Education among the Jewish community of Balat through the archives of the Alliance israélite universelle 1875 -1911

 Bulletin 14 –

Education played a key role in the process of modernization of this community and had had a real influence on its future social and professional mobility. In this way, education has been a significant factor which urged the inhabitants to remove from the district in the beginning of the 20’s.

I have to remind that Balat was one of the oldest jewish neighborhood of Istanbul (such as Hasköy). Situated on the Golden Horn, it has been inhabited first by Romaniots (Byzantine Jews) since the Byzantine period. In the 1492 and 1497 it has been populated by Sephardic Jews coming from Spain and Portugal. It has also been the poorest neighborhood among other jewish settlements of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The archives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (A.I.U.) provide us a very interesting ethnological material on the people, the neighborhood, the level of instruction, the manpower’s qualification and the relationship between traditional and modern trends of the official authorities of the community.

These documents provide at the same time many information on little but significant episodes of the history of the school and give us a portrait of what kind of men and women should have been the headmasters and the teachers of the Alliance.

Through these sources, we can get a general framework of what should represent the challenge of education among an uneducated population still living according traditional criterions and entirely subject of religious instruction.

One of the founder of the Central Committee of Paris was Adolphe Crémieux well known for his action in favor of the Jews in North Africa, particularly in Algeria (cf. the “Décret Crémieux” of October 24th, 1870), offering them the french citizenship as a way to be integrated in the french society of this country. He is also well known for his belonging to Free-Masonery since 1818, and he has been the Great Master of the Grand Orient de France in 1869.

The main aim of this philantropic society created in 1860 in Paris by a group of French Jews, was to provide “emancipation and moral raising” among the jewish communities living in the Levant, in order to instil into these backward populations the values of the French Revolution.

According to the principle proclaimed by the A.I.U., it was urgent and necessary in this end of the nineteenth century, to extract Jews from ignorance, poverty, from old-aged believes, while respecting their judaic identity.
These archives are a very profitable source containing masses of information on many aspects : not only on education but also on the spirit of teachers and directors, on the potentiality of the pupils, on the rivality between the Alliance and the Talmud Thora school, and between the Alliance and the Zionist movement.

I confined my research on Balat and the two existing schools : the boys school opened in 1875, and the girls school opened in 1882. Both of them disappeared in the big fire of Balat in 1911.
The general situation of Balat as displayed in some letters written by the headmasters seem to be disastrous. They come close to the descriptions made by the travelogues at the end of nineteenth century and beginning of twentieth century..

Through these letters we get the measure of the low economic and social level of the inhabitants and we can imagine the hard task that the Alliance had to assume. The words the headmasters used are not tender for the local population that they qualify by its general incapacity to think of getting better jobs and to view better living conditions.
For example, in a report dated September 16th, 1875 (beginning of the school), Nissim Behar, the director, explains that the Jews refuse to do some certain jobs: among others, they refuse to be carpenter or blacksmith. He evaluates the jewish population about 4.000 among 30.000 inhabitants including Muslims, Greeks and Armenians. Jews are generally fish-sellers, fruit-sellers, porters, boatmen or café owners. His description concerns also the numerous “beggars teeming in the streets, all young and healthy men and women”. (1)
After this negative picture, he complains about the lack of space in the two-floored school that the Alliance had just opened two months before. This house is a wooden buiding rather close to the sea (the Golden Horn). He even gives the dimensions of each classroom, comparing this low capapcity building (120 pupils) to the one belonging to the Talmud Thora able to accomodate 400 students. More indications are given on the children living in Balat : “Half of the children are orphans. The others are sons of porters and pedlars. The paying children are sons of merchants relatively well-to-do.” (2)

The narrowness of the school is confirmed in another letter written by Nissim Behar on May 18th, 1877 (two years later), in which he explains that due to the poverty, the lack of space and air and the hot weather, many children are sick or in bad health. He also notices that the 120 pupils are all bad dressed, hangry and that their parents are all illiterate. He hopes that it will be possble to rent another building in order to improve the conditions of teaching. (3)

Another aspect that we can point out thanks to the statistical datas, is the audience of the school. Combining the figures contained in the Bulletin de l’Alliance, between 1885 and 1911, I drafted the following chart :

Chart 1. Evolution of the total number of pupils of the A.I.U.’s
schools in Balat (1885-1911)

Years Boys Paying Free Girls Paying Free Total

1885 142 59 83 137 57 80 279 1886 142 59 83 140 57 83 282 1894 179 47 132 263 29 234 442 1897 309 105 204 314 92 224 623 1899 332 130 202 317 122 195 649 1901 311 141 170 316 175 171 627 1904 259 168 91 443 204 239 702 1908 359 311 48 352 298 54 711 1911 268 212 56 487 395 92 755


During 36 years, the total number increases regularly (from 279 to 755), but the increase goes faster for the girls and exceed the number of boys. We know that the proportion of educated girls in a social group is an important factor of modernization of the whole group and we can make the hypothesis that the Alliance reached its initial goals in involving a large number of girls in its educational enterprise, because, according to the traditional principles, the schools of Talmud Thora
were forbidden for girls.
We also know that on an other hand the Alliance opened local language courses in every school : turkish in Turkey, arabic in Ýrak and Egypt, persian in Iran, etc. This new orientation was necessary if we consider that generally Jews were only speaking judeo-spanish “a kind of dialect or patois which
created obstacle to their social and economical integration” (4)

I’ll be back on the linguistic question later on, cause it has also been a matter of quarrel with the Zionist movement.

In a report dated october 6th, 1879, we get the nature of activity lead by 268 students coming from the school of Balat. As we can immediately notice, a significant number among them (62) went to Talmud Thora’s school after its stage in the Alliance’s shcool. It is not a good point for the A.I.U. as remarks Nissim Behar who says that : “The 62 students who entered the Talmud Thora didn’t keep any trace of the education they received in our school. Among the other 206, at least 40 had enjoy their stage at school… all of them got a behaviour which does honour to our school. They have no disregard for the traditions and if they move away from here, it is rather by necessity.” (5)

He goes on saying : “We have notice that as soon as a man raises morally or materially, staying in Balat becomes unbearable for him, and he removes to an other neighborhood.” (6) This last point clearly expresses the narrow relation between education, professional mobility (that is to say getting a better job) and aspiration to better living conditions. Due to education, men expected social promotion and realized it though spatial mobility. Here are the premisses of the future removals.

Chart 2.
Number of pupils trained in the school of Balat between 1875 and 1879
(according the report of Nissim Behar sent to the Central Committee of Paris, dated
October 6th, 1879 – ref. Turquie XXXVIII.E)


04 20 75 85 84 268


Mr. Fernandez writing to the French Committee on March 3rd, 1911, complains about the lack of sport equipment in Balat. In this document, the stake of the battle is not only to provide sport equipment and reinforce physicially the pupils, but also to compete with the school of Maccabi already existing in the neighborhood. Mr. Fernandez says :”This section of Maccabi regains the young people trained in the Alliance in order to converse them into partisans of Zionism”. (7) He adds that an Amicale has been created to make obstacle to the claims of Zionism. In fact, until the advent of Nazism, the Alliance was resolutely non-zionist, not to say anti-zionist.

On an other hand, the criticism issued from the headmasters focuses on the school of Talmud Thora. The letter written by Mr. Adès on December 2nd, 1903 to Mr. Bigart, explains that the children have to start studying when they are 5 years old. While, till then, all the children are at least 10 when starting the Alliance’s school. Because from 5 to 10 or 11, these children are quite obliged to follow the courses of the Talmud Thora. It is not suitable says Mr. Adès to get students so late in the primary school :”They have already spent a large steril period of their childhood in steril courses”. In order to modify this situation, the A.I.U. bargained with the Talmud Thora the sending of 50 children between 5 and 7 years old ; the Talmud Thora refused this proposal. Mr. Adès complains about the families who want free of charge education, food and clothing provided by the Talmud Thora’s school. He finishes his letter in this way :”We were called here by confidence of the Central Committee to lead a very hard task and we are conscious to fulllfill our duty. My wife and me took all the necessary measures to provide order, dignity, and discipline, and well done teaching. We will not let going on a situation convenient for the parents because it has already sterilized a great part of the sacrifices made by the Alliance”. (8) Going on in his letter, he qualifies the Talmud Thora’s school in this way :” Only familiarity, anarchy, dirtiness govern these old educational establishments”. (9)

To conclude, these sources give us a panoramic view on many aspects of education and reveal the entousiasm and the moral fiber of all these men and these women marked by high moral convictions. I shall finish my paper with a quotation of Elie Chouraqui speaking about the schoolmasters of the Alliance.

(…) the Alliance schoolmaster ha already in the depth of his being broken with the traditional legacy of synagogue. He was a product of the dominant european culture. Voltaire and Rousseau, the Encyclopaedists and the Romantics nourished his thought more than did the Prophets and the Talmudists. He believed more in the light of Reason than in God’s salvation, in the benefits of progress more than in the Messiah’s redemption, more in man’s creativity than in God’s providence.” (10)


(1) Archives of A.I.U., Rapport nº 9900/4, 16 september 1875, Turquie, XXXVIII.E.

(2) “La moitié des élèves de l’école de Balat sont orphelins. Les autres sont fils de
colporteurs ou de portefaix. Les élèves payants ont des parents négociants assez aisés.”,
rapport nº 9900/4, Turquie XXXVIII.E.

(3) Letter nº 3888 dated May 18th, 1877, Turquie XXXVIII.E.

(4) Elie CHOURAQUI, Cent ans d’Histoire. L’Alliance Israélite Universelle et la
renaissancejuive contemporaine, ed. PUF, Paris, 1965, p.192.

(5) Rapport of Nissim Béhar to the Secretary of Central Committee, dated 21st September
1879, Turquie XXXVIII.E.
“Les 62 rentrés à la Talmud Thora n’ont conservé aucune trace de l’éducation reçue à
“Des 206 autres, 40 au moins ont beaucoup profité de leur séjour à l’école. Ainsi les
élèves entrés à l’école de médecine, à l’école orientale, les apprentis, quelques
changeurs, les comptables, quelques uns de ceux qui ont embrassé le commerce, tous
ont une conduite qui fait honneur à notre école. Ce qui me plaît surtout en eux,
qu’ils ne font pas consister le progrès dans la licence. Ils n’affectent pas de mépris
pour les traditions. S’ils s’en écartent, c’est plutot par nécessité que pour s’en faire
gloire: ils évitent le scandale.”
“Aucun de mes anciens élèves n’est tombé dans la filouterie ou le vagabondage, tous
gagnant plus ou moins aisément leur vie par le travail.”

(6) “Il faut noter (à Balat) que, dès qu’un homme sélève quelque peu moralement ou
matériellement, le séjour de Balat lui devient insupportable, il déménage pour un autre

(7) Letter of Mr. Fernandez to the President of A.I.U. dated 3rd March 1911, Turquie
XXIX.E/Fernandez :
“La Maccabi récupère les jeunes gens formés à l’A.I.U. pour en faire des partisans du

(8) Letter nº 918/4 dated 2nd of December 1903, Turquie XXIX.E.Fernandez.

(9) idem

(10) Elie CHOURAQUI, op. cit, p. 210
“(…) le maitre de l’Alliance avait déjà rompu au plus profond de son être
avec la loi traditionnelle de la synagogue. Il fut un produit de la culture
européenne dominante. Voltaire et Rousseau, les Encyclopédistes et les
Romantiques ont nourri sa pensée plus que les Prophètes et les
Talmudistes. Il croyait plus dans la lumière de la Raison que dans le
sauvetage de Dieu, dans les bienfaits du progrès plus que dans la
rédemption du Messie, plus dans la créativité de l’homme que dans la
Providence divine”.

Pour prendre contact avec Laurence Ammour:



Citer ce billet
Laurence Ammour (1998, 13 mai). Education among the Jewish community of Balat through the archives of the Alliance israélite universelle 1875 -1911. Observatoire Urbain d'Istanbul. Consulté le 1 mars 2024, à l’adresse

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