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Some Facts on the Origins of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Ara Papian
Informations on Mustafa Kemal as a dönmeh (1) have always existed. Early publications about Kemal always make mention of it. For example, the very first serious work on the First World War – the landmark work History of the War by the renowned British daily The Times, published in 22 parts during 1915-1922 – did not circumvent that fact. It states in particular: “Mustafa Kemal, reported by some to be of Salonika Jewish descent, only joined the Nationalist movement openly in June, 1919.” (2) Another well-known Western publication, the American Literary Digest, describes Mustafa Kemal in 1922 as “[a] Spanish Jew by ancestry, an orthodox Moslem by birth and breeding.” (3)
The aforementioned do not reveal anything essentially new, but they merely give an indication of the numerous such statements made in the press at the time on Mustafa Kemal’s dönmeh origins. Let us add one or two more.
The Associated Press news agency, citing the Grand Vizier of Turkey, mentions in an item of the 3rd of July, 1920: “Mustafa Kemal, (the Turkish nationalist leader) whom the great vizier presents as a Jew, was born a Turk and his parents were from Saloniki and were Deonmes, that is converts, as were the parents of Talat (4) and Djavid”.(5) One more informed source – a high-ranking Ottoman officer (pasha), and later author Achmed Abdullah, and also well-known businessman Leo Anavi (both Turkish spies in the British army, having met with Kemal on numerous occasions and very strong supporters of his) write that Kemal had Spanish-Jewish ancestry and his origins, as they say, was “not even of Osmanli blood.”(6)
This fact was so widespread in the 1920s that no one thought of questioning it. It is not without reason that one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, Arnold Toynbee, likewise believed Mustafa Kemal to have dönmeh origins.(7) The dönmeh roots of Mustafa Kemal are also to be found in the works of such an informed figure when it comes to crypto-Jews as Joachim Prinze (1902-1988), who was president of the American Jewish Congress from 1958 to 1966. He writes: “Among the leaders of the revolution which resulted in a more modern government in Turkey were Djavid Bey and Mustafa Kemal. Both were ardent
doenmehs. Djavid Bey became minister of finance; Mustafa Kemal became the leader of the new regime and had adopted the name of Ataturk. His opponents tried to use his doenmeh background to unseat him, but without success. Too many of the Young Turks in the newly formed revolutionary Cabinet prayed to Allah, but had as their real prophet Shabtai Zvi, the Messiah of Smyrna.”(8)
That Mustafa Kemal was of Jewish descent was a widespread belief among the people of Turkey as well. Jews of Salonica (Thessaloniki) always held to the opinion that Mustafa Kemal was a dönmeh.(9) The Jews think so to this day. An entry on Mustafa Kemal can be found on the Jewish Virtual Library online, a website which lists information on celebrated Jewish figures or those of Jewish background.(10)
The Turkish public had and continues to have this same opinion. An interesting report from 1933 of the US Embassy in Ankara has been preserved. A survey concluded that a majority of those asked believed that the cause of the natural disasters punishing the country had been its leader’s Jewish roots. One in particular said, “It is that Jew (meaning the President) who is pushing us into the abyss”.(11) It is evident that such talk went so far in Turkey that the authorities passed a “Law on Crimes Committed Against Atatürk” (#5816, 31 July, 1951) to punish as a crime any public insult or dishonour on the memory of Atatürk.(12) According to the law, such a “crime” would be punishable by one to three years imprisonment, up to five years in some cases.(13) Let us recall that such racist attitudes prevail in Turkey to this day; Armenians and Jews are considered to be second-class beings. People are even punished in that country for calling anyone an Armenian or a Jew, as that is considered to be an insult.
It can be concluded from the above that it has always been well-known that the Father of the Turks – Atatürk – was not a Turk, even though such information has always been glossed over. Now let us see what basis there is in considering Mustafa Kemal to be a dönmeh. First the arguments, that is, indirect facts, which indicate the probability of Mustafa Kemal’s dönmeh background.
Scholars have firstly pointed out the fact that Mustafa was born and raised in a city, Salonica, the majority of the population of which was Jewish in the mid-nineteenth century. Actually, Salonica was the only city in the world at the time (until Tel-Aviv was founded in 1909) with majority of Jewish population. If we add to the city’s Jews the dönmeh population, who were traditionally counted among the Muslims, then the Jews and converted Jews (the dönmeh) would make up an absolute majority of the population. This is why Salonica was called the Jerusalem of the Balkans then.(14) The British Ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Gerard Lowther (1858-1916), shares the information in his communiqué to the Foreign Office of the 29th of May, 1910, that Salonica has a “population of about 140,000, of whom 80,000 are Jews, and 20,000 of the sect of Sabatai Levi (15) or Crypto-Jews, who externally profess Islam”.(16) Greeks, Bulgarians, and Vlachs (Romanians) were also prominent communities in the city. There were at least 13,000 Christians.(17) There were very few Armenians, only about 45 individuals.(18) That is, in the time when Mustafa was born, only one out of seven of the inhabitants of Salonica was Muslim (and not just Turkish), while the Jews or the dönmeh comprised three-fourths of the population. The Turks, as a Turkish politician who lived in Salonica at the time said, were not many, simply “more than a few”.(19)
It is also very significant to note that Mustafa’s family lived in a non-Muslim district of Salonica: “Mustafa Kemal lived [during his childhood in Salonica] in a quarter in which [non-Muslim] minorities lived”.(20) Considering the community-based millet system of the Ottoman Empire, where each member of a community would live alongside his co-religionists and fellow community members, then this fact certainly becomes very important indeed.
The next fact to which we shall turn also has to do with the Ottoman community system. Each community of the Empire had its own schools and other educational establishments, maintained by the community’s means. The sole exception was the dominant Turkish element, for which there were state-sponsored schools. It is a well-known fact that Mustafa was first briefly sent to the Turkish Hafiz Mehmet school,(21) and then to the Shemsi Effendi (or Chemsi Effendi) school.(22) The Shemsi Effendi (the real name being “Shimon Zwi”)(23) school was one of the schools of Salonica’s dönmeh community. In Ottoman society, the schools were established not just according to community, but also to sub-communal divisions. As the dönmehs of Salonica were divided into three groups – Yakubi, Karakash, Kapanchi (24) – according to the question of who would succeed Sabata,(25) each had its own school: the Fryzi Ati for the Yakubi, the Feyziye for the Karakash (established in 1883-84), and the Yadigar-i Terakki for the Kapanchi (established in 1879).(26) As we know for sure that Mustafa Kemal attended the Feyziye school, about which he himself spoke in a 1922 interview,(27) then we can likely surmise that he was a Karakash dönmeh. Also, Mehmed Djavid Bey (Mehmet Cavit Bey) was a Karakash as well; he was the principal of the Feyziye school until he became the Finance Minister of the Ottoman Empire in 1908.(28)
It is very unlikely that Mustafa (later Kemal, and then, Atatürk) would have attended a dönmeh school as a Turk. Ottoman society, as has already been mentioned, was structured on its communities and the distinctions among them were strictly maintained. Thus, the families of each community would send their children to their community’s schools alone. For example, although among the hundreds of Armenian schools of the Ottoman Empire there must have been at least a few of high renown, we do not have an example of even a single child of a Turkish family to have attended any one. As some would try to demonstrate nowadays, even if we admit to how progressive Mustafa’s father Ali Riza may have been, wishing for a European education for his child – an assumption for which we have no basis – then consider that Salonica had more prominent French and Italian schools at the time.(29)
It must be emphasised at the same time that the dönmeh community was very self-contained. Aliens could not be a part of that community. The code of conduct of the dönmeh demanded that they not have any relations with other Muslims.(30) That is, if Mustafa were not dönmeh, then his attendance of a dönmeh school would have been unacceptable both for orthodox Muslims as well as for dönmehs. It must also be borne in mind that the schools of the Ottoman Empire did not have a single curriculum and that the children would not just receive a regular education in their community schools, but also be taught national or religious subjects. It is important to note that in the Ottoman Empire, as with elsewhere at the time, there were no secular schools as we would call them today. All schools, no matter how progressive they may have been, would include elements of religious education. The classes would begin, for the most part, with the chief prayers of the given religion or denomination. As the best scholars of the issue have stated, “The Semsi Efendi school continued to teach and practice Donme religious rituals”.(31) The school simultaneously aimed at establishing relations among the dönmeh (32): “Unlike other Muslims, the Donme maintained a belief that Shabtai Tzvi was the messiah, practiced kabalistic rituals, and recited prayers in Ladino, the language of Ottoman Jewry”.(33)
Mustafa Kemal’s belief in kabbalistic signs, in the power of the occult, was maintained throughout his life. According to one account, a green square cloth was to be found on his desk, with esoteric markings. The same account indicates that Kemal, an infidel from the Islamic point of view, believed in the virtue of those signs.(34) Ultimately, men believe in the things which they have been taught to believe since their childhood. Accordingly, we may note that Mustafa Kemal received not just a general education at the Shemsi Effendi school, but also received religious upbringing. The education ran so deep that even decades later he would still recall the prayers he had learnt.
It is not without reason that the tombstone of Shemsi Effendi himself is marked as “Muallim Şemsi Ef.[fendi] Atatürkün hocasi”, that is, “the teacher of Atatürk”. What is noteworthy as well is that Shemsi Effendi (Shimon Zwi) is being referred to not just as Atatürk’s “muallim”, teacher, but his “hoca”, mentor or preceptor, a religious guide.
Doubtless all of the aforementioned are serious arguments in favour of Mustafa Kemal being a dönmeh. Now let us see if there are records of direct facts supporting the claim. Strange as though it may seem, some do indeed exist.
Among such accounts, the most important is, of course, that of the memoirs of Itamar Ben-Avi, who described a meeting with Mustafa Kemal in 1911 in the Hotel Kamenitz, as the latter was en route to Libya to take part in the Italo-Turkish War. Itamar Ben-Avi (1882-1943) was the son of the Father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, being the first child to in modern times to speak Hebrew. He cites the following from what Mustafa Kemal said: “ ‘… At home I have a very old Tenakh (35) printed in Venice, and if I remember correctly my father sent me to a Karaite (36) teacher who thought me to read it: a few words have remained with me, like …’. At that point he paused for a moment and his eyes [looked as if he was] searching the air. Then, just as suddenly, he remembered: ‘Shma’a Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!’ (37) ‘That’s our greatest prayer, Captain Sir.’ ‘And also my secret prayer, Cher Monsieur,’ he answered and poured us both another drink”.(38)
Some, with political implications in mind, have doubted the veracity of this account. As a main argument, they say that Captain Mustafa Kemal travelled by sea from Istanbul to Alexandria in Egypt to take part in the Italo-Turkish War (18 December, 1911 – to 24 October, 1912), and so could not have been in Jerusalem at the time.(39) This is a distortion of the facts, if not an outright falsification. The facts undeniably state that Mustafa Kemal took a land route to Libya, passing through Syria and Palestine. The following statement comes from the British spy Harold Armstrong, who was well aware of issues pertaining to the Middle East at the time: “Except by the long route through Syria and Egypt, Turkey was cut off from North Africa.The Italians had control of the sea and had closed the Dardanelles. […] With two friends Mustafa Kemal took the land route. They traveled across Asia Minor and down by Syria and Palestine, using the railway where it existed, but doing the rest on horseback or with carriage”.(40)
It is completely unreasonable to believe that Itamar Ben-Avi would have made up such a story in his memoirs, especially as the motivation for it would be unclear. Ben-Avi did not even know in writing his memoirs whether or not they would even be published. He died in 1943 and his memoirs were not published until 1961; the aforementioned section remained unnoticed for a very long time.
Mustafa Kemal himself once gave a very interesting answer to an almost direct question from one of his close friends, Nuri Conker, about his roots. Kemal replied, “For me as well as some people want to say that I’m a Jew – because I was born in Salonica. But it must not be forgotten that Napoleon was an Italian from Corsica, yet he died a Frenchman and has passed into history as such”.(41)
It is with confidence that one may say that, apart from his origins, Mustafa Kemal lived and died as a Turk, a real Turk. In the Armenian sense of the word – a Turk. In that case, a question may arise: what difference does it make where Mustafa Kemal’s roots lay? For me, none whatsoever. However, as it is an important point for racist Turkish society, therefore it is for them that all of these facts have been put forth on display. Enjoy.
1 It is interesting that the Jews refer to the dönmeh, or, more correctly, the Sabbateans, as cultists – minim. That is, they are not considered goyim ( גוים or גויים ), or gentiles, those professing other faiths, but simply followers of a distorted version of Judaism.
2 The Break-up of Turkey, The Times History of the War, vol. XXI, London, 1920, p. 433.
3 The Sort of Man Mustafa Kemal is, The Literary Digest, October 14, 1922, vol. 75, no. 2, pp. 50-53.
4 A noteworthy reference to Talaat’s dönmeh origins is preserved in the marriage memoirs of the celebrated journalist Zekeriya Sertel (1890-1980). Describing how he had to overcome many difficulties in order to marry a dönmeh, Sabiha Dervish, he writes, “At our engagement, the representative for the girl’s side was then-Prime Minister Talat Pasha”. Rifat N. Bali, A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Donmes or Crypto-Jews of Turkey, Istanbul, 2008, p. 161.
5 Takes Issue with Turk’s Statement about Armenians, by the Associated Press, The Evening Progress, Saturday, July 3, 1920, p. 5.
6 Achmed Abdullah, Leo Anavi, The Rise of Mustapha Kemal Pasha from Obscurity, The Bridgeport Telegram, September 28, 1922, p. 4.
7 John Gunther, Procession, New York, 1965, p. 98; John Gunther, Inside Europe, New York, 1938, p. 417.
8 Joachim Prinz, The Secret Jews, New York, 1973, p. 122.
9 http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0005_0_05294.html
10 http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0012_0_11019.html
11 US Diplomatic Documents on Turkey, Family life in the Turkish Republic of the 1930s, ed. Rifat N. Bali, Istanbul, 2007, p. 57.
12 Rifat N. Bali, A Scapegoat for All Seasons, p. 227.
13 ibid.
14 ibid. p. 250.
15 “Shavatai Tzvi” or “Shabtai Zvi”; … “Geyik” is simply the Turkish equivalent of “Zvi”, meaning “deer” or “stag”. Rifat N. Bali, ibid. p. 39.
16 Elie Kedurie, Young Turks, Freemasons and Jews, Middle Eastern Studies, v. 7, no. 1 (Jan. 1971), p. 94.
17 Marc Baer, Globalization, Cosmopolitanism, and the Donme on Ottoman and Turkish Istanbul, Journal of World History, vol. 18, # 2 (Jan. 2007), p. 150.
18 Kazim Nami Duru (1876-1967), Arnavutluk ve Makedonya Hatiralarim (1959). In: Rifat N. Bali, ibid. p. 119.
19 ibid.
20 ibid. p. 244.
21 Barbara K. Walker, Filiz Erol, and Mine Erol, To Set Them Free, The Early Years of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, New Hampshire, 1981, p. 26.
22 H. C. Armstrong, Gray Wolf: An Intimate Study of a Dictator, New York, 1933, p. 5.
23 Rifat N. Bali, ibid. pp. 36-37.
24 Cengiz Sisman, The History of Naming the Ottoman / Turkish Sabbatians, p. 50; in Studies on Istanbul and Beyond, The Freely Papers, v. I, 2007, pp. 37-53.
25 The Donmes in the Memoirs of Fuat Andic, in Rifat N. Bali, ibid. p. 126.
26 Rifat N. Bali, ibid. p. 126. Marc Baer, ibid. p. 154.
27 Reported by A. Emin (Yalman), “Buyuk Millet Meclisi Reisi Başkumandan Mustafa Kemal Paşa ile bir mulâkat [An Interview with Mustafa Kemal Pasha, President of the Grand National Assembly and Commanderin-Chief]”, Vakit (Turkish Daily), 10 January, 1922.
28 Rifat N. Bali, ibid. p. 120.
29 ibid. p. 126.
30 Marc Baer, ibid. p. 143.
31 ibid. p. 153.
32 ibid.
33 ibid. p. 143.
34 H. C. Armstrong, ibid. p. 143.
35 The Tenakh or Tanakh is the word for the Hebrew Bible. It is an abbreviation, “TaNaKh”, based on the initials of three words – Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – referring to parts of the Bible as collections of Hebrew teaching.
36 Karaites include Crimean Turkish Jews.
יְהוָה אֶחָד ,יְהוָה אֱל הֵֹינוּ :יִשְׂרָאֵל ,שְׁמַע 37 . Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! (Deuteronomy, 6:4)
38 Itamar Ben-Avi, Im Shahar Atzmautenu: Zichronoto shel HaYeled Ha’lvri HaRishon (At the Dawn of Our Independence: the Memoirs of the First Hebrew Child), 1961, pp. 213-218.
39 Andrew Mango, Ataturk, London, 1999, p. 452.
40 H. C. Armstrong, ibid. p. 31.
41 Rifat N. Bali, A Scapegoat for All Seasons, p. 248.

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