I have a taste for tales that sound like bizarre fictions made up by Jorge Luis Borges but are actually true. My favorite is the story of the shocking discovery that economist John Maynard Keynes made when he purchased a trunk full of Isaac Newton's papers.
Another historical character worthy of Borges is the False Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. One of the major figures in Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews is the 17th Century mystic Sabbatai Zevi, a bipolar ecstatic from Smyrna who, with the help of his brilliant publicity agent Nathan of Gaza, declared himself the redeemer of the Jews. His claims caused wild excitement in Jewish communities throughout the world. But when Sabbatai Zevi (there are alternate spellings such as Shabbetai Zevi and Shabbtai Tzvi) traveled to Constantinople in 1666, the Ottoman Sultan threatened him with death unless he performed a miracle or converted to Islam. He chose the latter.
Now that might have been the end of the cult, but Nathan of Gaza was no ordinary PR flack. Johnson writes (p. 268-272):
Nathan was an outstanding example of a highly imaginative and dangerous Jewish archetype which was to become of world importance when the Jewish intellect became secularized. He could construct a system of explanations and predictions of phenomena which was both highly plausible and at the same time sufficiently imprecise and flexible to accommodate new events when they occurred. And he had the gift of presenting his protean-type theory, with its built-in capacity to absorb phenomena by a process of osmosis, with tremendous conviction and aplomb. Marx and Freud were to exploit a similar capacity...
The apostasy was transformed into a necessary paradox or dialectical contradiction. Far from being a betrayal, it was in fact the beginning of a new mission to release the Lurianic [Kabbala] sparks which were distributed among the gentiles and in particular in Islam... It meant descending into the realm of evil. In appearance [Zevi] he was submitting to it, but in reality he was a Trojan Horse in the enemy's camp. Warming to his task, Nathan pointed out that Zevi had always done strange things. This was merely the strangest -- to embrace the same of apostasy as the final sacrifice before revealing the full glory of the messianic triumph... Nathan quickly provided massive documentation in Biblical, talmudic and kabbalistic texts.
As a result, the Shabbatean movement, sometimes openly, sometimes in secret, not only survived the debacle of the apostasy but continued in existence for over a century.
But is there an equally Borgesian sequel to this sequel? Are the Shabbateans, also known as the Donmeh or Dönme, still around today? The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in 2002:
In search of followers of the false messiah
By Orly Halpern
Aubrey Ross is an unusual man with an unusual pastime. He's looking for Jewish Muslims. In Turkey. With the help of the Internet. And he's convinced he has found some.
In a book entitled "The Messiah of Turkey," due to be published this winter by Frank Cass Publishers in Great Britain, Ross reveals that there are a number of key figures in the present government of Turkey who are Sabbateans - i.e., followers of Shabbtai Tzvi, a Jew who, in the 17th century, claimed he was the messiah, God of Israel, and later converted to Islam.
Ross, an Orthodox Jew from London who has lectured on mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem - but has university degrees in economics and the history of political thought, and is an adviser on pensions at the National Health Service in Great Britain - became intrigued by the subject when he was reading the chapter about false messiahs in Gershom Scholem's "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism."
"I was fascinated by a short sentence that said `many of them were still around in 1970,'" he says...
After Shabbtai Tzvi's death, he relates, his family and followers moved to Salonika. When Greece took it over in 1924, descendants of that community returned to Turkey...
Ross, who is also warden of Hendon United Synagogue, one of the largest in London, decided four years ago to write a book about his discoveries. He began learning Turkish and traveled twice to Turkey: "I penetrated the Sabbatean structure. I met with the president of the Sabbatean community. They were at the point of showing me one of their secret synagogues, but got scared."...
According to Ross, the secretive Sabbatean community, with an estimated 20,000 members, is known to security forces in Turkey, but not to the general public. Most of them live in Istanbul in large blocks of luxury flats in the Shishli Jewish quarter - unbeknownst to their neighbors.
"It's like a well-known secret. But the Sabbateans don't want to be exposed. I have been asked by four members of the community not to publish my book. They fear reactions from extreme Islamic elements."...
Ross believes that there are a number of secret Sabbateans who hold key positions of influence in the Turkish parliament, legislature and executive branches of government, including the foreign minister himself. This, he observes, may help explain the close relations that exist today between Israel and Turkey.
One of Ross's Turkish contacts, an accountant named Ilgaz Zorlu, has written a book in Turkish entitled, "Yes, I Am a Salonikan," which argues that many of the leading Turkish business and political figures in the secular tradition of Kemal Ataturk are Sabbateans even today.
Is this true? That the Sabbateans were at least somewhat important in the political upheavals at the end of the Ottoman empire appears fairly well established.
The Encyclopedia Britannica writes:
At the turn of the 20th century, the Dönme, well represented in the professional classes, took active part in the Young Turk movement and the revolution of 1908.
And Wikipedia says:
While being accepted by the Muslim society, they only married within their own community which resulted in several recessive genetic traits being typical of Donmeh.
Several Donmeh were among the Young Turks, Turkish intellectuals who tried to reform the Ottoman Empire. At the time of the interchange of Greek and Turkish populations between Turkey and Greece, the Salonika Donmeh tried to be recognized as not Muslims to avoid forced transport to Anatolia. In the Republican era, they strongly supported the pro-Western and laïque reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an attitude that bolstered the suspicions of Muslims towards them.
At the same time a large number of them did migrate to modern Turkey and helped Kemal Atatürk build the secular, pro-western Turkey of today. In particular, Donmeh were instrumental in establishing trade and industry in the emerging Turkey. In time they become highly influential in the Turkish private sector which, invevitably, lead to highly speculative conspiracy theories.
It should be noted that as of the end of 20th century Donmeh were fully integrated to the secular fabric of Turkish society and the intermarriage tradition had ceased after the 1960s.
Here's an article on their contemporary role in Turkey:
Until this century, the sect was concentrated in the city of Saloniki; today most Sabbateans live in Istanbul. And everyone in Istanbul, so it seems, knows about the Sabbateans, or, as they are known here, the Doenmeh ("converts" or "apostates" in Turkish; the Sabbateans themselves dislike this title, and seldom use it.) They are perhaps Turkey's best-known secret. No Sabbatean, with the exception of Ilgaz Zorlu himself, will ever publicly admit to being one, and they are rarely talked about...
They're Muslims, as their identity cards attest, but, as Zorlu puts it, "all the Muslims know we're different." Their elders speak Turkish in an accent heavily flavored by Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish of Sephardi Jews. Their beliefs and rituals are largely unknown to outsiders. They rarely go to mosques. They marry mainly among themselves and live in the neighborhoods on the European side - Nisantasi, Sisli and Haskoy - where most of the city's Jews also reside. But they are not Jews either. The Jewish community wants nothing to do with them. "As far as we're concerned," says Rabbi Yitzhak Haleva, deputy chief rabbi of Istanbul, "there are only Jews and Muslims. There's nothing in between."
So who are the Sabbateans? This is what Zorlu set out to explain in his book, "Yes, I Am a Salonikan," which has been through six printings since its publication earlier this year and which has made its author persona non grata in the Sabbatean community. After centuries of secrecy and denial, Zorlu is determined to break the silence, to put the issue on the public agenda, and to prove that the Sabbateans are actually crypto-Jews, that their Muslim appearances are nothing more than a sham.
Sabbatean leaders are convinced that Zorlu's disclosure has put the community in jeopardy, and have washed their hands of him...
Turkish muslim society tolerates Jews as long as they are out in the open and do not attempt to convert Muslims. Hidden Jews, claiming to be Muslims, are something else entirely. This is one of the reasons Zorlu's book caused such a commotion. Fundamentalist Islamic groups question the loyalty of these "secret Jews" to the faith, and Zorlu, who publicly exposed the Sabbatean separateness and stressed that they have an undying connection to Judaism, provided the fundamentalists with ammunition.
Jews and other minorities can advance only so far in Turkish society; because they keep their identity secret, Sabbateans, on the other hand, can and do enjoy high positions in almost every field. The Sabbatean cemetery, which is ostensibly Muslim, offers ample evidence: The tomb of a Supreme Court judge lies next to that of an ex-leader of the Communist party, and near them stand the graves of a general and a famous educator. Zorlu freely adds more big names to the list of prominent Sabbateans, including Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, who, claims Zorlu, used to have a Sabbatean surname (Cem has denied being a Sabbatean). Zorlu also claims that former prime minister Tanso Ciler is a Sabbatean, as is the wife of the current prime minister, Bulent Ecevit.
Many of the Sabbateans tend to be left-wing, academics and journalists - members of the cultural elite. They're also quite affluent. All this puts them at odds with Islamic extremists, traditional opponents of Turkey's democratic political heritage. One of the leaders of the Young Turks, the late 19th-century reform movement, was a Sabbatean, and the fundamentalists also hold that the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had some Saloniki roots, was part-Sabbatean. "My great grandfather," Zorlu says proudly, "was Ataturk's teacher in grade school."
Rifat Bali, a Jewish businessman and writer, who is well acquainted with the Sabbateans, used to be Zorlu's friend and patron. They've since stopped speaking; Bali wrote a scathing review of Zorlu's book in an academic newsletter, accusing him of willingly playing into the hands of the fundamentalists, and Zorlu wrote an equally aggressive reply.
"Ilgaz is like a missionary," says Bali. "If he really wanted to be a Jew, that wouldn't be a problem. He could go to Israel and live as a Jew. But that's not his real purpose. He wants to spread the word of Sabbateanism. He knows that there isn't a solution to the problem, that the Sabbateans will never convert and that the Jews will never accept them as they are.
"Ilgaz knows that the Sabbateans are in a very sensitive position," Bali continues. "They're prominent, they're part of the elite, and that's why the fundamentalists target them. Even the word Doenmeh has very negative connotations. Obviously they don't want the issue of Sabbateanism to be out in the open. So why is Ilgaz doing it? He wants the topic to be in people's consciousness."
So, do followers of Sabbatai Zevi still play an important role in contemporary Turkey, or is this all just Byzantine conspiracy theorizing?