“One, who regards himself as a member of the Turkish nation, should first of all and in every case, speak Turkish.”

― Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Atatürk


“Jews are creatures who possess the capacity to adapt to their respective environments.”

― Marsel Franko, President of the Lay Council of the Chief Rabbinate and of the Jewish Community


The inhabitants of Anatolia – the People of Turkey – can be duly proud of their cosmopolitan past. Their territory has been a melting pot of various racial, ethnic and religious since centuries, whose legacy exist in history in the form of tales of peaceful coexistence and mutual recognition of communal differences. However, a particular event in history disrupted the harmony of Anatolia and wiped away the mosaic of nationalities existing in a region that constitutes modern Turkey. This development was the emergence of Turkish Republic – a nation states – from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to the latter, which encompassed a vast territory and boasted inhabiting diverse population who were equal before the state, the Turkish Republic attempted on creating a new nation by forcefully assimilating the non-Turkish speaking population in what was left of the Ottoman Empire. This top-to-bottom nation building that relied heavily on state intervention – and sometimes coercion – became a crooked case in nation building studies. For this reason, it is hard to determine the true nature of Turkish nationalism – a theme that is discussed later in this paper. For time being, it is necessary to focus the arguments presented in this paper on a particular aspect of Turkish nation building that corresponds to the situation of minorities in the early period of Turkish Republic, also known as Single Party Period. The hypothesis under consideration in the rest of this paper suggests that Republican elites defined the notion of ‘minority’ to fit their needs about Turkish nation building and these minorities were forced to amalgamate with the Turkish speaking majority through the process of ‘Turkification’. This situation led to deprivation of the rights and due identities of the minorities – something that has yet to be resolved. This paper illustrates and expands on the example of Jews as a minority and the way they reacted and responded to the calls of assimilation – or alternatively Turkification.

Anatolia has already been a land of heterogeneous population due to its location at the crossroads of different civilization as well as extended rule of empires like Ottomans who never sought to homogenize the population. By the late period of Ottoman Empire, the heterogeneity of Anatolia multiplied due to hordes of exodus emerging from surrounding regions – particularly Balkans and Caucasus – that changed the demographic milieu of the region dramatically. This transformation is documented by Kemal Karpat in his magnum opus, which suggests that during the last century of Ottoman Empire the population non-Muslims witnessed a significant decline – partly due to emigration to America and Europe – and Muslim population increased dramatically. In some parts of Anatolia, this injection of Muslims turned non-Muslim majorities into minorities. (Karpat, 1985). The assimilation of these immigrant groups was usually voluntary and they soon started aligning themselves with the mainstream Turkish speaking population. However, the survival of dialects and customs of these groups maintained the heterogeneity of Anatolia. The detailed illustration of the situation of various ethnic, lingual and religious groups is too illusive for this paper.

When established in 1923, the Turkish Republic inherited a cosmopolitan populace from the Ottoman Empire. This diversity was particularly perceived as a challenge by the Republican elites whom sought to homogenize the population of Turkey for the sake of centralization of governance. Republican elites suffered from a phobia that was ensconced in an irrational fear that non-homogenized population may result in further disintegration as a result of the internal threats posed by minorities. (Toktas, 2005, pp. 405, 406). Republic implemented a convoluted citizenship mechanism that appeared to be civil on surface but discriminated the groups lacking the ‘desirable elements’ of becoming Turkish. Citizenship is generally perceived as a legal bond between the individuals and the state that stipulates reciprocal rights, duties and responsibilities. According to the citizenship principle, states must conform same rights to its citizens regardless of their exclusive individual and group identities. However, presence of minorities within a nation state paves way for the differential treatment of certain groups who may have peculiar needs to be addresses to enable them to fulfil their citizenship duties. On the other hand, majority groups may tend to believe that minorities may retain multiple membership and multiple loyalties. The second premise of divided loyalties was consolidated in the psyche of the Republican elites as a result of minority revolts midst the War of Independence – particularly Greek – and led to the differential treatment of minorities in the Turkish Republic aimed at differentiating “Turkish citizens” and “True Turks”. (Guttstadt, 2006, p. 51) (Toktas, 2005) (Cagaptay, 2004) The unceasing quest of Republican elites to homogenize the nations or (alternatively) neutralizing the internal threats, unleashed the state sponsored attempts for assimilating non-Turks into wider majority.

Before we proceed to define the notion of minorities and further to Turkification, it is necessary to analyze how citizenship was defined in the Turkish Republic. It is necessary to notice that conception of citizenship was developed parallel to the nation building process in modern Turkey, due to which one may be able to find certain contradictions with universal understanding of citizenship and certain overlaps of Turkish citizenship with Turkish national identity. Article 88 of the 1924 Constitution of the Republic stated, “The people of Turkey, regardless of their religion and race, are Turkish in terms of citizenship.” (Cagaptay, 2004, p. 87) (Toktas, 2005, p. 398). Thus citizenship was defined in purely civic terms that reflected the demographic necessity of the time. However, this conception was limited only to the theoretical application and reality reflected something totally opposite of it. Turkish language was designated as the main determinant and pre-requisite of inclusion in the Turkish nation – a fact that is illustrated by the quote given in the beginning of this paper. Moreover, Islam was established as the fundamental tenet of the Turkish identity regardless of the fact that a significant portion of the Anatolian populace constituted non-Muslim communities. (Aktar, 2009, p. 32) (Cagaptay, 2004). This introduced an additional yet tacit criteria for inclusion in Turkish nation. Nonetheless, Turkish states conferred citizenship to the all inhabitants of modern Turkey, however, the certain minority groups – particularly the religious one – underwent tacit discrimination. If on one hand, foreign immigrants from Balkan and Caucasus were granted citizenship without any serious hesitations for they possessed features necessary for assimilation; on the other hand, the native members of non-Muslim minorities were denaturalized and exiled as a result of series of legislations that depicted them as traitors of the nation. (Guttstadt, 2006, p. 51). The obsession of the Republican elites with homogenizing the heterogeneous population of Turkey and subsequent steps taken to ensure Turkification intimidated the legitimate minorities who would otherwise assert their exclusive identities and demand equal citizenship rights. The very path that led to denial of minority status to particular groups and paved way for top-to-bottom Turkification was a resultant of perplexing definition of minorities with Republican context.

            In Ottoman Empire, minorities – not in the literal modern understanding of the term – were represented in the society as Millets; an exclusive collectivity headed by the patriarch of the community possessing power to regulate the communal affairs. However, the Millet system went extinct as the Republic was established. The Republican elites were unwilling to accept any subdivision of the populace of Turkey. However, the victorious powers of World War I compelled Turkey to accept the legal status of certain minority groups. To save their illusion of a homogenized Turkish nation, the Republican elites cunningly circumvented several groups like Kurds, Laz, Circassians, Bulgarian Pomaks and others, who could also be designated as minorities, during the negotiations held at Lausanne. In short, ethnic minorities were completely overlooked during the negotiations. The Allied powers also ignored the fate of these communities and tried to assert the rights of particular groups – this favoritism would later cause troubles for those minorities. Articles 37–45 of the Treaty of Lausanne stipulated that Greeks, Armenians and Jews should be considered as minorities within Turkey and following special rights should be conferred upon them: “… the freedoms of living, religious beliefs and migration, the rights of legal and political equality, using their mother tongue in the courts, opening their own schools or similar institutions and the holding of religious ceremonies.” (Toktas, 2005, pp. 2,3). Interestingly, these groups were non-Muslim who confirmed the status of Islam as a necessary pre-requisite of Turkish nationhood. However, this development was seen as a hegemonic assertion on the side of the Republican elites and they never accepted the imposed division of their envisaged homogenous Turkish nations. It also disrupted the ideal of ‘equal nationhood’ and allowed the above mentioned communities to enjoy ‘differential nationhood’. This foreign intervention was perceived as a hurdle in achieving the Republican agenda and the elites sought alternative measures to bring this ostracism of minorities from the mainstream Turkish nation to an end. These systematic set of countermeasures is known as Turkification – a process that utilize various tools at disposal to assimilate – and sometimes eliminate – the legal as well as actual minorities of Turkey.

What is Turkification?

            Turkification is a widely debated concept addressed in numerous studies. It is a vast collection of interconnected processes initiated and designed to create ideal Turkish citizens. Due to its breadth, it is hard for one to put visible limits on its scope. Nonetheless, one can suggest that Turkification as a process emerged as a result of the frustration of Republican elites as a result of the failure to realize the theoretical and practical homogeneity of the populace. If on one hand, their hands were tied as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne, then on the other hand, they had an arduous task to impose Turkish as the only language upon the people of diverse lingual and ethnic background. Turkification provided a one-in-all solution to tackle with the hurdles in the way of blending the society into a common national culture. Moreover, Turkification process proceeded on the basis of ideology of Turkism, which placed the myth of Turkish superiority at its heart. By the demise Ottoman Empire, this idea of Turkish identity focused nationalism had been matured and exalted in the minds of Imperial elites who later on became the Republican elites. (Ülker, 2005). Moreover, the time when Turkification policies reached their utmost intensity, was ripe and the international powers – who would probably had interfered – were buying in minding their own business.

As already mentioned, a process like Turkification cannot be explained in a nutshell. However, several definitions shed light on various objectives of Turkification. Ayhan Aktar suggests it was an imposition of “… hegemonic identity in every sphere of social life, from the language spoken in public to the teaching of history in public schools; from education to industry; from commercial practices to public employment policies; from the civil code to the re-settlement of certain citizens in particular areas.” (Aktar, 2009). Rifat Balı sees Turkification as an attempt to create citizens who define themselves as Turks before anything else, while keeping their religious identities private. (Balı, 2006). Another analysis of Turkification that corresponds to the hypothesis of this article suggests that it was a process of “… assimilation of some communities and the dissimilation of others on the basis of inclusion into or exclusion from the core nation.” (Ülker, 2005, p. 615). In the light of these definition, Turkification was a targeted process with a well-defined objectives. Though it was directed towards every segment of the society – including Turkish speaking majority, the real target was the legal or actual minorities. Republican elites, through various tools of Turkification, tried to achieve their goal of creating a uniform amalgam of otherwise heterogeneous population of modern Turkey. Some of the tools of Turkification that are directly related to our hypothesis are discussed in the following pages.

The fundamental tool of Turkification was the Turkish language itself. Zia Gökalp, one of the core ideologues of Turkish nation building, suggested that nation was a community united by common mother tongue instead of blood. (Aktar, 2009, p. 31). Thus, inclusion in Turkish communities necessitated the use of Turkish in not only public but also private sphere. This proposition was further bolstered by the Turkish History Thesis and Sun Language Theory that credited Turkish language with preserving memories, culture and national identity of Turkish people. (Cagaptay, 2004, p. 89). Republican elites were aware of the sheer force of language as a homogenizing factor and imposed the monopoly of the Turkish language through the constitution. Schools were the main agent of Turkification through language, followed by newspapers and literature. Some legislations banned the use of any other language in important walks of life like commerce and trade.[1]This was an indirect attempt to force minorities, who generally engaged themselves in white collar professions, to give up the use of any alternative language for the issues of utmost significance.

Second significant tools of Turkification was Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş or Citizen Speak Turkish. As already mentioned with reference to the Treaty of Lausanne, this movement was a brainchild of the frustration created by differential lingual rights granted to the minorities. (Toktas, 2005). It was launched in 1928 – shortly after the Republic ensconced itself – by a few students from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law. However, it was soon carried away by the press and became a widespread sentiment across the country. The use of Turkish was associated with the loyalty to the state and seen as a fulfillment of the citizenship duties owed by the minorities. This campaign was also backed by several Republican elites and intellectuals – including İsmet İnonü himself – who made public statements endorsing the evaporation of minority and foreign languages in favor of Turkish as a proof of being true citizen of the Republic. This campaign stirred the favorable environment for the minorities and forced them to accept Turkish language as the only legitimate mode of communication in public sphere – and extremely in private sphere. Those who did not concur were harassed and blamed for troubling the harmony of nation by the press. (Cagaptay, 2004, p. 96) One of the main targets of the campaigners was the Jewish minority whose reaction and reception of this proposal is discussed later.

            In addition to that, the creation of a national historiography (Türk Tarih Tezi) played a significant role in asserting the superiority of the Turkish nation and invited all other minorities – including the legal, religious one – to assimilate themselves into the Turkish nation. The so-called anthropologists and scholars presented an absurd exaggeration of the nobility of Turks on the behalf of the state. Based on their theories, studies and even grave excavation of famous figures like Mimar Sinan, they concluded that Turks were the ancestors of major ethnic groups inhabiting Anatolia. (Cagaptay, 2004, pp. 90-94). Based on this rather questionable proposition, they Republican elites encouraged religious and ethnic minorities to feel proud in amalgamating themselves in to superior race. However, the reaction was not so astounding and swift. Another attempt of Turkification was the introduction of Surname Law in 1934, which required the citizens of Turkey to adopt Turkish surnames. This campaign was a significant blow to the depriving the exclusive identity of minorities who responded by choosing Turkish equivalent of their existing surnames. (Balı, 2006, p. 5) (Cagaptay, 2004, p. 92). There were many other tools of Turkification including forcible resettlement (iskan politikaları), forced denaturalization, Wealth Tax (Varlık Vergisi) and others, but for the sake of simplicity and to fit the case study of Jewish Minority, this paper will consider the above mentioned tools.

            Jews have been inhabiting Anatolia since 4 BCE. First proper exodus of Jews arrived to Anatolia from Spain in 15th century who settled in Western part of the Ottoman Empire, generally engaging in commerce. (Güleryüz, 2011). Assessment of Turkification of Jewish minority as a case study is inspired by various interesting aspects of this community. First of all, Jews did not have a permanent homeland in the early era of Turkish Republic. Generally, they possess an excellent ability to adapt themselves to the culture, language and norms of the people them live with and become homogenized with the local populace in the long run. This fact can be illustrated by the study of Jews in Morocco or Germany where they adopted local language, culture and traditions successfully. Secondly, Jews were officially designated as a minority as per the Treaty of Lausanne, which allowed them the freedom to practice their religion, speak their language, have their own education system and so on. The allowance of such differential rights attracted resentment from the general populace and they were forced to assimilate at multiple occasions. (Toktas, 2005) However, they were not treated as a direct threat by the Republican elites as well as the community, which is converse of the historically constructed wicked perception of the Jewish race. Instead, Republican elites perceived them as a ‘loyal community’ and postulated their complete assimilation into the Turkish nation. (Toktas, 2005, p. 396) (Cagaptay, 2004, p. 94). Moreover, Jews used Ladino as a general mode of communication, while French was used as a teaching language in the Jewish schools. Interestingly, none of these languages were the ‘Jewish Languages’, which made it probable for the Jews to adopt and accept Turkish as their communal language and easily integrate with the mainstream Turkish society. In a way, a successful Turkification of Jewish community was appropriate the civic citizenship criteria defined in the constitution as well as providing satisfaction to the Republican elites.

            Turkish Republic had not been a friend of religious communities. The sheer emphasis on secularism disallowed any representation of religion in the public sphere – both by Muslims and non-Muslims. Thus, Jews were naturally prohibited from wearing religious symbols in public. However, they were allowed to worship in their synagogues. However, Republic was skeptical of the Chief Rabbinate for two reasons: firstly, it operated on the legacy of Millet System implemented by the Ottoman Empire whose reminders Republic tried so hard to remove; secondly, Republican elites were afraid of any probable organization against state by the Jewish community as it was manifested by Greeks and Armenians in the past. Thus, Republic systematically reduced the influence of Chief Rabbinate despite of the fact that Jews did not take part in anti-state or territorial separation activities as did the already mentioned minorities. (Toktas, 2005). Regardless of the relatively fair position of Jews compared to other minorities, Jewish community felt the need of opening their arms to Turkification for a number of reasons. First, anti-Semitism was on rise in various parts of the world and Jews could no longer survive as a separate community. After the effects of anti-Semitism were felt in Turkey, it become evident that Jews has no option other than cooperating with state and proving themselves as loyal citizens. The attacks on Jews in Thrace and their caricaturization in the press as a greedy and selfish community hastened this urge. (Toktas, 2005, pp. 401,402) . Secondly, the idea of a separate homeland for Jews was still far from its realization and it was logical for the Jewish community in Turkey to embrace this land as their homeland. Thirdly, Jews did not have an exclusive lingual identity. As already mentioned, the languages they spoke were already foreign and replacing them with Turkish must not have had been a big deal. Fourthly, the Jews needed to be close to the state to fill in the opportunities left behind by other two legal minorities as they were systematically expelled from Turkey. One can state several reasons to illustrate that Jewish community was the most appropriate minority for Turkification and their experience in this regards is worth analyzing.

            Turkification witnessed a mix reaction and reception among the Jewish community. The most significant positive response to Turkification came in the form of renouncement of the minority status imposed by the articles 37–45 of the Treaty of Lausanne by the Jewish leadership in Turkey. Jews were the first to affirm their belonging with Turkish nation after Turkey’s adoption of the Swiss civil code. (Güleryüz, 2011, p. 67) (Nefes, 2015, p. 21) (Aktar, 2009, p. 39). This was seen as a progressive step by the Republican elites who would become more contended with Jewish performance after Greek and Armenian followed their footsteps. This step demonstrated the Jewish urge to put the ideals of Republic before the identity of the community. Secondly, Jews welcomed the surname change and adopted the surname that could easily be pronounced in Turkish. One profound example of individual strife to be Turkified is of Moiz Kohen – a Jewish businessman and staunch proponent of Turkification of Jews – who changed his surname to Munis Tekınalp and composed a book named Türkleştirme (Turkification) to persuade his brothers-in-faith to join Turkish nation.

            Turkification of Jewish communities was heavily endorsed by the Jewish elites. For example, Marsel Franko – the President of the Lay Council of the Chief Rabbinate and of the Jewish Community – wrote an open letter to the press suggesting that Jews had integrated so well in the local community that it had become hard to distinguish them. He further added that he does not see any spiritual and moral obstacles to the Turkification of Jews and the time has come that Jews must integrate themselves with the Turkish Nation. (Open Letter from Marsel Frnako: Aktar, 2009). Similarly, Munis Tekinalp published the so-called Ten Commandments to foster collective consciousness about Turkish nationhood among the Jewish community. He suggested fulfillment of following necessities: “1. Use Turkish names; 2. Speak Turkish; 3. Say at least some of their prayers in the synagogues in Turkish; 4. Turkify their schools; 5. Send their children to national schools; 6. Get involved in the affairs of Turkey; 7. Establish close contacts with Turks; 8. Eradicate community spirit; 9. Do their duty in the field of national economics; 10. Know their rights.” (Aktar, 2009, p. 47) (Balı, 2006, p. 3). Tekinalp tried to engage the Jews – who had otherwise remained culturally isolated and aloof to political upheavals – in Turkish society and politics through his work. (Akdoğan, 2011, p. 8) Moreover, to facilitate the spread of Turkish amongst the Jewish community, many associations were established. Some of the prominent ones are Türkçe Konuşturma Birliği (Union for the Turkish Language), Türk Dilini Yaygınlaştırma Komisyonu (Jewish Commission for the Dissemination of the Turkish Language), Kültür Birliği (Union for Culture), Türk Kültür Birliği (Turkish Culture Association), and Balat Türk Kültür ve Yardım Derneği (Association for Balat Turkish Culture and Aid). (Toktas, 2005). Thus, one can suggest that Jewish intellectuals and community leaders responded to the pressure created by Turkish Republic through so-called expert historians and anthropologist. They concluded the best course for their community, which was accepting the demand of time and fulfill the necessity of integrating with the Turkish community. However, such attempts did not succeed without opposition – something that can be observed in the case of Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş campaign.

            This campaign is particularly interesting as Jews were the indirect target of its proponents. As Şule Tokaş suggests, “There were even individual responses such as warnings to Jews to cease speaking Ladino in favor of Turkish in schools at all levels, on streets and on public conveyances such as buses, ships and trains. (Toktas, 2005). The intensity of this campaign brought about paradigmatically shift in the perception of Jews and questioned their loyalty towards state and society. While speaking Turkish was approved as a symbol of loyalty, speaking Ladino was perceived as an insult and obstacle to the achievement of national unity. This skewed observation of lingual preferences through a nationalistic lenses solicited an active response from the Jews of Turkey, who under the guidance of their leadership responded warmly to this stimuli and demonstrated their ability to coexist in Turkish nation regardless of their religious or racial background. However, this campaign also witnessed a counteraction among the Jews who either justified speaking French and Ladino, or resisted a forceful imposition of Turkish. However, most of them were tried “under Article 159 of the Penal Code – the “Insulting Turkishness” clause – which allowed charges to be brought on the basis of any verbal or physical act judged to insult or denigrate Turkishness.” (Toktas, 2005). Thus, with the state intervention Jews were able to overcome the hurdles of Turkification within their community and become the Ideal Citizens of the State – as Rifat Balı would call them.

            What happened with the Jewish community after the Single Party Period requires a separate enquiry. However, it will suffice to suggest that Jews survived the Turkification policies of the early Republic due to the peculiarities their community possessed. They have demonstrated that civic dimension of Turkish nationalism was a reality and assimilation could bring about acceptance on the part of Turkish majority. However, one may not forget that Islam constitutes the fundamental tenet of Turkish nationalism and Jews being non-Muslims would never be considered a true citizens of Turkey. Today, around 27,000 Jewish people exist in Turkey, which make a minute portion of Turkish society. (Toktas, 2005). Lately, anti-Semitism is on rise parallel to Islamism in Turkish politics. Some of the Islamist political figures from the past has denounced Zionism and diagnosed Jews at the heart of the problems faced by Turkey in particular and the world in general. Moreover, the recent severance of ties with Israel as a result of Mavi Marmara incident has put Jews and Israel at the top of Turkish hate list. On the other hand, state is paving way for Jewish community to expresses itself in social and political sphere by renovating Synagogues and allowing public celebrations of Jewish festivals to acknowledge the struggles of Turkish Jewish community.[2] At the end, Turkey is not stepping towards a civic nationhood after the entry of millions of immigrants and recognition of the rights of other minorities. Thus, the future points to a good and integrated life for Turkish Jewish community.

            Turkish Republic failed to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the populace of Anatolia due to its obsession with national homogeneity and abhorrence of the continuity of Millet System as a legacy of Ottoman Empire. Though it never wholeheartedly acknowledged the presence of minority groups, the Republic had to accept three religious minorities – Greeks, Armenians and Jews – as a result of foreign imposition through the Treaty of Lausanne. Later on, it tried to assimilate these minorities through several tools of Turkification like Surname Law, Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş and so on. While, it failed to assimilate others, a favorable response came from Jews who were motivated by their intellectuals and leaders to accept Turkish culture. Meanwhile, peculiar features of Jewish community like absence of homeland, use of foreign languages as mode of communication and urge to be socially and politically connected facilitated the Turkification process. In a nutshell, Jews can be seen as a successful example of Turkification.


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Nefes, T. (2015). Online Anti-Semitism in Turkey. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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[1] Compulsory use of Turkish language in economic enterprises: http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/berk-cekti-r/compulsory-use-of-turkish-language-in-economic-enterprises_201082.html

[2] Turkey holds first-ever public Hanukkah celebration: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4739550,00.html

This commentary was written as a requirement for SOC 427 – Identity, Culture and Ethnicity in Turkey course offered by Prof. Mesut Yeğen, during my sophomore year at Istanbul Şehir University.