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When Kemal Ataturk Recited Shema Yisrael

June 11, 2010 by  


“It’s My Secret Prayer, Too,” He Confessed

This is a reprinting of a January 28, 1994 article in New York’s Forward, a Jewish newspaper.

By Hillel Halkin

ZICHRON YAAKOV – There were two questions I wanted to ask, I said over the phone to Batya Keinan, spokeswoman for Israeli president Ezer Weizman, who was about to leave the next day, Monday, Jan. 24, on the first visit ever made to Turkey by a Jewish chief of state. One was whether Mr. Weizman would be taking part in an official ceremony commemorating Kemal Ataturk.

Ms. Kenan checked the president’s itinerary, according to which he and his wife would lay a wreath on Ataturk’s grave the morning of their arrival, and asked what my second question was.

“Does President Weizman know that Ataturk had Jewish ancestors and was taught Hebrew prayers as a boy?”

“Of course, of course,” she answered as unsurprisedly as if I had inquired whether the president was aware that Ataturk was Turkey’s national hero.

Excited and Distressed

I thanked her and hung up. A few minutes later it occurred to me to call back and ask whether President Weizman intended to make any reference while in Turkey to Ataturk’s Jewish antecedents. “I’m so glad you called again,” said Ms. Kenan, who now sounded excited and a bit distressed. “Exactly where did you get your information from?”

Why was she asking, I countered, if the president’s office had it too?

Because it did not, she confessed. She had only assumed that it must because I had sounded so matter-of-fact myself. “After you hung up,” she said, “I mentioned what you told me and nobody here knows anything about it. Could you please fax us what you know?”

I faxed her a short version of it. Here is a longer one.

Stories about the Jewishness of Ataturk, whose statue stands in the main square of every town and city in Turkey, already circulated in his lifetime but were denied by him and his family and never taken seriously by biographers. Of six biographies of him that I consulted this week, none even mentions such a speculation. The only scholarly reference to it in print that I could find was in the entry on Ataturk in the Israeli Entsiklopedya ha-Ivrit, which begins:

“Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – (1881-1938), Turkish general and statesman and founder of the modern Turkish state.

“Mustafa Kemal was born to the family of a minor customs clerk in Salonika and lost his father when he was young. There is no proof of the belief, widespread among both Jews and Muslims in Turkey, that his family came from the Doenme. As a boy he rebelled against his mother’s desire to give him a traditional religious education, and at the age of 12 he was sent at his demand to study in a military academy.”

Secular Father

The Doenme were an underground sect of Sabbetaians, Turkish Jews who took Muslim names and outwardly behaved like Muslims but secretly believed in Sabbetai Zevi, the 17th-century false messiah, and conducted carefully guarded prayers and rituals in his name. The encyclopedia’s version of Ataturk’s education, however, is somewhat at variance with his own. Here is his account of it as quoted by his biographers:

“My father was a man of liberal views, rather hostile to religion, and a partisan of Western ideas. He would have preferred to see me go to a * lay school, which did not found its teaching on the Koran but on modern science.

“In this battle of consciences, my father managed to gain the victory after a small maneuver; he pretended to give in to my mother’s wishes, and arranged that I should enter the [Islamic] school of Fatma Molla Kadin with the traditional ceremony. …

“Six months later, more or less, my father quietly withdrew me from the school and took me to that of old Shemsi Effendi who directed a free preparatory school according to European methods. My mother made no objection, since her desires had been complied with and her conventions respected. It was the ceremony above all which had satisfied her.”

Who was Mustafa Kemal’s father, who behaved here in typical Doenme fashion, outwardly observing Muslim ceremonies while inwardly scoffing at them? Ataturk’s mother Zubeyde came from the mountains west of Salonika, close to the current Albanian frontier; of the origins of his father, Ali Riza, little is known. Different writers have given them as Albanian, Anatolian and Salonikan, and Lord Kinross’ compendious 1964 “Ataturk” calls Ali Riza a “shadowy personality” and adds cryptically regarding Ataturk’s reluctance to disclose more about his family background: “To the child of so mixed an environment it would seldom occur, wherever his racial loyalties lay, to inquire too exactly into his personal origins beyond that of his parentage.”

Learning Hebrew

Did Kinross suspect more than he was admitting? I would never have asked had I not recently come across a remarkable chapter while browsing in the out-of-print Hebrew autobiography of Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the leading promoter of the revival of spoken Hebrew in late 19th-century Palestine. Ben-Avi, the first child to be raised in Hebrew since ancient times and later a Hebrew journalist and newspaper publisher, writes in this book of walking into the Kamenitz Hotel in Jerusalem one autumn night in 1911 and being asked by its proprietor: ” ‘Do you see that Turkish officer sitting there in the corner, the one* with the bottle of arrack?’ ”

” ‘Yes.’ ”
” ‘He’s one of the most important officers in the Turkish army.’ ”
” ‘What’s his name?’ ”
” ‘Mustafa Kemal.’ ”
” ‘I’d like to meet him,’ I said, because the minute I looked at him I was startled by his piercing green eyes.”

Ben-Avi describes two meetings with Mustafa Kemal, who had not yet taken the name of Ataturk, ‘Father of the Turks.’ Both were conducted in French, were largely devoted to Ottoman politics, and were doused with large amounts of arrack. In the first of these, Kemal confided:

“I’m a descendant of Sabbetai Zevi – not indeed a Jew any more, but an ardent admirer of this prophet of yours. My opinion is that every Jew in this country would do well to join his camp.”

During their second meeting, held 10 days later in the same hotel, Mustafa Kemal said at one point:”

‘I have at home a Hebrew Bible printed in Venice. It’s rather old, and I remember my father bringing me to a Karaite teacher who taught me to read it. I can still remember a few words of it, such as –’ ”

And Ben-Avi continues:
“He paused for a moment, his eyes searching for something in space. Then he recalled:
” ‘Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad!’
” ‘That’s our most important prayer, Captain.’
” ‘And my secret prayer too, cher monsieur,’ he replied, refilling our glasses.”

Although Itamar Ben-Avi could not have known it, Ataturk no doubt meant “secret prayer” quite literally. Among the esoteric prayers of the Doenme, first made known to the scholarly world when a book of them reached the National Library in Jerusalem in 1935, is one containing the confession of faith:

“Sabbetai Zevi and none other is the true Messiah. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

It was undoubtedly from this credo, rather than from the Bible, that Ataturk remembered the words of the Shema, which to the best of my knowledge he confessed knowing but once in his adult life: to a young Hebrew journalist whom he engaged in two tipsily animated conversations in Jerusalem nearly a decade before he took control of the Turkish army after its disastrous defeat in World War I, beat back the invading Greeks and founded a secular Turkish republic in which Islam was banished – once and for all, so he thought – to the mosques.

Ataturk would have had good reasons for concealing his Doenme origins. Not only were the Doenmes (who married only among themselves and numbered close to 15,000, largely concentrated in Salonika, on the eve of World War I) looked down on as heretics by both Muslims and Jews, they had a reputation for sexual profligacy that could hardly have been flattering to their offspring. This license, which was theologically justified by the claim that it reflected the faithful’s freedom from the biblical commandments under the new dispensation of Sabbetai Zevi, is described by Ezer Weizman’s predecessor, Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, in his book on lost Jewish communities, “The Exiled and the Redeemed”:

‘Saintly Offspring’

“Once a year [during the Doenmes' annual 'Sheep holiday'] the candles are put out in the course of a dinner which is attended by orgies and the ceremony of the exchange of wives. … The rite is practiced on the night of Sabbetai Zevi’s traditional bithday. … It is believed that children born of such unions are regarded as saintly.”

Although Ben-Zvi, writing in the 1950s, thought that “There is reason to believe that this ceremony has not been entirely abandoned and continues to this day,” little is known about whether any of the Doenmes’ traditional practices or social structures still survive in modern Turkey. The community abandoned Salonika along with the city’s other Turkish residents during the Greco-Turkish war of 1920-21, and its descendants, many of whom are said to be wealthy businessmen and merchants in Istanbul, are generally thought to have assimilated totally into Turkish life.

After sending my fax to Batya Keinan, I phoned to check that she had received it. She had indeed, she said, and would see to it that the president was given it to read on his flight to Ankara. It is doubtful, however, whether Mr. Weizman will allude to it during his visit: The Turkish government, which for years has been fending off Muslim fundamentalist assaults on its legitimacy and on the secular reforms of Ataturk, has little reason to welcome the news that the father of the ‘Father of the Turks’ was a crypto-Jew who passed on his anti-Muslim sentiments to his son. Mustafa Kemal’s secret is no doubt one that it would prefer to continue to be kept.

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One Response to “When Kemal Ataturk Recited Shema Yisrael”

  1. The Kabbalah of Yom Kippur: Rising Above Time | World University Information on June 23rd, 2010 8:25 pm

    [...] When Kemal Ataturk Recited Shema Yisrael : The Muslim Observer [...]

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