Some 12 or 13 years ago, when I was reporting from Israel for the New York weekly, the Forward, I wrote a piece on Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, that I submitted to the newspaper with some trepidation.
In it, I presented evidence for the likelihood of Ataturk’s having had a Jewish — or more precisely, a Doenmeh — father.
The Doenmeh were a heretical Jewish sect formed, after the conversion to Islam in the 17th century of the Turkish-Jewish messianic pretender Sabbetai Zevi, by those of his followers who continued to believe in him.
Conducting themselves outwardly as Muslims in imitation of him, they lived secretly as Jews and continued to exist as a distinct, if shadowy, group well into the 20th century.
In the many biographies of Ataturk there were three or four different versions of his father’s background, and although none identified him as a Jew, their very multiplicity suggested that he had been covering up his family origins.
This evidence, though limited, was intriguing. Its strongest item was a chapter in a long-forgotten autobiography of the Hebrew journalist, Itamar Ben-Avi, who described in his book a chance meeting on a rainy night in the late winter of 1911 in the bar of a Jerusalem hotel with a young Turkish captain.
Tipsy from too much arak, the captain confided to Ben-Avi that he was Jewish and recited the opening Hebrew words of the Shema Yisra’el or “Hear O Israel” prayer, which almost any Jew or Doenmeh — but no Turkish Muslim — would have known. Ten years later, Ben-Avi wrote, he opened a newspaper, saw a headline about a military coup in Turkey, and in a photograph recognized the leader that the young officer he had met the other night.
At the time, Islamic political opposition to Ataturk-style secularism was gaining strength in Turkey. What would happen, I wondered, when a Jewish newspaper in New York broke the news that the revered founder of modern Turkey was half-Jewish? I pictured riots, statues of Ataturk toppling to the ground, the secular state he had created tottering with them.
I could have spared myself the anxiety. The piece was run in the Forward, there was hardly any reaction to it anywhere, and life in Turkey went on as before. As far as I knew, not a single Turk even read what I wrote. And then, a few months ago, I received an e-mail from someone who had. I won’t mention his name. He lives in a European country, is well-educated, works in the financial industry, is a staunchly secular Kemalist, and was writing to tell me that he had come across my article in the Forward and had decided to do some historical research in regard to it.
One thing he discovered, he wrote, was that Ataturk indeed traveled in the late winter of 1911 to Egypt from Damascus on his way to join the Turkish forces fighting an Italian army in Libya, a route that would have taken him through Jerusalem just when Ben-Avi claimed to have met him there.
Moreover, in 1911 he was indeed a captain, and his fondness of alcohol, which Ben-Avi could not have known about when he wrote his autobiography, is well-documented.
And here’s something else that was turned up by my Turkish e-mail correspondent: Ataturk, who was born and raised in Thessaloniki, a heavily Jewish city in his day that had a large Doenmeh population, attended a grade school, known as the “Semsi Effendi School,” that was run by a religious leader of the Doenmeh community named Simon Zvi. The email concluded with the sentence: “I now know — know (and I haven’t a shred of doubt) — that Ataturk’s father’s family was indeed of Jewish stock.”
I haven’t a shred of doubt either. I just have, this time, less trepidation, not only because I no longer suffer from delusions of grandeur regarding the possible effects of my columns, but because there’s no need to fear toppling the secular establishment of Kemalist Turkey.
It toppled for good in the Turkish elections two days ago when the Islamic Justice and Development Party was returned to power with so overwhelming a victory over its rivals that it seems safe to say that secular Turkey, at least as Ataturk envisioned it, is a thing of the past.
Actually, Ataturk’s Jewishness, which he systematically sought to conceal, explains a great deal about him, above all, his fierce hostility toward Islam, the religion in which nearly every Turk of his day had been raised, and his iron-willed determination to create a strictly secular Turkish nationalism from which the Islamic component would be banished.
Who but a member of a religious minority would want so badly to eliminate religion from the identity of a Muslim majority that, after the genocide of Turkey’s Christian Armenians in World War I and the expulsion of nearly all of its Christian Greeks in the early 1920s, was 99% of Turkey’s population? The same motivation caused the banner of secular Arab nationalism to be first raised in the Arab world by Christian intellectuals.
Ataturk seems never to have been ashamed of his Jewish background. He hid it because it would have been political suicide not to, and the secular Turkish state that was his legacy hid it too, and with it, his personal diary, which was never published and has for all intents and purposes been kept a state secret all these years. There’s no need to hide it any longer. The Islamic counterrevolution has won the day in Turkey even without its exposure.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.