Photo Credit: Public Domain by unknown author; G20 Argentina
Shabtai Tzvi (L) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

During a recent visit to Turkey, I spent time with friends in Istanbul and further north, in Edirne and Kakaralli, where it was hard to ignore the whispers circulating in bars and comedy clubs, that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of the Dönmeh. Chatter about him being a Dönmeh is all the buzz in the bazaar, among the trade and working class in Istanbul… it’s everywhere.

According to Wiki, the Dönme were a group of Sabbatian crypto-Jews in the Ottoman Empire who under coercion converted outwardly to Islam, but secretly held on to their Jewish faith and Kabbalistic beliefs. The movement’s origins date back to the era of Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century Sephardic Jewish Rabbi and Kabbalist who claimed to be the Messiah and eventually converted to Islam after Sultan Mehmed IV had threatened to execute him. His followers purportedly converted to Islam as well and became the Dönme. The word means “to convert,” but in the pejorative sense of “turncoat.”


According to scholar, Rıfat N. Bali, in her book, “Model Citizens of the State: The Jews of Turkey During the Multi-party Period,” the Turkish word Dönme means ‘to turn’ or “to betray.”


On November 5, 2021, Alican Uludag reported for Deutsche Welle in Turkish, under the headline, “Calling Erdoğan ‘Jewish’ was considered an insult,” that a Criminal Court of First Instance in the Turkish city of Bursa sentenced the person who used the term “Jew” about President Erdoğan to a judicial fine of 7 thousand Turkish Lira ($1,033) for “insulting the President.”

In 2020, after Bursa resident Yüksel Üstün posted on Facebook that “Tayyip is a Jew who pretends to be a Muslim,” Bursa’s Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit against Üstün for insulting the President. The indictment argued that the suspect committed the crime by “offending the honor, dignity, and respect of the President” with this post.

Presidential Law and Legislation General Director Hakkı Susmaz sent a letter to the court on March 25, 2021, stating the case should be “followed and tried without waiting for the complaint of the President, who is the head of the State and represents the Republic of Turkey and the unity of the Turkish Nation in this capacity.”

The defense asked for acquittal, arguing that “Jews are honorable citizens of this country. Calling someone a Gypsy or a Jew is not a crime.”

At the end of the hearing, the court sentenced Yüksel Üstün to 10 months and 20 days in prison for insulting the president, but later commuted the sentence to a fine of only $1,033.


Modern Turkish antisemitism and the conspiracy theories upon which it relies have always centered on the Dönmeh, according to historian Marc David Baer, professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His work, “The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks,” Stanford University Press, California, USA, 2010, is considered authoritative in the field.

Dönmeh machinations were said to have motivated the Young Turks Revolution and the overthrow of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1909, the dissolution of the Ottoman religious establishment, and the founding of a secular republic in the 1920s. Accusations of Dönmeh ancestry were used against the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). Those rumors have persisted to this day.

People in Turkey cannot help but notice the fiery vehemence with which their president denies aspersions of Dönmeh connections whenever they come up, and wonder what new Dönmeh accusation has surfaced to provoke Erdoğan’s latest wave of vicious antisemitic rhetoric.

Have documents outlining Erdoğan’s own or his familial dealings with secret Jews surfaced, and is that what fuels his latest paranoia? The average Turk on the street also wonders how much of Erdoğan’s political rise to power depended on behind-the-scenes manipulations by the Dönmeh.

It is feared that President Erdoğan may once again use his National Intelligence Organization (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı) to gather information against those who attempt to make public any fact that would embarrass him personally. It has been his policy to do so in the past, but whether he can completely eliminate all the historic traces of his Dönmeh connections is doubtful.

On Wednesday this week, President Erdoğan called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “vampire who feeds on blood” and urged Muslims to act against the “Zionist threat.”

“The world is watching the barbarity of a psychopath, a vampire who feeds on blood called Netanyahu, and they are watching it on live broadcast,” Erdoğan said in a speech to members of his AK Party.

Something must be bothering him.

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