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The Donme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks

A lecture by Marc David Baer, UC Irvine

Whether we call them Ma’aminim (Hebrew, Believers), as they called themselves, or Dönmeler (Turkish, Converts; hereafter Dönme), as others called them, either way, both terms refer to the descendants of Jews who converted to Islam along with their messiah Rabbi Shabbatai Tzevi three centuries ago. Shabbatai Tzevi’s story, and that of the first generation of his followers, has been told, but the ethno-religious identity, history, and experience of the descendants of the original Dönme in the modern period remains unexplored. Although many believe conspiracy theories about the Dönme, very few know the real character and history of the group. The aim of this talk is to answer a number of questions. To what extent is it appropriate to refer to these descendants of Jewish converts simply as Jews? If their beliefs and practices placed them outside the Jewish fold, by what means did they maintain their distinction from Jews and Muslims, and why? What role did the group play in late Ottoman and early Turkish republican history? Whether describing conversion from one religious tradition to another, or from a religious way of being to a secular one, how do we know when conversion has occurred? What are the limits to being a Jew, a Muslim, a Turk, or a Greek?

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