How Turkey’s Jewish Alliance Schools Have Become History
The Turkish website Avlaremoz, which reports on Jewish-related issues, recently covered the story of a Jewish school that used to be based in Istanbul.
The Haskoy Alliance Girls’ School, which opened in 1874 and began to welcome boys in 1877, still carries the French inscription “Alliance Israélite Ecole des Garçons” (Jewish Alliance Boys’ School). Today, however, it serves as the student guesthouse of Kadir Has University. It was established under the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the first modern international Jewish organization.
According to the website of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), the organization was founded to “help their fellow Jews, wherever they were suffering for or discriminated against because of their religion.” Its important network of schools aimed “to improve the position of the Jews in the Turkish Empire by instruction and education.”
Professor Frances Malino wrote:
In 1860, six French Jewish intellectuals, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment and motivated by a genuine sentiment of solidarity, set out to “regenerate” the Jews of the world — vocationally, linguistically, morally and spiritually. By the eve of World War I, the international organization they founded, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, had attracted more than thirty thousand members. Its one hundred and eighty-three schools, stretching from Tetuan in Morocco to Teheran in Iran, boasted a student population of 43,700.
Jews in Turkey are mostly known for being the descendants of the immigrants who moved to the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain. In fact, however, Jews have been living in Asia Minor since Biblical times. As Professor Franklin Hugh Adler wrote:
Jews had inhabited this land long before the birth of Mohammed and the Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, or for that matter, the arrival and conquests of the Turks, beginning in the eleventh century. On the eve of the birth of Islam, most of world Jewry lived under Byzantine or Persian rule in the lands of the Mediterranean basin.
By 1912 in Turkey, the Alliance possessed 71 boys’ schools and 44 girls’ schools, of which 52 were in European Turkey (including the Balkans) and 63 in Asian Turkey (including Iraq, etc.). According to professor Adler:
Jews in the Ottoman Empire, for the most part, did not speak Turkish with great facility, but spoke Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish). If they were educated beyond primary schooling, they learned French and became one of the largest francophone groups in the region, thanks to a network of schools constructed and maintained by French Jews through the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Such French influence in the Jewish community, together with the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment movement, led to a significant group of Jewish modernizers.
In 1923, however, the new regime in Turkey engaged in a harsh “Turkification” campaign to repress or even exterminate all non-Turkish languages.
In his 2013 PhD thesis, researcher Ahmet Hilmi Guven at the department of history of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (METU), wrote of the Alliance Israélite Universelle experience of Ottoman Jews from the last decades of the Empire to the early years of the Turkish republic:
The process of the nationalization of the Alliance institutions was part of the larger process of the creation of a unitary national elementary education system in Turkey.
In early 1924, Alliance directors in the provinces began to report that the Turkish educational authorities were creating problems, refusing to recognize the schools as Alliance institutions, insisting that they be called communal schools. In March 1924, the Alliance schools were ordered by the Ministry of Education to cease all contact with the organization in Paris. Juridically, this spelled the end of the Alliance in Turkey.
In June 1924, the Ministry of Education presented all Jewish elementary schools with the option of either teaching in Turkish, or in their mother tongue, which it declared was Hebrew. However, very few Turkish Jews were familiar with Hebrew as a living language and almost all spoke Judeo-Spanish. Hence, the Jewish community took the only option available, the adoption of Turkish as the language of instruction in its elementary schools…. With changing language aspects, Turkish would not have been a suitable medium for instruction.
Characterization of these schools changed with the 1924 law of Unification of Education, into communal schools, and with the introduction of Turkish as the language of instruction, these schools ceased to be Alliance schools… By 1929, these institutions were following the state curriculum, with the exception of a few hours devoted to Jewish religious education. The schools had now been totally nationalized.
The closing down of Alliance schools in Turkey took place in parallel with the persecution of the country’s Jews. The Jews of Eastern Thrace, for example, were targeted by pogroms from June 21- July 4, 1934. These began with a boycott of Jewish businesses, and were followed by physical attacks on Jewish-owned buildings, which were first looted, then set on fire. Jewish men were beaten, and some Jewish women reportedly raped. Terrorized by this turn of events, more than 15,000 Jews fled the region.
In 1937, the last of the Alliance Israélite Schools was shut down in Turkey — effectively erasing Turkey’s Jewish cultural heritage.