The Other Secret Jews
[...] a small group of Sephardic Jews, many of them descended from conversos, did not think that Zevi’s apostasy invalidated his mission. On the contrary, they decided to follow him by converting to Islam themselves, while continuing to believe in their messiah and follow his commandments. This group, totaling about 300 families, became known in Turkish as Dönme, “converts,” though they referred to themselves in Hebrew as Ma’aminim, “believers.” By the 1680s, the Dönme had congregated in Salonika, the cosmopolitan and majority-Jewish city in Ottoman Greece. For the next 250 years, they would lead an independent communal life—intermarrying, doing business together, maintaining their own shrines, and handing down their secret traditions.
In The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, Marc David Baer has produced the first scholarly study of this group. That it is a scholarly work, limited in its scope and sticking closely to written archives, is something that Baer insists on, and with good reason. For while the Spanish conversos are now seen as an interesting historical phenomenon, and it is even rather fashionable to claim converso ancestry, Turkey is still a part of the world where the anti-Semitic imagination runs wild.
And because the Dönme played an outsize role at key moments in modern Turkish history, the myth of their secret Jewish power has itself become powerful. As Baer writes in his introduction, there have recently been bestselling books in Turkey claiming that everyone from the current prime minister, the religious Muslim Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern secular Turkey, are secretly Jewish. “Ghost Jews haunt the Turkish popular imagination,” as Baer puts it.
This makes it a delicate matter to write about the Dönme. In fact, Baer says, most of the descendants of Dönme whom he interviewed for the book asked him not to use their names. “Although many believe conspiracy theories about the Dönme,” Baer writes, “very few know the real character and history of the group.” His book, perhaps deliberately, will not raise the profile of the Dönme very much. Not only is it an academic book, published by Stanford University Press, but Baer says very little about the origin of the Dönme, or about their religious beliefs and practices—matters that many Jewish readers would be curious about.