by Dan Yardeni
Three and a half centuries ago, a young, charismatic rabbi, Shabbetai Zvi, declared himself to be the Messiah and promised that the Jewish people would soon be redeemed and would return to Palestine, the ancestral Jewish homeland. Masses of Jews believed in him, and the events of that epoch, which are among the most turbulent in Jewish history, culminated in tragedy: In 1668, forced by the Ottoman sultan to choose between death and conversion to Islam, Shabbetai Zvi opted for the latter. Although most of his disciples abandoned him after his conversion, several thousand emulated their leader by outwardly accepting, though they continued to see themselves as Jews.
The historical and theological aspects of this episode in Jewish history have been extensively discussed by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, including Gershom Scholem. However, little is known about the present-day descendants of the Sabbateans.
During my last visit to Istanbul, I met Rifat Bali, the author of “A Scapegoat for All Seasons,” through a mutual friend. A distinguished scholar who has written articles and books about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, Bali leans more toward documentation than analysis in his historical studies. In the book’s 400 pages, he cites hundreds of historical documents depicting the past and present vicissitudes of the Sabbateans’ descendants, who in Turkey are called the Doenmeh.