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.
Egyptian Jews constitute perhaps the oldest Jewish community outside Israel in the world. While no exact census exists, the Jewish population of Egypt was estimated at fewer than a hundred in 2004, down from between 75,000 and 80,000 in 1922. The historic core of the indigenous community consisted mainly of Arabic-speaking Rabbinates and Karaites. After their expulsion from Spain, more Sephardi and Karaite Jews began to emigrate to Egypt, and their numbers increased with the growth of trading prospects after the opening of the Suez Canal, to constitute the commercial and cultural elite of the modern community. The Ashkenazi community, mainly confined to Cairo’s Darb al-Barabira quarter, began to arrive in the aftermath of the waves of pogroms that hit Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. In the early 20th century the Jewish community, fleeing persecution in Europe, found safe haven in Egypt, but conditions worsened for Egyptian Jewry by the 1940s, and the decline accelerated after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952, the Lavon Affair and Israel’s participation in the Suez War in 1956.
In the Elephantine papyri, caches of legal documents and letters written in Aramaic document the lives of a community of Jewish soldiers stationed there were part of a frontier garrison in Egypt for the Achaemenid Empire. Established at Elephantine in about 650 BCE during Manasseh’s reign, these soldiers assisted Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. Their religious system shows traces of Babylonian polytheism, something which suggests to certain scholars that the community was of mixed Judaeo-Samaritan origins, and they maintained their own temple, functioning alongside that of the local deity Chnum. The documents cover the period 495 to 399 BCE.
Ptolemaic and Roman (400 BC to 641 AD): Further waves of Jewish immigrants settled in Egypt during the Ptolemaic era, especially around Alexandria. Thus, their history in this period centers almost completely on Alexandria, though off-shoot communities rose up in places such as the present Kafr ed-Dawar, where Jews served in the administration as custodians of the river. As early as the third century B.C.E. there was a widespread diaspora of Jews in many Egyptian towns and cities. In Josephus’s history, it is claimed that, after the first Ptolemy took Judea, he led some 120,000 Jewish captives to Egypt from the areas of Judea, Jerusalem, Samaria, and Mount Gerizim. With them, many other Jews, attracted by the fertile soil and Ptolemy’s liberality, emigrated there of their own accord. An inscription recording a Jewish dedication of a synagogue to Ptolemy and Berenice was discovered in the 19th century near Alexandria. Josephus also claims that, soon after, these 120,000 captives were freed of their bondage by Philadelphus.
The history of the Alexandrian Jews dates from the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great, 332 B.C., at which time Jews were present. They were numerous from the very outset, forming a notable portion of the city’s population under Alexander’s successors. The Ptolemies assigned them a separate section, two of the five districts, of the city, to enable them to keep their laws pure of indigenous cultic influences. The Alexandrian Jews enjoyed a greater degree of political independence than elsewhere. While the Jews elsewhere throughout the later Roman Empire formed private societies for religious purposes, or else became a corporation of foreigners like the Egyptian and Phoenician merchants in the large commercial centers, those of Alexandria constituted an independent political community, side by side with that of the indigenous population.
For the Roman period there is evidence that at Oxyrynchus (modern Behneseh), on the east side of the Nile, there was a Jewish community of some importance. It even had a ‘Jews’ street. Biblical names (“David” and “Elisabeth,”) occurred in a litigation concerning an inheritance. There was found a certain Jacob, son of Achilles (c. 300 AD), as beadle of an Egyptian temple. During a revolt in 115-117 CE Trajan ‘s army almost eradicated the Jewish community of Alexandria; and Josephus puts the figure for those slaughtered in the vast pogrom at 50,000.
Arab rule (641 to 1250): The Arab invasion of Egypt found support not only from Copts, and other Christians, but from Jews as well, all disgruntled by the corrupt administration of the Patriarch Cyrus of Alexander, notorious for his Monotheletic proselytizing. In addition to the Jews settled there from early times, some came from the Arabian peninsula. The letter sent by Muhammad to the Jewish Banu Janba in 630 is said by Al-Baladhuri to have been seen in Egypt. A copy, written in Hebrew characters, has been found in the Cairo genizah.
The Jews had no reason to feel kindly toward the former masters of Egypt. In 629 the emperor Heraclius I had driven the Jews from Jerusalem. This was followed by a massacre of Jews throughout the empire in Egypt, aided by the Copts, who had old scores to settle with the Jews, dating from the Persian conquest of Amida at the time of Emperor Anastasius I (502) and of Alexandria by the Persian general Shahin (617), when the Jews assisted the conquerors in fighting against the Christians. The Treaty of Alexandria (Nov. 8, 641), which sealed the Arab conquest of Egypt, expressly stipulates that the Jews are to be allowed to remain in that city; and at the time of the capture of that city, Amr, in his letter to the caliph, relates that he found there 40,000 Jews. Of the fortunes of the Jews in Egypt under the Ommiad and Abbassid caliphs (641-868), little is known. Under the Tulunids (863-905) the Karaite community enjoyed robust growth.
Rule of the Fatimite Caliphs (969 to 1169): The Fatimite rule was in general a favorable one for the Jews, except the latter portion of Al-Ḥakim’s reign. The foundation of Talmudic schools in Egypt is usually placed at this period. One of the Jews who rose to high position in that society was Ya‘qub Ibn Killis
The caliph Al-Ḥakim (996-1020) vigorously applied the Pact of Omar, and compelled the Jews to wear bells and to carry in public the wooden image of a calf. A street in the city, Al-Jaudariyyah, was inhabited by Jews. Al-Ḥakim, hearing that they were accustomed to mock him in verses, had the whole quarter burned down.
By the beginning of the twelfth century a Jew, Abu al-Munajja ibn Sha’yah, was at the head of the Department of Agriculture. He is especially known as the constructor of a Nile sluice (1112), which was called after him “Baḥr Abi al-Munajja”. He fell into disfavor because of the heavy expenses connected with the work, and was incarcerated in Alexandria, but was soon able to free himself. A document concerning a transaction of his with a banker has been preserved.
Under the vizier Al-Malik al-Afḍal (1137) there was a Jewish master of finances, whose name is unknown. His enemies succeeded in procuring his downfall and he lost all his property. He was succeeded by a brother of the Christian patriarch, who tried to drive the Jews out of the kingdom. Four leading Jews worked and conspired against the Christian patriarch, with what result is not known. There has been preserved a letter from this ex-minister to the Jews of Constantinople, begging for aid in a remarkably intricate poetical style. One of the physicians of the caliph Al-Ḥafiẓ (1131-49) was a Jew, Abu Manṣur. Abu al-Faḍa’il ibn al-Nakid (died 1189) was a celebrated oculist or ophthalmologist [eye specialist].
Judah ha-Levi was in Alexandria in 1141, and dedicated some beautiful verses to his fellow resident and friend Aaron Ben-Zion ibn Alamani and his five sons. At Damietta Ha-Levi met his friend, the Spaniard Abu Sa’id ibn Ḥalfon ha-Levi. About 1160 Benjamin of Tudela was in Egypt; he gives a general account of the Jewish communities which he found there. At Cairo there were 2,000 Jews; at Alexandria 3,000, whose head was the French-born R. Phineas b. Meshullam; in the Fayum there were 20 families; at Damietta 200; at Bilbeis, east of the Nile, 300 persons; and at Damira 700. In this century a little more light is thrown upon the communities in Egypt through the reports of certain Jewish scholars and travelers who visited the country.
From Saladin and Maimonides (1169 to 1250): The rigid orthodoxy of Saladin (1169-93) does not seem to have affected the Jews in his kingdom. A Karaite doctor, Abu al-Bayyan al-Mudawwar (d. 1184), who had been physician to the last Fatimite, treated Saladin also. Abu al-Ma’ali, brother-in-law of Maimonides, was likewise in his service. In 1166 Maimonides went to Egypt and settled in Fostat, where he gained much renown as a physician, practising in the family of Saladin and in that of his vizier al-Qadi al-Fadil Ḳaḍi al-Faḍil al-Baisami, and Saladin’s successors. The title Ra’is al-Umma or al-Millah (Head of the Nation or of the Faith), was bestowed upon him. In Fostat, he wrote his Mishneh Torah (1180) and the Moreh Nebukim, both of which evoked opposition from Jewish scholars. From this place he sent many letters and responsa; and in 1173 he forwarded a request to the North-African communities for help to secure the release of a number of captives. The original of the last document has been preserved. He caused the Karaites to be removed from the court.
Mamelukes (1250 to 1517): Under the Baḥri Mamelukes (1250-1390) the Jews led a comparatively quiet existence; though they had to contribute heavily toward the maintenance of the vast military equipment, and were harassed by the cadis and ulemas of these strict Moslems. Al-Maqrizi relates that the first great Mameluke, Sultan Baibars (Al-Malik al-Thahir, 1260-77), doubled the tribute paid by the “ahl al-dhimmah.” At one time he had resolved to burn all the Jews, a ditch having been dug for that purpose; but at the last moment he repented, and instead exacted a heavy tribute. During the collection of which, many Jews perished.
An account is given in Sambari of the strictness with which the provisions of the Pact of Omar were carried out. The sultan had just returned from a victorious campaign against the Mongols in Syria (1305). A fanatical convert from Judaism, Sa’id ibn Ḥasan of Alexandria, was incensed at the arrogance of the non-Moslem population, particularly at the open manner in which services were conducted in churches and synagogues. He tried to form a synod of ten rabbis, ten priests, and the ulemas. Failing in this, he endeavored to have the churches and synagogues closed. Some of the churches were demolished by Alexandrian mobs; but most of the synagogues were allowed to stand, as it was shown that they had existed at the time of Omar, and were by the pact exempted from interference. Sambari says that a new pact was made at the instance of letters from a Moorish king of Barcelona (1309), and the synagogues were reopened in refernce to the reissuing of the Pact of Omar. There are extant several notable (responsa) of Moslem doctors touching this subject. Aḥmad ibn ‘Abd al-Ḥaḳḳ, speaks of the synagogues at Cairo, which on the outside appeared like ordinary dwelling-houses which permitted their presence. According to Taki al-Din ibn Taimiyyah (1263), the synagogues and churches in Cairo had once before been closed hence this fanatical Moslem fills his fête with invectives against the Jews, holding that all their religious edifices ought to be destroyed; since they had been constructed during a period when Cairo was in the hands of heterodox Moslems, Ismailians, Karmatians, and Nusairis. The synagogues were, however, allowed to stand. Under the same sultan (1324) the Jews were accused of incendiaries at Fostat and Cairo; they had to exculpate themselves by a payment of 50,000 gold pieces.
Under the Burji Mamelukes, the Franks attacked Alexandria (1416), and the laws against the Jews were once again strictly enforced by Sheik al-Mu’ayyid (1412-21); by Ashraf Bars Bey (1422-38), because of a plague which decimated the population in 1438; by Al-Ẓahir Jaḳmaḳ (1438-53); and by Ḳa’iṭ-Bey (1468-95). The last named is referred to by Obadiah of Bertinoro. The Jews of Cairo were compelled to pay 75,000 gold pieces.
Turkish rule (1517 to 1922): On January 22, 1517, the Turkish sultan, Selim I, defeated Tuman Bey, the last of the Mamelukes. He made radical changes in the affairs of the Jews, abolishing the office of nagid, making each community independent, and placing David ibn Abi Zimra, at the head of that of Cairo. He also appointed Abraham de Castro to be master of the mint. It was during the reign of Salim’s successor, Suleiman II, that Aḥmad Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt, revenged himself upon the Jews because De Castro had revealed (1524) to the sultan his designs for independence. The “Cairo Purim,” in commemoration of their escape, is still celebrated on Adar 28.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century Talmudic studies in Egypt were greatly fostered by Bezaleel Ashkenazi, author of the “Shiṭṭah Meḳubbeẓet.” Among his pupils were Isaac Luria, who as a young man had gone to Egypt to visit a rich uncle, the tax-farmer Mordecai Francis (Azulai, “Shem ha-Gedolim,” ); and Abraham Monson (1594). Ishmael Kohen Tanuji finished his “Sefer ha-Zikkaron” in Egypt in 1543. Joseph ben Moses di Trani was in Egypt for a time, as well as Ḥayyim Vital Aaron ibn Ḥayyim, the Biblical and Talmudical commentator (1609). Of Isaac Luria’s pupils, a Joseph Ṭabul is mentioned, whose son Jacob, a prominent man, was put to death by the authorities.
According to Manasseh b. Israel (1656), “The viceroy of Egypt has always at his side a Jew with the title ‘zaraf bashi,’ or ‘treasurer,’ who gathers the taxes of the land. At present Abraham Alkula holds the position.” He was succeeded by Raphael Joseph Tshelebi, the rich friend and protector of Shabbatai Zevi. Shabbetai was twice in Cairo, the second time in 1660. It was there that he married the ill-famed Sarah, who had been brought from Leghorn. The Shabbethaian movement naturally created a great stir in Egypt. It was in Cairo that Miguel (Abraham) Cardoso, the Shabbethaian prophet and physician, settled (1703), becoming physician to the pasha Kara Mohammed. In 1641 Samuel b. David, the Karaite, visited Egypt. The account of his journey provides valuable information in regard to his fellow sectaries. He describes three synagogues of the Rabbinates at Alexandria, and two at Rashid. A second Karaite, Moses b. Elijah ha-Levi, has left a similar account of the year 1654; but it contains only a few points of special interest to the Karaites.
Sambari mentions a severe trial which came upon the Jews, due to a certain “ḳadi al-’asakir” sent from Constantinople to Egypt, who robbed and oppressed them, and whose death was in a certain measure occasioned by the graveyard invocation of one Moses of Damwah. This may have occurred in the seventeenth century. David Conforte was dayyan in Egypt in 1671. Blood libels occurred at Alexandria in 1844, in 1881, and in Jan., 1902. In consequence of the Damascus Affair, Moses Montefiore, Crémieux, and Salomon Munk visited Egypt in 1840; and the last two did much to raise the intellectual status of their Egyptian brethren by the founding, in connection with Rabbi Moses Joseph Algazi, of schools in Cairo. At the turn of the century, a Jewish observer noted with ‘true satisfaction that a great spirit of tolerance sustains the majority of our fellow Jews in Egypt, and it would be difficult to find a more liberal population or one more respectful of all religious beliefs.’ According to the official census published in 1898, there were in Egypt 25,200 Jews in a total population of 9,734,405.
Modern times (since 1922): During British rule, and under King Fuad, Egypt was friendly towards its Jewish population, though Egyptian nationality was usually denied to more recent Jewish immigrants and all other foreign immigrants from Europe and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Jews played important roles in the economy, and their population climbed to nearly 80,000 as Jewish refugees settled there in response to increasing persecution in Europe. A sharp distinction had long existed between the respective Karaite and Rabbanate communities, among whom traditionally intermarriage was forbidden. They dwelt in Cairo in two contiguous areas, the former in the harat al-yahud al-qara’in , and the latter in the adjacent harat al-yahud quarter. Notwithstanding the division, they often worked together and the younger educated generation pressed for improving relations between the two.
Individual Jews played an important role in Egyptian nationalism. René Qattawi, leader of the Cairo Sephardi community, endorsed the creation in 1935 of the Association of Egyptian Jewish Youth, with its slogan: ‘Egypt is our homeland, Arabic is our language.’ Qattawi strongly opposed political Zionism and wrote a note on ‘The Jewish Question’ to the World Jewish Congress in 1943 in which he argued that Palestine would be unable to absorb Europe’s Jewish refugees. Nevertheless, various wings of the Zionist movement had representatives in Egypt. Karaite Jewish scholar Murad Beh Farag (1866-1956) was both an Egyptian nationalist and a passionate Zionist. His poem, ‘My Homeland Egypt, Place of my Birth’, expresses loyalty to Egypt, while his book, al-Qudsiyyat (Jerusalemica, 1923), defends the right of the Jews to their State. al-Qudsiyyat is perhaps the most eloquent defense of Zionism in the Arabic language. Farag was also one of the coauthors of Egypt’s first Constitution in 1923.
Another famous Egyptian Jew of this period was Yaqub Sanu, who became a patriotic Egyptian nationalist advocating the removal of the British. He edited the nationalist publication Abu Naddara ‘Azra from exile. This was one of the first magazines written in Egyptian Arabic, and consisted of satire, poking fun at the British as well as the Monarchy which was a puppet of the British. Another was Henri Curiel, who founded ‘The Egyptian Movement for National Liberation’ in 1943, an organization that was to form the core of the Egyptian Communist party. Curiel was to play an important role in establishing early informal contacts between the PLO and Israel.
In 1937, the government annulled the Capitulations, by which traders from the mutamassir or permanent resident minorities (Syrians, Greeks, Italians, Armenians among them), had been granted immunities from taxation, and this affected Jews as well. The impact of the well-publicized Arab-Zionist clash in Palestine from 1936 to 1939 also began to affect the Jewish relations with Egyptian society, despite the fact that the number of Zionists in their ranks was small. The rise of local militant nationalistic societies like Young Egypt and the Society of Muslim Brothers, who were sympathetic to the various models evinced by the Axis Powers in Europe, and organized themselves along similar lines, were also increasingly antagonistic to Jews.
By the 1940s, the situation worsened. Sporadic pogroms took place from 1942 onwards. As the Partition of Palestine and the founding of Israel drew closer, hostility strengthened, fed also by press attacks on all foreigners accompanying the rising nationalism of the age. In 1947, the Company Laws set quotas for employing Egyptian nationals in incorporated firms, requiring that 75% of salaried employees, and 90% of all workers be Egyptian. This constrained Jewish and foreign owned entrepreneurs to reduce recruitment for employment positions from their own ranks. The law also required that just over half of the paid-up capital of joint stock companies be Egyptian.
After the foundation of Israel in 1948, difficulties multiplied for Egyptian Jews. That year, bombings of Jewish areas killed 70 Jews and wounded nearly 200, while riots claimed many more lives.. During the Arab-Israeli war, the famous Cicurel department store near Cairo’s Opera Square was firebombed, by the Muslim Brotherhood. The government helped with funds to rebuild it, but it was again burnt down in 1952, and eventually passed into Egyptian control.
The Lavon Affair of 1954, in which an Israeli sabotage operation designed to discredit Gamal Abdel Nasser and perhaps also to derail secret negotiations with Egypt proposed by Moshe Sharett, blew up Western targets, led to deeper distrust of Jews, from whose community key agents in the operation had been recruited. In his summing up statement Fu’ad al-Digwi, the prosecutor at their trial, repeated the official government stance: ‘The Jews of Egypt are living among us and are sons of Egypt. Egypt makes no difference between its sons whether Moslems, Christians, or Jews. These defendants happen to be Jews who reside in Egypt, but we are trying them because they committed crimes against Egypt, although they are Egypt’s sons.’
In the immediate aftermath of the Sinai campaign of 1956, on November 23, a proclamation was issued stating that ‘all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state’, and it promised that they would be soon expelled. Some 25,000 Jews, almost half of the Jewish community left, mainly for Europe, the United States and South America, but large numbers also emigrated to Israel, after being forced to sign declarations that they were leaving voluntarily, and agreed with the confiscation of their assets. Some 1,000 more Jews were imprisoned. Similar measures were enacted against British and French nationals in retaliation for the trilateral invasion of that year. Between 1919 and 1956, the entire Egyptian Jewish community, like the Cicurel firm, was transformed from a national asset into a fifth column.
After the 1967 war, more confiscations took place. According to Rami Mangoubi, Egyptian Jewish men were taken to the detention centres of Abou Za’abal and Tura, where they were incarcerated and tortured for more than three years. The eventual result was the almost complete disappearance of the Jewish community in Egypt; less than a hundred or so remain today. Most Egyptian Jews fled to Israel (35,000), Brazil (15,000), France (10,000), the US (9,000) and Argentina (9,000). Today, anti-Zionism is common in the media. The last Jewish wedding in Egypt took place in 1984.
Works by Egyptian Jews on their communities
Ronit Matalon, Zeh ‘im ha-panim eleynu
Yahudiya Misriya (pseudonym of Giselle Littman, Bat Ye’or), Les juifs en Egypte:
Lucette Lagnado, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”
Mangoubi, Rami, “My Longest 10 Minutes”