There have been organized Jewish communities in Greece for more than two thousand years. The oldest and the most characteristic Jewish group that has inhabited Greece are the Romaniotes, also known as “Greek Jews”. However, the term “Greek Jew” is predominantly used for any person of Jewish faith that lives in or originates from, or has lived in and originated from the modern region of Greece.
The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250 (BCE) on the island of Rhodes. In the 2nd century BCE, Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honoured by the raising of a statue in the agora. According to Josephus, an earlier mention of a Hellenized Jew by a Greek writer was to be found in the work “De Somno” by the Greek historian Clearchus of Soli. Clearchus describes the meeting between Aristotle (who lived in the 4th century BCE) and a Jew in Asia Minor, who was fluent in Greek language and thought: “Well’, said Aristotle, ‘the man was a Jew of Coele Syria (modern Lebanon). Now this man, who entertained a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek. During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own.”
Alexander the Great conquered the former Kingdom of Judah in 332 BCE, defeating the Persian empire which had held the territory since Cyrus’ conquest of the Babylonians. After Alexander’s death, the Wars of the Diadochi led to the territory changing rulership as Alexander’s successors fought over control over the Persian territories. The region eventually came under the control of the Ptolemaic dynasty and became Hellenistic. The Jews of Alexandria created a “unique fusion of Greek and Jewish culture”, while the Jews of Jerusalem were divided between conservative and pro-Hellene factions. Along with the influence of this Hellenistic fusion on the Jews who had found themselves part of a Greek empire, the turbulence of the period between the death of Alexander and the second century BCE led to a resurgence of Jewish messianism, which would inspire revolutionary sentiment when Jerusalem became part of the Roman Empire. Greece fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BCE.
The Jews living in Roman Greece had a different experience than those of Iudaea Province. Greek Jews lived as a separate community from the Jews of Judaea whereby the Jews of Greece did not participate in the First Jewish-Roman War or later conflicts. The Jews of Thessaloniki, speaking a dialect of Greek, and living a Hellenized existence, were joined by a new Jewish colony in the first century CE. The Jews of Thessaloniki “enjoyed wide autonomy” in Roman times.
After the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire, elements of Roman civilisation continued on in the Byzantine Empire. The Jews of Greece were brought to the attention of the Byzantium’s leadership in Constantinople. Some Byzantine emperors were anxious to exploit the wealth of the Jews of Greece, and imposed special taxes on them, while others attempted forced conversions to Christianity. The latter pressure met with little success, as it was resisted by both the Jewish community and by the Greek Christian synods.
The Romaniotes were a Jewish population who have lived in the territory of today’s Greece for more than 2000 years. Their historic language was Yevanic, a dialect of the Greek language. Yevanic has no surviving speakers; today’s Greek Romaniotes speak Greek. Large communities were located in Ioannina, Thebes, Chalcis, Corfu, Arta, Corinth and on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and Cyprus, among others. The Romaniotes are historically distinct from the Sephardim, some of whom settled in Greece after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
After their expulsion from Spain, between fifteen and twenty thousand more Sephardim settled in Thessaloniki. These immigrants established the city’s first printing press, and the city became known as a centre for commerce and learning.The exile of other Jewish communities swelled the city’s Jewish population, until Jews were the majority population in 1519. The majority of the Jews in Greece are Sephardim whose ancestors had left Portugal and Spain. Most of them settled in Thessaloniki, the city which was to be named “Mother of Israel” in the years to come. The traditional language of Greek Sephardim was Ladino, and, until the Holocaust, “was a unique blend of Ottoman, Balkan and Hispanic influences”, well known for its level of education. The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture calls Thessaloniki’s Sephardic community “indisputably one of the most important ones in the world”.
The White Tower of Thessaloniki, marking the southeastern edge of Jewish quarter of Thessaloniki, "the Mother of Israel".
The first settlement of Ashkenazi Jews in Greece occurred in 1376, heralding an Ashkenazi immigration from Hungary and Germany to avoid the persecution of Jews throughout the fifteenth century. Jewish immigrants from France and Venice also arrived in Greece, and created new Jewish communities in Thessaloniki. Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the mid-fifteenth century, until the conclusion of first the Greek War of Independence ending in 1832, and then the First Balkan War in 1913. During this period, the centre of Jewish life in the Balkans was Thessaloniki. The Sephardim of Thessaloniki were the exclusive tailors for the Ottoman janissaries, and enjoyed economic prosperity through commercial trading in the Balkans.
Greek Jews today largely “live side by side in harmony” with Christian Greeks, according to Giorgo Romaio, president of the Greek Committee for the Jewish Museum of Greece, while nevertheless continuing to work with other Greeks, and Jews worldwide, to combat any rise of anti-Semitism in Greece. Most Jews in Greece are Sephardim, but Greece is also the home of the unique Romaniote culture. Besides the Sephardim and the Romaniotes, small Ashkenazim communities have existed as well, in Thessaloniki and elsewhere. Aside from the Romaniotes, Greece was the home of a historical centre of Sephardic life; the city of Thessaloniki, called the “Mother of Israel”. The Jewish community in Greece currently amounts to roughly 55,000 people, concentrated mainly in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa, Volos, Chalkis, Ioannina, Trikala and Corfu, while very few remain in Kavala and Rhodes. All but a small number of the Romaniotes of Ioannina, the largest remaining Romaniote community not assimilated into Sephardic culture, were killed in the Holocaust. Ioannina today has 35 living Romaniotes.
Interior of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes
In the late 1650s, Thessaloniki became home to Sabbatai Zevi, a Jew from Smyrna who claimed to be the messiah. Zevi gained a number of sincere believers in Thessaloniki, which was undergoing a revival of interest in mysticism and Kabbalah at the time. After Zevi’s forced conversion to Islam, three hundred families of his followers became Donmeh, Zevi followers who continued a messianic crypto-Judaism after their conversion. The events prompted the organisation of more central leadership in the Jewish community, which would oversee liberalisation of Ottoman laws two centuries later. The middle of the nineteenth century, brought a change to Greek Jewish life. The janissaries had been destroyed in 1826, and traditional commercial routes were being encroached upon by the Great Powers of Europe.
The Sephardic population of Thessaloniki had risen to between twenty-five to thirty thousand members, leading to scarcity of resources, fires and hygiene problems. This balance of power shifted with the importation of modern anti-Semitism with immigrants from the West, and later in the century some Greek Jews soon became the target of Greek and Armenian pogroms. Thessaloniki’s Jewish community comprised more than half of the city’s population by the early 1900s. As a result of the Jewish influence on the city, many non-Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews, and the city virtually shut down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Many sea-travellers reaching the port of Thessaloniki humorously recalled that Thessaloniki was a city where people worked only four days while resting three consecutive days. This was due to the three major religions the population adhered to and their respective resting days: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians.The end of the century saw great improvements, as the mercantile leadership of the Sephardic community, particularly the Allatini family, took advantage of new trade opportunities with the rest of Europe.
Ottoman rule of Thessaloniki ended in 1912, as Greek soldiers entered the city in the last days of the First Balkan War. Thessaloniki’s status had not been decided by the Balkan Alliance before the war, and Glenny writes that some amongst the city’s majority Jewish population at first hoped that the city might be controlled by Bulgaria. Bulgarian control would keep the city at the forefront of a national trade network, while Greek control might affect, for those of certain social classes and across ethnic groups, Thessaloniki’s position as the destination of Balkan village trading. After liberation, however, the Greek government won the support of the city’s Jewish community, and Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the first countries to accept the Balfour Declaration, 1917.
During World War II, Greece was conquered by Nazi Germany and occupied by the Axis powers. 12, 898 Greek Jews fought in the Greek army, one of the best-known amongst them being Colonel Mordechai Frizis, in a force which first successfully repelled the Italian Army, but was later overwhelmed by German forces. 86% of the Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were murdered despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy and many individual Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Germans and Bulgarians deported a great number of Greek Jews, others were successfully hidden by their Greek neighbours.
On July 11, 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for deportation to the German camps. The community paid a fee of 2.5 billion drachmas for their freedom, the effect of which was only to delay deportation until the following March. 46,091 people were sent to Auschwitz. 1,950 returned to find most of their sixty synagogues and schools destroyed. Many survivors emigrated to Israel and the United States. Today the Jewish population of Thessaloniki numbers roughly 1,000, and maintains two synagogues.
The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture writes “One cannot forget the repeated initiatives of the head of the Metropolitan See of Thessaloniki, Gennadios, against the deportations, and most of all, the official letter of protest signed in Athens on March 23, 1943, by Archbishop Damaskinos, along with 27 prominent leaders of cultural, academic and professional organizations. The document, written in a very sharp language, refers to unbreakable bonds between Christian Orthodox and Jews, identifying them jointly as Greeks, without differentiation. It is noteworthy that such a document is unique in the whole of occupied Europe, in character, content and purpose”.
In Corfu after the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis took control of the island. Corfu’s mayor at the time, Kollas, was a known collaborator and various anti-semitic laws were passed by the Nazis that now formed the occupation government of the island. In early June 1944, while the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the landing in Normandy, the Gestapo rounded up the Jews of the city, temporarily incarcerated them at the old fort (Palaio Frourio) and on the 10th of June sent them to Auschwitz where very few survived. However, approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1900 managed to flee. Many among the local populace at the time provided shelter and refuge to those 200 Jews that managed to escape the Nazis. As well, a prominent section of the old town is to this day called Evraiki meaning Jewish suburb in recognition of the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. An active Synagogue is an integral part of Evraiki today with about 65 members.
A woman weeps during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina on March 25, 1944. The deportation was enforced by the German army. Almost all of the people deported were murdered on or shortly after April 11, 1944, when the train carrying them reached Auschwitz-Berkinau.
The 275 Jews of the island of Zakynthos, survived the Holocaust. When the island’s mayor, Carrer, was presented with the German order to hand over a list of Jews, Bishop Chrysostomos returned to the Germans with a list of two names; his and the mayor’s. The island’s population hid every member of the Jewish community. When the island was almost levelled by the great earthquake of 1953, the first relief came from the state of Israel, with a message that read “The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us.
Anti-Semitism in Greece: Misha Glenny writes that Greek Jews had never “encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks… but it attracted an insignificant minority”. The danger of deportation to death camps was repeatedly met with disbelief by Greece’s 1940s Jewish population. A Greek Neo-Nazi group, Hrisi Avgi, existed in Greece from 1980 until 2005, when it was officially disbanded by its leadership after conflicts with police and anti-Fascists. The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia 2002-2003 report on anti-Semitism in Greece mentioned several incidents over the two-year period making note that there were no instances of physical or verbal assaults on Jews, along with examples of “good practices” for countering prejudice. The report concluded that “…in 2003 the Chairman of the Central Jewish Board in Greece stated that he did not consider the rise in antisemitism to be alarming.”.
Archaeologists have discovered ancient synagogues in Greece, including the Synagogue in the Agora of Athens and the Delos Synagogue, dating to the second century BCE. Greek Jews played an important role in Greek history, from the early History of Christianity, through the Byzantine Empire and Ottoman Greece, until the tragic near-destruction of the community after Greece fell to Nazi Germany in World War II.
On November 21, 2003, Nikos Bistis, the Greek Deputy Minister of the Interior, declared January 27 to be Holocaust Remembrance Day in Greece, and committed to a “coalition of Greek Jews, Greek non-Jews, and Jews worldwide to fight antisemitism in Greece”.
Jews have been present in Italy from the Roman period until today. The first attested Jews in Italy were the ambassadors sent to Rome by Judah Maccabee in 161 BC, Jason son of Eleazar and Eupolemus son of John. According to I Maccabees they signed a treaty with the Roman Senate. An embassy was sent later by Simon Maccabees to Rome to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom. The ambassadors received a cordial welcome from their coreligionists who were already established there.
Large numbers of Jews lived in Rome during the Roman Republican period.In Rome, the community was well organized and presided over by heads called (archontes) The Jews maintained in Rome several synagogues, whose spiritual leader was called in Latin (archisunagogos). Jewish tombstones inscriptions were in Greek, Hebrew/Aramaic or Latin and were decorated with the ritual menorah (seven-branched candelabrum). Rome had increased contact with military and trade dealings in the eastern Mediterranean, during the second and first centuries BCE, and since many Jews spoke several languages they came to Rome to increase commercial enterprize as traders and merchants. The Romans recognized and respected the antiquity of their religion and the fame of their Temple. Romans did not know much about Judaism, including the emperor Augustus who, according to his biographer Suetonius, thought that Jews fasted on the Sabbath. Julius Caesar was alleged as a great friend to these Jews.
The fate of the Jews in Rome and Italy fluctuated, with partial expulsions being carried out under the emperors Tiberius and Claudius. After the successive Jewish revolts of 66 and 132 CE, many Judean Jews were brought to Rome as slaves which were the norm in the ancient world for prisoners of war and inhabitants of defeated cities who were sold as slaves. These revolts caused increasing official hostility from the reign of Vespasian onwards after the destruction of Jerusalem. The most serious measure taken against the Jews was that they were forced to pay the tithe that had formerly been sent to the temple in Jerusalem; was now paid to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine I in 313, the position of Jews in Italy and throughout the empire declined rapidly and dramatically. Constantine established oppressive laws for the Jews. There was some reprieve when these laws were abolished by Julian the Apostate, who showed his favor toward the Jews to the extent of permitting them to resume their plan for the reconstruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. However, this concession was withdrawn under his successor and the oppression escalated where there were periods of persecution followed by periods of quiescence, until the fall of the Roman Empire.
At the time under Theodore, there were flourishing communities of Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Messina, Argumentum, and in Sardinia. The popes of the period were not seriously opposed to the Jews. This accounts for the ardor with which the latter took up arms for the Ostrogoths against the forces of Justinian at Naples, where the remarkable defense of the city was maintained almost entirely by Jews. After the failure of various attempts to make Italy a province of the Byzantine empire, the Jews suffered severe oppression from the Eparch of Ravenna; but it was not long until the greater part of Italy came into the possession of the Lombard’s, under whom they lived in peace.
The Lombard’s passed no laws relative to the Jews. Even after the Lombard’s embraced Catholicism the condition of the Jews was favorable, because the popes of that time not only did not persecute them, but guaranteed them more or less protection. Pope Gregory I treated them with much consideration. Under succeeding popes the condition of the Jews did not grow worse; and the same was the case in the several smaller states into which Italy was divided. Both popes and states were so absorbed in continual external and internal dissensions that the Jews were left in peace. In every individual state of Italy a certain amount of protection was granted to them in order to secure the advantages of their commercial enterprise. The fact that the historians of this period scarcely make mention of the Jews, suggests that their condition was tolerable.
There was an expulsion of Jews from Bologna in 1172; but they were soon allowed to return. A nephew of Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel acted as administrator of the property of Pope Alexander III, who was amicable towards the Jews at the Lateran Council of 1179, where he defeated the designs of hostile prelates who advocated anti-Jewish laws. Under Norman rule the Jews of southern Italy and of Sicily enjoyed freedom and were considered the equals of the Christians. They were permitted to follow any career and had jurisdiction over their own affairs. A later pope either Nicholas IV (1288-1292) or Boniface VIII (1294-1303) had for his physician a Jew, Isaac ben Mordecai, nicknamed Maestro Gajo.
Among the early Jews of Italy who left behind them traces of their literary activity was Shabbethai Donnolo (died 982). Two centuries later (1150) there were known writers such as Shabbethai ben Moses of Rome; his son Jehiel Kalonymus, once regarded as a Talmudic authority even beyond Italy; and Rabbi Jehiel of the Mansi (Anaw) family, also of Rome. Nathan, son of the above-mentioned Rabbi Jehiel, was the author of a Talmudic lexicon (“‘Arukh”) which became the key to the study of the Talmud.
Solomon ben Abraham ibn Parhon during his residence at Salerno, compiled a Hebrew dictionary which fostered the study of Biblical exegesis among the Italian Jews. The liturgical author of merit was Joab ben Solomon, some of whose compositions are extant. Toward the second half of the thirteenth century signs appeared of an improved Hebrew culture and of a more profound study of the Talmud. Isaiah di Trani the Elder (1232-1279), a Talmudic authority, was the author of many celebrated responsa. David, his son, and Isaiah di Trani the Younger, his nephew, followed in his footsteps, as did their descendants until the end of the seventeenth century. Meïr ben Moses presided over an important Talmudic school in Rome, and Abraham ben Joseph over one in Pesaro. In Rome two famous physicians, Abraham and Jehiel, descendants of Nathan ben Jehiel, taught the Talmud. One of the women of this gifted family, Paola dei Mansi, also attained distinction; her Biblical and Talmudic knowledge was considerable, and she transcribed Biblical commentaries in a notably beautiful handwriting.
During this period the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the last of the Hohenstaufen, employed Jews to translate from the Arabic philosophical and astronomical treatises; among these writers were Judah Kohen of Toledo, later of Tuscany, and Jacob Anatoly of Provencal. This led to the study of the works of Maimonides, the favorite writer of Hillel of Verona (1220-1295). Hillel practiced medicine at Rome and in other Italian cities, and translated into Hebrew several medical works. The liberal spirit of the writings of Maimonides had other votaries in Italy inclusive of Shabbethai ben Solomon of Rome and Zerahiah ben of Barcelona, who migrated to Rome and contributed to spread the knowledge of his works. The effect of this on the Italian Jews was apparent in their love of freedom of thought and their esteem for literature, as well as in their adherence to the literal rendering of the Biblical texts and their opposition to fanatical cabalists and mystic theories. Among other devotees of these theories was Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, the celebrated friend of Dante Alighieri.
The rise of poetry in Italy at the time of Dante influenced the Jews also. The wealthy and the powerful, partly by reason of sincere interest, partly in obedience to the spirit of the times, became patrons of Jewish writers, thus inducing the greatest activity on their part. On the initiative of the Roman community, a Hebrew translation of Maimonides’ Arabic commentary on the Mishnah was made. At this time Pope John XXII was on the point of pronouncing a ban against the Jews of Rome. The Jews instituted a day of public fasting and of prayer to appeal for divine assistance. King Robert of Sicily, who favored the Jews, sent an envoy to the pope at Avignon, who succeeded in averting this great peril. This period of Jewish literature in Italy is indeed one of great splendor.
The Vatican’s position on Jews in Italy worsened considerably under Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). This pope threatened with excommunication those who placed or maintained Jews in public positions, and he insisted that every Jew holding office should be dismissed. The deepest insult was the order that every Jew must always wear, conspicuously displayed, a special badge. In 1235 Pope Gregory IX published the first bull against the ritual murder accusation. Other popes followed his example, particularly Innocent IV in 1247, Gregory X in 1272, Clement VI in 1348, Gregory XI in 1371, Martin V in 1422, Nicholas V in 1447, Sixtus V in 1475, Paul III in 1540, and later Alexander VII, Clement XIII, and Clement XIV.
The Jews suffered much from the relentless persecutions of the Avignon-based “antipope” Benedict XIII. They hailed his successor, Martin V, with delight. The synod convoked by the Jews at Bologna, and continued at Forlì, sent a deputation with expensive gifts to the new pope, begging him to abolish the oppressive laws promulgated by Benedict and to grant the Jews those privileges which had been accorded them under previous popes. The deputation succeeded in its mission, but the period of grace was short; for Martin’s successor, Eugenia IV, at first was favorable toward the Jews, but ultimately reenacted all the restrictive laws issued by Benedict. However, his bull was generally disregarded.
The great centers, such as Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Pisa, realized that their commercial interests were of more importance than the affairs of the spiritual leaders of the Church; and accordingly the Jews, many of whom were bankers and leading merchants, found their condition better than ever before. It became easy for Jewish bankers to obtain permission to establish banks and to engage in monetary transactions. In one instance the Bishop of Mantua, in the name of the pope, accorded permission to the Jews to lend money at interest. All the banking negotiations of Tuscany were in the hands of a Jew, Jehiel of Pisa. The influential position of this successful financier was of the greatest advantage to his coreligionists at the time of the exile from Spain.
The Jews were also successful as skilled medical practitioners. William of Portaleone, physician to King Ferdinand I of Naples, and to the ducal houses of Sforza and Gonzaga, was one of the most competent of that time. He was the first of the long line of illustrious physicians in his family.
When Jews were exiled en masse from Spain in 1492 a great number of them took refuge in Italy, where they were given protection by King Ferdinand I of Naples. Don Isaac Abravanel received a position at the Neapolitan court, which he retained under the succeeding king, Alfonso II. The Spanish Jews were well received also in Ferrara by the Duke, Ercole d’Este I, and in Tuscany through the mediation of Jehiel of Pisa and his sons.
However, at Rome and Genoa they experienced severe oppression and were forced to accept baptism in order to escape starvation. In some cases the immigrants exceeded in number the Jews already domiciled, and gave the determining vote in matters of communal interest and in the direction of studies. From Alexander VI to Clement VII the popes were indulgent toward the Jews, having more urgent matters to occupy them. The popes themselves and many of the most influential cardinals openly violated one of the most severe enactments of the Council of Basel, namely, prohibiting Christians from employing Jewish physicians, yet they gave these same physicians positions at the papal court. The Jewish communities of Naples and of Rome received the greatest number of appointments; but many Jews passed on from these cities to Ancona, Venice, Calabria, and Padua. Venice, imitating the odious measures of the German cities, assigned to the Jews a special quarter (ghetto).
The orthodox-Catholic party tried to introduce the Inquisition into the Neapolitan realm, then under Spanish rule. Charles V, upon his return from his victories in Africa, was on the point of exiling the Jews from Naples, but deferred doing so owing to the influence of Benvenida, wife of Samuel Abravanel. A few years later, however (1533), such a decree was proclaimed, but upon this occasion also Samuel Abravanel and others were able through their influence to avert for several years the execution of the edict. Many Jews went to the Ottoman Empire, some to Ancona, and still others to Ferrara, where they were received graciously by Duke Ercole II.
After the death of Pope Paul III, a period of strife, of persecutions, and despondency set in. The Jews were exiled from Genoa and among the refugees being Joseph HaKohen, physician to the doge Andrea Doria and eminent historian. The Marranos, driven from Spain and Portugal, were allowed by Duke Ercole to enter his dominions and to profess Judaism without molestation. Thus, Samuel Usque, also a historian, who had fled from the Inquisition in Portugal, settled in Ferrara; and Abraham Usque founded a large printing establishment there. A third Usque, Solomon, merchant of Venice and Ancona and poet, translated the sonnets of Petrarch into excellent Spanish verse, which was much admired by his contemporaries.
The return to Judaism of the Marrano Usques caused much rejoicing among the Italian Jews. This was counterbalanced by the deep grief, by the seductive conversion to Christianity of two grandsons of Elijah Levita, [Leone Romano and Vittorio Eliano]. One became a canon of the Church; the other, a Jesuit. They slandered the Talmud to Pope Julius III and as a consequence the pope pronounced the sentence of destruction against this work, to the printing of which one of his predecessors, Leo X, had given his sanction. On the Jewish New Year’s Day (September 9), 1553, all the copies of the Talmud in the principal cities of Italy, in the printing establishments of Venice and even in the distant island of Candia (Crete), were burned. The worse fate of the Jews under Pope Marcellus II, who wished to exile them from Rome because of a charge of ritual murder but he was restrained from the execution of this project by Cardinal Alexander Farnese who succeeded in bringing to light the true culprit.
The most serious misfortune for the Jews was the election of Paul IV as Marcellus’ successor. This pontiff confirmed all the more severe of the bulls against the Jews issued up to that time and added others still more oppressive and containing all manner of prohibitions, which condemned the Jews to the most abject misery, deprived them of the means of sustenance, and denied to them the exercise of all professions. They were finally forced to labor at the restoration of the walls of Rome without any compensation whatsoever.
Upon one occasion the pope had secretly given orders to one of his nephews to burn the quarter inhabited by the Jews during the night; but Alexander Farnese, hearing of the infamous proposal, succeeded in preventing it. Many Jews then abandoned Rome and Ancona and went to Ferrara and Pesaro. Here the Duke of Urbino welcomed them graciously in the hope of directing the extensive commerce of the Levant to the new port of Pesaro, which was, at that time, exclusively in the hands of the Jews of Ancona. Among the many who were forced to leave Rome was the illustrious Marrano, Amato Lusitano, a distinguished physician, who had often attended Pope Julius III. He had been invited to become physician to the King of Poland, but had declined the offer in order to remain in Italy. He fled from the Inquisition to Pesaro, where he openly professed Judaism.
The tolerant pope Pius IV was succeeded by Pius V, who took an opposite stance. He brought into force all the anti-Jewish bulls of his predecessors—not only in his own immediate domains, but throughout the Christian world. In Lombardy the expulsion of the Jews was threatened, and, although this extreme measure was not put into execution, they were tyrannized in countless ways. At Cremona and at Lodi their books were confiscated; and Carlo Borromeo, who was afterward canonized, persecuted them mercilessly. In Genoa, from which city the Jews were at this time expelled, an exception was made in favor of Joseph HaKohen. In his Emek Halakha he narrates the history of these persecutions. He had no desire to take advantage of the sad privilege accorded to him, and went to Casale Monferrato, where he was graciously received even by the Christians.
In this same year the pope directed his persecutions against the Jews of Bologna, who formed a prosperous community well worth despoiling. Many of the wealthiest Jews were imprisoned and placed under torture in order to force them to make false confessions. When Rabbi Ishmael Hanina was being racked, he declared that should the pains of torture elicit from him any words that might be construed as casting reflection on Judaism; they would be false and null. It was forbidden to the Jews to leave the city; but many succeeded in escaping by bribing the watchmen at the gates of the ghetto and of the city. The fugitives, together with their wives and children, escaped to the neighboring city of Ferrara. Then Pius V. decided to banish the Jews from all his dominions, and, despite the enormous loss which was likely to result from this measure, and the remonstrance’s of influential and well-meaning cardinals, the Jews (in all about 1,000 families) were actually expelled from all the Papal States excepting Rome and Ancona. A few became Christians. The majority found refuge in other parts of Italy such as Leghorn and Pitigliano.
A commotion was caused in Italy by the choice of a prominent Jew, Solomon of Udine, as Turkish ambassador to Venice who was selected to negotiate within that republic during July of 1574. There was a pending decree of expulsion of the Jews by the leaders of several kingdoms within Italy, thereby making the Venetian Senate concerned if whether there would be difficulties collaborating with Solomon of Udine. However, through the influence of the Venetian diplomats themselves, and particularly of the Patrician, Marc Antonio Barbaro of the noble Barbaro family, who esteemed Udine highly, Solomon was received with great honors at the Doge’s Palace. In virtue of this, Udine received an exalted position within the Republic of Venice and was able to render great service to his coreligionists.
Through his influence Jacob Soranzo, an agent of the Venetian Republic at Constantinople, came to Venice. Solomon was influential in having the decree of expulsion revoked within Italian kingdoms, and he furthermore obtained a promise from Venetian patricians that Jews would have a secure home within the Republic of Venice. Udine was eventually honored for his services and returned to Constantinople, leaving his son Nathan in Venice to be educated. Nathan was one of the first Jewish students to have studied at the University of Padua, under the inclusive admission policy established by Marc Antonio Barbaro. The success of Udine inspired many Jews in Turkey, particularly in Constantinople, where they had attained great prosperity.
Persecutions and confiscations on the Jews continued and the position of the Jews of Italy at this time was pitiable. The bulls of Paul IV and Pius V had reduced them to the utmost humiliation and had materially diminished their numbers. In southern Italy there were almost none left; in each of the important communities of Rome, Venice, and Mantua there were about 2,000 Jews; while in all Lombardy there were hardly 1,000.
Gregory XIII was more fanatical than his predecessors. He noticed that, despite papal prohibition, Christians employed Jewish physicians; he therefore strictly prohibited the Jews from attending Christian patients, and threatened with the most severe punishment Christians who should have recourse to Hebrew practitioners; and Jewish physicians who should respond to the calls of Christians. In addition, the slightest assistance given to the Marranos of Portugal and Spain, in violation of the canonical laws, was sufficient to deliver the guilty one into the power of the Inquisition, which did not hesitate to condemn the accused to death. Gregory also induced the Inquisition to consign to burn a large number of copies of the Talmud and other Hebrew books.
Special sermons, designed to convert the Jews, were instituted; and at these at least one-third of the Jewish community, men, women, and youths above the age of twelve, were forced to be present. The sermons were usually delivered by baptized Jews who had become friars or priests; and not infrequently the Jews, without any chance of protest, were forced to listen to such sermons in their own synagogues. These cruelties forced many Jews to leave Rome, and thus their number was still further diminished.
Under the following pope, Sixtus V, the condition of the Jews was somewhat improved. He repealed many of the regulations established by his predecessors, permitted Jews to reside in all parts of his realm, and gave Jewish physicians freedom to practice their profession. David de Pomis, an eminent physician, profited by this privilege and published a work in Latin, entitled De Medico Hebraeo, dedicated to Duke Francis of Urbino, in which he proved to the Jews their obligation to consider the Christians as brothers, to assist them, and to attend them. The Jews of Mantua, Milan, and Ferrara, taking advantage of the favorable disposition of the pope, sent to him an ambassador, Bezelel Massarano, with a present of 2,000 scudi, to obtain from him permission to reprint the Talmud and other Jewish books, promising at the same time to expurgate all passages considered offensive to Christianity. Their demand was granted, partly through the support given by Lopez, a Marrano, who administered the papal finances and who was in great favor with the pontiff. Scarcely had the reprinting of the Talmud begun, and the conditions of its printing arranged by the commission, Sixtus died.
His successor, Gregory XIV, was well disposed to the Jews as Sixtus had been; but during his short pontificate he was almost always ill. Clement VII, who succeeded him, renewed the anti-Jewish bulls of Paul IV and Pius V, and exiled the Jews from all his territories with the exception of Rome, Ancona, and Avignon; but, in order not to lose the commerce with the East, he gave certain privileges to the Turkish Jews. The exiles left for Tuscany, where they were favorably received by Duke Ferdinand dei Medici, who assigned to them the city of Pisa for residence, and by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, at whose court Joseph da Fano, a Jew was a favorite. They were again permitted to read the Talmud and other Hebrew books, provided that they were printed according to the rules of censorship approved by Sixtus V. From Italy, where these censored books were printed by thousands, they were sent to the Jews of other countries.
It was odd that under Philip II, that the Jews exiled from all parts of Spain were tolerated in the duchy of Milan, then under Spanish rule. Such an inconsistency of policy was designed to work ill for the interests of the Jews. To avert this misfortune an eloquent ambassador, Samuel Coen, was sent to the king at Alexandria; but he was unsuccessful in his mission. The king, persuaded by his confessor, expelled the Jews from Milanese territory in the spring of 1597. The exiles, numbering about 1,000, were received at Mantua, Modena, Reggio, Verona, and Padua.
The princes of the house of Este had always accorded favor and protection to the Jews, and were much beloved by them. Eleonora, a princess of this house, had inspired two Jewish poets; and when she was ill public prayers were said in the synagogues for her restoration to health. But misfortune overtook the Jews of Ferrara as well. When Alfonso I, the last of the Este family, died, the principality of Ferrara was incorporated in the dominions of the Church under Clement VII, who decreed the banishment of the Jews. Aldobrandini, a relative of the pope, took possession of Ferrara in the pontiff’s name. Seeing that all the commerce was in the hands of the Jews, he complied with their request for an exemption of five years from the decree, although this was much against the pope’s wish.
The Mantua Jews suffered seriously at the time of the Thirty Years’ war. The Jews exiled from the papal dominions had repeatedly found refuge in Mantua, where the dukes of Gonzaga had accorded protection to them, as they had done to the Jews already resident there. The next to the last duke, although a cardinal favored them sufficiently to enact a statute for the maintenance of order in the ghetto. After the death of the last of this house the right of succession was contested at the time of the Thirty Years’ war, and the city was besieged by the German soldiery of Wallenstein. After a valiant defense, in which the Jews labored at the walls until the approach of the Sabbath, the city fell into the power of the besiegers, and for three days was at the mercy of fire and sword. The commander-in-chief, Altringer, forbade the soldiers to sack the ghetto, thereby hoping to secure the spoils for himself. The Jews were ordered to leave the city, taking with them only their personal clothing and three gold ducats per capita.
There were retained enough Jews to act as guides to the places where their coreligionists were supposed to have hidden their treasures. Through three Jewish zealots these circumstances came to the knowledge of the emperor, who ordered the governor, Collalto, to issue a decree permitting the Jews to return and promising them the restoration of their goods. Only about 800, however, returned, the others having died.
The victories in Europe of the Turks, who brought their armies up to the very walls of Vienna (1683), incite the Christian population in Itally against the Jews, who remained friendly to the Turks. In Padua, in 1683, the Jews were in great danger because of the agitation fomented against them by the cloth-weavers. A violent tumult broke out; the lives of the Jews were seriously menaced; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the governor of the city succeeded in rescuing them, in obedience to a rigorous order from Venice. For several days thereafter the ghetto had to be especially guarded.
Under the influence of the liberal religious policy of Napoleon I, the Jews of Italy, like those of France, were emancipated. The supreme power of the popes was broken: they had no longer time to give to framing anti-Jewish enactments, and they no longer directed canonical laws against the Jews. Among the first schools to adopt the Reform projects of Hartwig Wessely were those of Trieste, Venice, and Ferrara. To the Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon at Paris (1807), Italy sent four deputies: Abraham Vita da Cologna; Isaac Benzion Segre, rabbi of Vercelli; Graziadio Neppi, physician and rabbi of Cento; and Jacob Israel Karmi, rabbi of Reggio. Of the four rabbis assigned to the committee which was to draw up the answers to the twelve questions proposed to the Assembly of Notables, two, Cologna and Segre, were Italians, and were elected respectively first and second vice-presidents of the Sanhedrin. But the liberty acquired by the Jews under Napoleon was of short duration; it disappeared with his downfall.
Pope Pius VII, on regaining possession of his realms, reinstalled the Inquisition; he deprived the Jews of every liberty and confined them again in ghettos. Such became to a greater or less extent their condition in all the states into which Italy was then divided; at Rome they were again forced to listen to proselytizing sermons.
An edict of the Emperor Francis I, in 1829 opened in Padua, with the cooperation of Venice, Verona, and Mantua, the first Italian rabbinical college, in which Lelio della Torre where Samuel David Luzzatto taught. Luzzatto was a man of great intellect; he wrote in biblical Hebrew on philosophy, history, literature, criticism, and grammar. Many distinguished rabbis came from the rabbinical college of Padua. Zelman, Moses Tedeschi, and Castiglioni followed at Trieste the purposes and the principles of Luzzatto’s school. At the same time, Elijah Benamozegh, a man of great knowledge and the author of several works, distinguished himself in the old rabbinical school at Leghorn.
The Revolution of 1848, which shook up all Europe, brought great advantages to the Jews. Although this was followed by restoration of the Papal States only four months later, in early 1849, the persecutions and the violence of past times had partially decreased towards the Jews. One outrage against the Jews of Italy was connected with the case of Edgardo Mortara, which occurred in Bologna in 1858. In 1859 most of the Papal States were annexed into the United Kingdom of Italy under King Victor Emanuel II.
In and near Rome, where oppression lasted until the end of the papal dominion (September 20, 1870), the Jews obtained full emancipation. On behalf of their country the Jews with great ardor sacrificed life and property in the memorable campaigns of 1859, 1866, and 1870. Of the many who deserve mention is Isaac Presario Maurogonato. He was minister of finance to the Venetian republic during the war of 1848 against Austria, and his grateful country erected to him a memorial in bronze. There was erected in the palace of the doges a marble bust of Samuel Romanin, a celebrated Jewish historian of Venice. Florence commemorated a modern Jewish poet, Solomon Fiorentino, by placing a marble tablet upon the house in which he was born. The secretary and faithful friend of Count Cavour was the Piedmontese Isaac Artom; while L’Olper, later rabbi of Turin, and also the friend and counselor of Mazzini, was one of the most courageous advocates of Italian independence. The names of the Jewish soldiers who died in the cause of Italian liberty were placed along with those of their Christian fellow soldiers on the monuments erected in their honor.
Italian Prime Minister Luigi Luzzatti, who took office in 1910, was one of the world’s first Jewish heads of government. Another Jew, Ernesto Nathan served as mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913.
Pope John Paul II gave access to some formerly secret Vatican archives to scholars. David Kertzer, used this information obtained in his book The Popes Against the Jews. According to that book, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the popes and many Catholic bishops and Catholic publications consistently made a distinction between “good anti-Semitism” and “bad anti-Semitism”. The “bad” kind directed hatred against Jews merely because of their descent. That was considered un-Christian, in part because the church held that its message was for all of humankind equally, and any person of any ancestry could become a Christian. The “good” kind denounced alleged Jewish plots to gain control of the world by controlling newspapers, banks, schools, etc., or otherwise attributed various evils to Jews. Kertzer’s book details many instances in which Catholic publications denounced such alleged plots, and then, when criticized for inciting hatred of Jews, would remind people that the Catholic Church condemned the “bad” kind of anti-Semitism.
Pope Pius XI issued many criticisms of Jews for many years, and shortly before his death in early 1939 during the Nazi Holocaust. After the overthrow of fascism in 1943, Pope Pius XII asked the new Italian government to repeal those sections of Italy’s race laws that held marriages between persons reared Catholic and formerly Jewish converts to Catholicism were not valid. He did not object to other provisions of the discriminatory race laws.
During the Holocaust, Italian Marranos took in many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. However, with the creation of the Nazi-backed puppet Italian Social Republic, about 15% of Italy’s Jews were killed, despite the Fascist government’s refusal to deport Jews to Nazi death camps. A small community of around 45,000 Jews remains in Italy today.
Synagogue in Florence, built in 1847
The treasures of Jerusalem (detail from the Arch of Titus)
NOTABLE JEWS IN ITALY
Religious and Communal leaders
Maghrebim are Jews who traditionally lived in the Arab-Berber Maghreb region of North Africa (al-Maghrib, Arabic for “the west”), established Jewish communities long before the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain (Alhambra decree), mainly in the Sherifian kingdom of Morocco.
“Cave-dwelling Jews” of southern Tripolitania, whose fate is uncertain after 1960, were probably an early and isolated offshoot of Maghrebim. The relationship with the Sunni Muslim majority has suffered in recent years as Arab hostilities engendered by the Arab-Israeli conflict have worsened relations between Arabs and Jews throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
The term Maghrebim is formed analogously to Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Sephardi population in Maghreb was urbanised and wealthier, so most Maghrebim chose to assimilate into the Sephardic Jewish community. Today most of Moroccan Jews consider themselves to be Sephardi.