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A history of the Jews in Sicily

1492 AND THE EXPULSION OF SICILY'S JEWISH COMMUNITIES

On 31st March 1492, the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, issued their infamous Decree of Alhambra, by which all Jews living in Spanish territories, including Sicily, were obliged either to leave or to convert to Catholicism.

At the time of the decree, it is estimated that some 30,000 Jews (around 10% of Sicily's total population) lived all across the island, from Palermo to Syracuse and from Marsala to Messina. Their ancestors had first settled on the island as early as the 1st century AD, meaning that Sicily was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.

After a complex, but generally peaceful co-existence with the Arabs in the 9th and 10th centuries, Sicily’s Jewish communities continued to enjoy protection and relative freedom under the Normans and under Frederick II “Stupor Mundi”. Most Jews at this time were textile traders and shopkeepers. A few were money lenders, and some even held positions at court.

After the Sicilian Vespers ended in 1282, however, Sicily became a Spanish dominion, and soon the first flames of radical Catholic zeal began to lick the island’s shores. Any privileges that Sicilian Jews had enjoyed up to this point were soon to be eroded.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the Aragonese King Frederick III obliged the Jewish population to identify themselves and their shops with a red mark, a practice that would be hauntingly echoed over 700 years later in Nazi Germany. Little by little, the liberties of Sicily’s Jewish communities were reduced: synagogues were seized or forcibly moved out of town centres, ghettoization was intensified, and the long-acquired rights of internal governance trampled on. Then, in 1478, the Spanish Inquisition was established, signalling the beginning of the end for Iberian and Sicilian Jews.

Over 500 years since the forced expulsion of Sicily’s Jewish population, there are some signs of a renascent community.

When the Decree of Alhambra was issued, some Sicilian Jews left immediately, selling off their property and taking as many of their belongings with them as possible. Those who were not so quick to leave had most of their possessions and assets seized. Allowed to keep only the minimum indispensable for their journey, most of Sicily’s exiled Jews had to start from scratch in their new homes in Calabria, Naples, Rome, Venice and Salonika (amongst others). It is estimated that around 9,000 Jews remained. They converted to Catholicism and became known as neofiti (neophytes), the Sicilian version of the Iberian conversos.

Today, little remains of the Jewish communities that once flourished on the island. Two notable exceptions are the miqweh – ritual baths – in Syracuse and Palermo. The former, the oldest and largest in Europe, are located under the Residence Hotel alla Giudecca on Ortigia (see photo at the top of this page). Guided tours are available every day. The latter are under Palazzo Marchesi in Palermo’s old town centre, just off Via Maqueda. These are only open to the public a few days of the year, usually in October as part of the Vie dei Tesori.

Over 500 years since the forced expulsion of Sicily’s Jewish population, there are some signs of a renascent community: in 2008 in Syracuse, a synagogue was opened; in 2011 in Palermo, an official Bar Mitzvah was performed for the first time in Sicily since 1492; and in 2017, the Archbishop of Palermo accepted a petition from the city’s small Jewish community and granted them use of an abandoned oratory, the Chiesa del Sabato, as a place of worship. Fittingly, the new synagogue is located on the site where an old synagogue once stood. Its address, Piazza Meschita, invites reflection, as meschita, meaning mosque, derives from the Spanish word mezquito, an etymological curiosity that intimates a great deal about Sicily’s tortuous, tangled web of history.

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