Conspiracy theories were quite prestigious in the 1970s and into the 1980s, but ever since the release of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK,” the elite cultural atmosphere has turned strongly against them.
And yet, there really have been lots of secret societies, cabals, covert activities, and the like down through history. For example, the history of Italy since WWII can’t be adequately explained without reference to the Mafia, Operation Gladio “leave-behind” cells, the P2 Masonic Lodge, and secret CIA funding of the anti-Communist parties, not to mention all of the Communist conspiracies on the other side.
It turns out, of course, that most of the secrets are pretty mundane. My late father-in-law, a 32nd degree Mason, liked to say that he couldn’t tell any outsiders the secret protocols of the Masons because it might be fatal to them.
“Because if you told them, you’d have to kill them?” I asked.
“No, because if they heard what we really do, they might die laughing.”
Secret groups are by no means omnipotent. In fact, they are generally less effective than public groups in most circumstances. Secrecy imposes costs and makes expansion harder.
Nonetheless, there are aspects of the world that do resemble a Jorge Luis Borges story, such as the murky role of crypto-Jewish pseudo-Muslims, the “Donmeh,” in modern Turkey. Three and a half centuries after the forced conversion from Judaism to Islam of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, his followers and their secular descendents remain, apparently, strongly represented among the anti-Muslim fundamentalist political, business, and cultural elites in Istanbul and Ankara.
But what about the founder of modern Turkey himself, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk? Was he a crypto-Jew?
Hillel Halkin, the respected New York native turned Israeli journalist who is a regular in Commentary and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and the New York Sun, thinks so. In a January 28, 1994 article in New York’s Forward, a Jewish newspaper, entitled “When Kemal Ataturk Recited Shema Yisrael: ‘It’s My Secret Prayer, Too,’ He Confessed,” Halkin wrote:
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.”
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.”
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?’ “
“‘He’s one of the most important officers in the Turkish army.'”
“‘What’s his name?'”
“‘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. [More[
Keep in mind that Halkin loves this kind of tale, as he admits in a column about his meeting with a tipsy gentleman who claims to be the last descendent to the throne of the legendary Khazar Jews:
The fact is that I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of stuff. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Manhattan, I’ve lapped it up: stories about the lost tribes, descendants of the Marranos, shadowy Jewish kingdoms in the Middle Ages, Jews turning up in far places — the mountains of Mexico, the jungles of Peru, Kaifeng, the Malabar Coast, Timbuktu . The Jews of Manhattan were boring. Jews spotted by Marco Polo on the China coast or surviving centuries of the Inquisition in the hills of Portugal gave me goose pimples.
Call it the romance of Jewish history. The idea that we were a profoundly more adventurous, infinitely more varied, more far-ranging, more interesting people than the Jews I knew.
Halkin’s 2002 book Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel makes the case that the obscure Mizo ethnic group on the India-Burma border are really the descendants of Manasseh, one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
This is just one bit of evidence about Ataturk, and most of the other evidence seems to suggest that Ataturk, although exposed to Donmeh influence, both growing up in Salonika (home of the Donmeh) and later in his career, was not a Sabbatean himself.
To shift gears, all this might help explain a little how the struggle between Turkey and its hostile neighbors, Greece and Armenia, is waged in Washington. The Greeks and the Armenians play an “outside game,” based on grassroots hostility toward Turkey among Greek-Americans and Armenian-Americans. For example, the Armenian Caucus in Congress numbered almost 100 a few years ago, even though only one Member of the House was Armenian. In some Congressional districts, such as Pasadena-Glendale in California, promising to stick it to the Turks is a major vote-getter.
In contrast, the Turks play an “inside game” in Washington, relying on high level contacts in the Executive branch. For instance, in 2000, the House was minutes from passing a long awaited resolution blaming the 1915 genocide of Armenians on the Turks, when a phone call from President Clinton to Speaker of the House Hastert, reminding Hastert how important Turkish good will is to the American position in the Middle East, led to the vote being called off.
The Bush Administration has strongly supported Turkey becoming a part of the European Union, despite the evident downsides of opening the borders of Europe to 70 million more Muslims.
A key to Turkey’s inside game in Washington, besides American defense contractors, has been the powerful Jewish lobbies in Washington, who support Turkey because, among other reasons, Turkey spends a lot of money on Israeli arms. It’s interesting that Richard Perle and Douglas Feith had a lobbying firm in the 1990s, International Advisors Inc., whose main client was the government of Turkey. Morris Amitay of AIPAC was an employee.
I have no idea if this is relevant to the story of crypto-Jewish influence in modern Turkey, but one recurrent pattern is that American neocons, based on their warm ties with the Turkish elites, have repeatedly over-estimated how pro-Israel and pro-American are Turkish voters, most notoriously on the eve of our war to bring “democracy” to Iraq, when Paul Wolfowitz was shocked by the Turkish parliament democratically voting against allowing America to invade Iraq from Turkey despite a huge payoff promised to the Turkish government.
This is not to say that there is a conscious conspiracy between the neocons and the Donmeh, but it may help explain why the neocons have misinterpreted what Turkey is really like. So many of their Turkish contacts have been people with whom they feel culturally comfortable that they can’t really fathom what Turkish democracy unfettered by secularist military coups (which is what Turkish accession to the European Union would deliver) will really turn out to be like.