi, but that may have taken her too far outside the scope of her intended argument. I also received the impression that she intended this book to be consumed by scholars familiar with Jewish history, since she failed to explain issues she brought up that would not be readily comprehended by someone unfamiliar with Judaism. A good example is the problem of the Turkish ice cream seller and eating meat. If one did not understand kosher dietary laws, the entire conflict would make no sense.

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