See Yetzer ha-rah, ha-tov.


Republic in southern Asia. In 1998, India’s 5,000 Jews fell into three distinct groups: the Bene Israel (Sons of Israel), Jews of Cochin, and a series of loosely organized communities from Persia and the west. The Bene Israel, largest of the groups, speak Maharati, wear Indian dress, and are divided into caste-like groups of “black” and “white” Jews who have separate synagogues and do not intermarry. They believe they settled in the Bombay District in about 175 B.C.E. around the Maccabean uprising in Palestine. When first discovered by the West about 200 years ago, they knew no Hebrew and owned no prayer books. Shema Yisrael, one of the few prayers they remembered, was recited at all their religious ceremonies. Several thousand of them have emigrated to Israel.

Indian Jews of Iraqi origin, the second largest group, live predominantly in Bombay and Calcutta and engage mainly in commerce. They are descendants of Jews who followed their leader David Sassoon from Iraq to India in 1832 where he founded the house of Sassoon, known for its great wealth and generous contributions to Jewish charitable causes.

Cochin Jews, the third largest group, who live in Cochin and other cities on the Malabar Coast, came from Persia and Arab countries during the early Middle Ages. They spoke Malayalam, the language of the Dravidians, India’s original inhabitants. Hebrew, however, was known and used in their strictly Orthodox religious ritual. The first written record of Cochin Jews is a copper inscription dated 1020 C.E., in which the maharajah of the district grants privileges of nobility to the head of the community. The “white,” “black,” and “brown” Jews of Cochin all believe they stem from exiles who left Palestine in 70 C.E. after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is more probable that the “black” Jews arrived in India after the Moslem conquest of Persia in the 7th century, and that the “whites” came after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

The smallest group is of European origin, consisting of refugees who emigrated to India to escape Hitler’s persecutions in Germany in 1933.

Jews of India live in comparative freedom and security. Many of them have risen to high ranks in the armed services; others have prospered in business and the professions.


Jewish traders arrived in the mid-18th century, but settlement did not start for another 100 years. Indiana, mainly a rural state, never achieved large Jewish settlement. Of the 18,000 Jews who live in the state, some 10,000 live in Indianapolis, 2,200 in Fort Wayne, 2,000 in South Bend, and 1,000 in Bloomington. The last is home to Indiana University, which has a well-known Judaic studies program. Indianapolis has well-established congregations and Jewish organizations. Indiana Jews have been active in civil and philanthropic life in the state.


In Hebrew, Kibbutz Galuyot. The hope for the reunion of the people of Israel in the land of Israel is fundamental to the prophetic idea of redemption: “The redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing into Zion; and joy shall be upon their head” (Isa. 51:11). For centuries Jewish prayers echoed the fervent desire for the ingathering of the exiles: “Sound the great trumpet for our freedom


The special courts set up by the Catholic Church to check the spread of heretical opinion among the faithful, first formed in the 13th century. It was most active, however, in Spain, where it began in 1480. In time, the dreaded activities of this agency of the Church came to be directed mainly at ferreting out the Marranos, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity and were found secretly observing the practices of Judaism.

It is estimated that in 350 years of Inquisition activities (roughly from 1480 to 1821), about 400,000 Jews were brought before these ecclesiastical tribunals; 30,000 were put to death. Punishment was carried out in public squares to serve both as a warning and a demonstration of “the glory of the Church.” Hence, an inquisitorial execution was known as auto-da-fe, an act of faith. Most notorious of the inquisitors was Thomas de Torquemada, who was largely responsible for the edict issued by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain on the Ninth of Ab 1492, expelling all Jews from Spanish territory.


One of the smaller Jewish communities in the U.S. with about 6,000, there are 2,800 Jews in Des Moines, 1,300 in Iowa City, 400 in Sioux City, and 400 in Cedar Rapids. Jews first arrived in Iowa in the 1830’s, and in the beginning of the 20th century, some 1,500 Jews were sent by the U.S. Government to live in Iowa.


Iran, the ancient Persia, included at its height of power Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and the mountainous lands east and south. Jews first came under Persian rule in 539 B.C.E. when King Cyrus conquered Babylonia. The Judean captives, exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E., welcomed the Persian rulers. Forty thousand of them returned to Judea and rebuilt their homeland. For two centuries of Persian rule, the Jewish communities of Persian Babylonia flourished, and close links were maintained with the communities of Judea. In later centuries, when the Persian Empire fell successively under Greek, Parthian, and Arab domination, Jews continued to live in its territories, notably in the Babylonian cities of Sura and Pumbeditha, where great academies flourished and where the immense work of compiling the Talmud was completed in 500 C.E.

During the 12th century, there were large Jewish communities in the cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, and Hamadan, part of present-day Iran. Under the Safavid Dynasty from 1499 to 1736, Jews suffered severe discriminatory measures against them. Many converted to Islam, living secretly as Jews. Some fled to Afghanistan and Palestine where their descendants are still to be found. The Kadar Dynasty from 1795 to 1925 continued the harsh anti-Jewish policy of the Safavids. They considered the Jews ritually unclean, humiliated them, and taxed them heavily. Under this treatment, the Jewish community declined. In the late 19th century, the situation for Persian Jewry improved somewhat when Western European Jews interceded on their behalf. In 1898, the first school of the Alliance Isra


Jews in Iraq constitute the oldest Jewish community in the world aside from Israel. Iraq, the Babylonia of the Bible and the Talmud, was the Jews’ first land of exile, to which they were driven from Palestine by Nebuchadnezzar after he had destroyed the First Temple in 597 B.C.E. The Babylonian Talmud was composed there. But due to repeated unrest and disorder in the country caused by a series of wars, Jews steadily emigrated to India and to Persia where they created communities, known as Baghdad Jews, which still exist today. In the 7th century, Arabs conquered the country. Under Harun-al-Rashid’s rule from 786 to 809, the scholars and leaders of the Talmudic academies began to make contact with the various Jewish communities in Europe. Their influence extended to Jews in both Europe and North Africa.

In 1534, Turkey conquered that area which today comprises the land of Iraq and ruled it until 1917 when Great Britain won it. In 1932, the independent kingdom of Iraq was established. Both under the British mandate and under Iraqi sovereign rule, Jews lived in comparative freedom. A good number enjoyed prosperity and even wealth, especially in the capital city of Baghdad. About 50,000 Jews resided there, representing approximately 20 percent of the population.

Spiritually, the Jewish community in Iraq had deteriorated since its original growth and development. The Alliance Isra


The earliest evidence of Jewish settlement in Ireland is a grant made in 1232 to a certain Peter de Rivall, giving him “custody of the King’s Jews in Ireland.” In 1290, Irish Jews, like their English brethren, were expelled from Ireland and did not return until around 1655, the days of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth. It was then that the first Sephardic community was founded in Dublin; Jewish settlement in Ireland has been small but continuous ever since.

In 2006, most of Ireland’s 1,200 Jews live in Dublin, the capital city. They are mostly shopkeepers and tradesmen. The clothing and furniture industries were introduced into Ireland by Lithuanian immigrants. Dublin, with its two large and four small synagogues, its charitable organizations, and Talmud Torah, is the center of religious and cultural life of Irish Jewry. More than half of Northern Ireland’s Jews live in the capital city of Belfast, whose present Jewish community was founded in 1870. An earlier Jewish community was founded there a century before, but later dissolved.


Underground military force organized by the Revisionists in April 1937 to combat British repressions in Palestine and the Arabs’ growing rule of terror. The Revisionists were impatient with the policy of restraint practiced by Jewish leaders in Palestine in the face of constant Arab attacks. The Irgun was guided by two fundamental principles: that a Jewish state had to be established in the immediate future, and that every Jew had a natural right to come to Palestine. The Irgun believed the time was right for military action in order to achieve the legitimate aim of establishing a Jewish state. The Irgun’s symbol, a hand gripping a rifle over a map of Palestine that included eastern Palestine, began to appear on all the organization’s posters.

In 1938, a member of the Irgun, Shlomo Ben Yosef, was accused of attacking an Arab vehicle in retaliation for numerous killings of Jews. He was sentenced to the gallows. Ben Yosef became a symbol of the determination of Irgun members to fight to the death for the cause of Jewish liberation.

When World War II broke out and the free world was engaged in a deadly struggle with the Nazi armies, the Irgun committed its small force to fight the common enemy on the side of the British. The first Irgun commander, David Raziel, was killed in 1941 in a commando operation in Iraq. Command of Irgun was then taken over by Yaakov Meridor, and later in 1943, by Menachem Begin. In February 1944, the Irgun called for the end of the British mandate, the freeing of Palestine from “foreign domination,” and the immediate establishment of a provisional government. The British began a ruthless campaign to destroy the Irgun. Several hundred of its members were arrested and exiled to Eritrea, a British colony in Northeast Africa. The arrests swelled to thousands after the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel, the administrative offices of the Palestine (British) government. Each Irgun exploit was countered by an act of British repression. In the spring of 1947, Dov Gruner and four other members of Irgun were hanged at the Acre prison.

Though the Jewish Agency and the Haganah frequently condemned Irgun for its extremist policies, there was a short period after World War II when Haganah and Irgun cooperated in the struggle against the British. This happened when the British Labor party, on coming to power in 1945, failed to fulfill its preelection promises to open Palestine without restrictions to survivors of the Holocaust. To allegations that Irgun was a terrorist organization, Begin replied that Irgun’s aim was not to cause loss of life, but to hasten the British evacuation of Palestine. After the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Irgun, numbering several thousand, cooperated with Haganah in fighting off Arab invaders.

Open hostility briefly erupted between the Irgun and the Haganah (by then the official army of the State of Israel) in June 1948 when the Irgun brought to Israel the S.S. Altalena, a boat carrying volunteers and munitions for use in the War of Independence. The Haganah claimed that it had not authorized the landing and unloading of the boat; its leaders feared that the Irgun would start a revolt to topple Israel’s provisional government. The Irgun insisted that they had kept the Haganah informed about the boat and that the Haganah leaders with whom they had consulted had raised no objections to the arrangement. The Altalena was sunk by the Haganah, but contrary to the fears of some, Irgun did not put up a fight against Haganah. On September 21, 1948, the Israel government ordered the Irgun disbanded. Most of its members were incorporated into the Israel Defense Forces.


From the Hebrew Yitzhak, meaning laughter; second of the three patriarchs. In his youth, Isaac was willing to serve as a sacrifice. He married his cousin Rebecca, who bore him twins, Esau and Jacob. He prospered and the Lord renewed His promise to give Canaan to the Hebrews by telling Isaac, “To you and to your seed I give all these lands


See Spector, Yitzchak Elchanan.

ISAAC, JULES (1877-1963).

French Jewish historian. Having lost his entire family during the Nazi occupation of France, he became interested in the roots of antisemitism and wrote the books Jesus and Israel and the Genesis of Antisemitism, which played a decisive role in the Vatican’s decision under Pope John XXIII to change the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people.


First of the major prophets in the Bible. Isaish, son of Amoz prophesied during the 8th century B.C.E. in Jerusalem, from the death of King Uzziah until the middle of Hezekiah’s reign. He protested strongly against moral laxity and injustice. His great visions include world peace at the end of days (2:1-4) and the vision of the divine presence in the Temple (6:1-5). Isaiah maintained that God is more interested in justice to the weak and the poor than the offerings of sacrifices in the Temple.

Three major events are reflected in Isaiah’s prophecies: the invasion of the kingdom of Judah by the armies of Israel and Damascus for the purpose of forcing King Ahaz into an anti-Assyrian alliance in 734 B.C.E.; the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E.; and Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C.E. Throughout this time, the small kingdom of Judah faced a dual danger: the risk of being swallowed up by neighboring empires, and spiritual destruction through the loss of its belief in one God. Isaiah’s political wisdom impelled him to advise strict isolation for Judea and avoidance of entangling alliances with foreign nations. In chapters 40 to 66, called by some authorities the Second Isaiah, the prophet comforts the exiled, suffering, and despairing people in the great poem beginning, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people, saith your God” (chapters 40-44).


Son of Abraham and Sarah‘s maid, Hagar. He was Isaac‘s older half-brother, and is considered the father of the Arab people, who are sometimes referred to as Ishmaelites.


Also known as Mohammedanism; youngest of the three monotheistic religions of our time. Islam was founded by Mohammed, son of Abdallah, a camel driver of Mecca, Arabia. He was born in 571 C.E. and died in 632. Islam’s holy book, the Koran, which is in its entirety the work of the founder, is based to a large extent on the Old and New Testaments, whose contents must have been transmitted to the illiterate Mohammed in oral form colored by the interpretations of the rabbinic commentators and the Church Fathers. Though it incorporates elements of both Judaism and Christianity, accepting both Moses and Jesus as prophets, the faith of Mohammed is closer to Judaism than to Christianity. It insists that there is only one God and rejects the idea of a son of God or a Trinity. It allows no sculptured figures or painted pictures to appear in its houses of worship. It forbids its communicants from eating pork or drinking liquor. It subscribes to the doctrines of life after death, a day of judgment, reward and punishment, and paradise and hell. Mohammed is, according to Islam, the last and greatest of all prophets and his Koran, which deviates in a number of places from the data of the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, is the correct version of the Word of God.

Today, some 800 million Muslims live in a belt of countries extending in a continuous line from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east. Their five fundamental duties are to declare that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet; to recite the five daily prayers; to give alms; to fast during the month of Ramadan (during the periods of daylight only); and to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during a lifetime.

Islam is divided into sects, the two most important being the Sunnites, or traditionalists, and the Shi’ites, the more mystically inclined followers of the Caliph Ali. It is theoretically tolerant of Jews and Christians, but in practice Moslem states treat non-Muslims as second-class citizens.

The position of Jews has been more favorable under Islam than under Christian rule. During the Middle Ages, when the Muslim civilization peaked, there was often close cultural collaboration between Jewish and Muslim scientists and thinkers. At the courts of such enlightened Muslim princes as Abdurrahman of Spain in the 10th century, Saladin the Great of Egypt in the 12th century, and Suleiman and Selim of Turkey in the 16th century, gifted Jews were influential and eminent. This situation, however, was neither universal nor permanent, proven by the fact that Maimonides was compelled by the fanatical Almohades to leave his native city when he refused to renounce Judaism in favor of Islam.


Literally, one who strives with God. The name given to Jacob after he wrestled with the angel (Gen. 32:28); the collective name of the twelve tribes. Later, it became the name of the northern Kingdom of Israel (931 B.C.E.-721 B.C.E.), formed when the ten tribes seceded after the death of King Solomon. Eventually, the name came to be applied to the Jewish people as a whole. The land of their origin was known as Eretz Israel, the “Land of Israel”; the modern state is named Medinat Israel.


In Hebrew, Tz’va Haganah L’Yisrael. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) grew out of the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense organization formed during the period of the British Mandate and the Jewish Brigade, a military unit which fought alongside the Allied Forces during World War II. Its purpose was to defend Jewish life and property in Palestine against Arab marauders. Since its creation in 1948, Israel’s army has been called upon four times to fight for the survival of the country: in 1948, 1956, 1967, and in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In February 1991, the IDF planned to launch an air and ground attack on western Iraq to put an end to the Scud missile attacks against Israel, but the U.S. dissuaded Israel from doing so.

The IDF must be constantly on the alert to defend Israel’s borders against attacks from hostile neighbors. The IDF has a nucleus of career soldiers, but it is basically a citizens’ army. All men from the age of 18 to 29 and women from 18 to 26 are called for regular service of up to 30 months for men and 20 months for women. Married women, mothers, and pregnant mothers are exempted from the draft. Women from strictly Orthodox homes who have religious objections to serving in the army must perform national services as teachers or nurses. Israeli Arabs are exempt, but Druzes are drafted at their own request, and a number of Muslims and Christians have volunteered. Following their term of national service, men and women without children are in the Reserves until the ages of 55 and 34, respectively, and men must report each year for various periods of training. With this arrangement, able-bodied citizens can be mobilized for combat within hours if a national emergency erupts.

Organization. The IDF includes all three branches of modern armed services: army, navy, and air force. Ranks are uniform throughout, under the orders of one General Staff, headed by a chief of staff with the rank of lieutenant-general. The General Staff consists of the chiefs of the General Staff, Manpower, Logistics and Intelligence, the Commanders of the Navy and Air Force, and the officers who command the Northern, Central, and Southern regional commands into which the country is divided.

Women in the Army. The women’s force, known as Hen (an abbreviation of Hel Nashim, or Women’s Force); the word hen also happens to be the Hebrew word for charm. This force provides non-combatant personnel such as nurses, mechanics, communication workers, and other specialists, thus freeing the men for active combat duty. Some women serve as combat personnel.

Nahal (No’ar Halutzi Lohem). This pioneer youth group combines soldiering with pioneering. After a few months of intensive military training, Nahal groups are assigned to agricultural settlements for about a year to gain practical experience in farming. A Nahal group joins a frontier settlement or sets up one of its own, often in areas too dangerous or difficult for settlement by civilians.

Gadna (G’dude HaNo’ar). The “Youth Battalions” are pre-military organizations for boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 18, supervised jointly by the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education and Culture. Training is along scout lines, and there are also naval and air sections. Emphasis is placed on pioneering and practical training in agriculture. Many developing countries, especially in Africa and South America, have formed youth movements modeled on Nahal and Gadna.

Role of the Army in Education and Citizenship. In addition to fulfilling Israel’s defense needs, the Army helps weld the many different elements of the country’s population into a unified whole. Soldiers are taught Hebrew, Jewish history, and the geography of the country. In this manner the Army has helped new immigrants become integrated into Israeli life. No soldier leaves the army without getting a basic education. Soldiers are also trained in trades of their choice so that they return to civilian life better prepared for the productive work necessary for the nation’s continued growth and welfare.


The State of Israel is a democracy, and its government represents the people and is responsible to them in periodic elections. There are a number of forms of democratic government, such as the American, or presidential system, and the European, or parliamentary system. The government of Israel is parliamentary.

Legislature. The Knesset, or Parliament of Israel, is the unicameral legislative branch of the government. The 120 representatives to the Knesset are elected to serve four-year terms in free, secret elections. If the government fails to hold the confidence of the Knesset (See Executive), an election may be held before the four-year term is over. All citizens, men and women, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 18 years of age or older, have the right to vote. Both the Cabinet and the Knesset members may introduce new bills. A bill becomes a law after it has passed three readings and been published in the official Reshumot, similar to the American Congressional Record.

Proportional Representation. Israel has many political parties, and Knesset members are elected according to proportional representation. This means that each party presents to the country its own list of candidates, and the voters cast their ballots not for an individual candidate but for the whole party list. The number of members each party elects to the Knesset is proportional to the percentage of the popular vote it receives. As of 2007, no party in Israel has ever received an absolute majority. As a result, several parties combine to form a working majority in the Knesset. This coalition works out a program for which it assumes collective responsibility. Severe disagreements among the members of the coalition bring about resignations, and the coalition loses its legislative majority. The Knesset must then be dissolved and new elections called.

Executive. The Cabinet is the executive branch of the government, and its task is to carry out and administer the laws enacted by the Knesset. Under the Israeli system, the Cabinet is directly responsible to the Knesset. It has no veto power and can continue in office as long as it retains the confidence of the Knesset. If defeated in a vote of confidence the Cabinet must resign, and a new one must be formed. If the Knesset cannot form a new Cabinet which has its confidence, it must turn to the people and call for new elections.

Prime Minister’s Office. The cabinet is headed by the prime minister who is the chief executive. His office coordinates the work of all the ministries and administers the civil service. The smooth and efficient working of the whole machinery of government is the responsibility of the prime minister.

Presidency. The President of Israel, unlike the American President, has little actual power. Serving as a symbol of the people’s unity, he is not chosen in the competitive general elections, but is elected in a secret ballot by an absolute majority of the Knesset. The president’s term of office is five years, but there is no limit on the number of times he may be reelected. The duties of the president are largely honorary. These include the task of summoning a member of the Knesset, usually the leader of the majority party, to form a new government. Upon the recommendation of competent bodies, he appoints judges, diplomatic representatives, the governor of the Bank of Israel, and the comptroller. It is also in his power to grant amnesty to prisoners and to commute their sentences. Major documents, such as treaties with foreign states, are signed by the President together with the prime minister or another competent minister.

Judiciary. Israel’s judicial system is made up of two branches, civil and religious. There are Jewish, Christian, and Moslem religious courts, so that the followers of each religion come under the jurisdiction of a religious court of their own faith. Matters of marriage and divorce are under the sole jurisdiction of the religious courts.

Judicial authority is independent of the executive and legislative branches of government, as is essential in a democracy. Judges are appointed for life, and the appointments are made by the President on the recommendation of an eight-member committee. The President and two members of the Supreme Court, the minister of justice, and one other Cabinet member, two members of the Knesset selected by that entire body, and two lawyers chosen by the Bar Association serve on that committee.

The highest court of appeal is the ten-member Supreme Court. This court sits also as a high court of justice to which a citizen may bring his complaints against the authorities, and the court acts to protect the rights of the individual citizen. The Supreme Court of Israel, unlike that of the United States, does not have the power to review laws and declare them unconstitutional because Israel has no written constitution. Israel inherited its legal code when the state came into being in 1948.

This code is a mixture of British common law, remnants of Turkish Ottoman law, decrees of the British mandatory administration, and new laws enacted by the Knesset. By a resolution passed by the Knesset on June 13, 1950, a committee on constitution and law was authorized to prepare a draft constitution. As each article of this draft constitution is completed, it must be submitted to the Knesset for approval. When all the articles are approved, they will form the state constitution.

Political Parties. Israeli political parties date back to the beginning of the Zionist movement. From the early days of Zionism in Europe, Zionists ranged along a broad political spectrum, from the extreme left socialists to the extreme right nationalists. In the middle were religious and general Zionist parties. When Israel was founded in 1948, the socialist Mapai (See Labor Zionism and Ben-Gurion) got 46 seats, and formed a government coalition with the United Religious Front (16; See Mizrachi and Agudath Israel), the Progressive Party (5; See General Zionism), the Sephardic Party (4), and the Arab Party (2). The opposition consisted of the Mapam (19; See Hashomer Ha-tzair), Herut (14; See Revisionist Zionism), General Zionists (7; See General Zionism), the Israeli Communist Party (4; non-Zionist), and assorted small parties won one or two Knesset seats.

For the next 30 years, Mapai remained in power, while the political map kept changing, with splinter groups forming in nearly every party, and with parties reorganizing and renaming themselves. The General Zionists and the Progressives were absorbed by Herut, now called Likud. The Mizrachi became the NRP (National Religious Party), the Sephardic Party became Shas, Mapam became Meretz, the communists disappeared within the United Arab List, the newly arrived Russian Jews in the 90’s formed their own party (Yisrael Be’aliya). The ruling Mapai became the Israel Labor Party. In the 1990s, the two main players were Likud, which first came into power in 1977 (See Begin), and Labor. In 1996, Likud (32 seats) formed a government coalition with Shas (10), NRP (9), Yisrael Be’aliya
(7), and two smaller parties with 4 seats each. The opposition consisted of Labor (34), Meretz (9), United Arab List (4), and a few small parties.

In 2006, a new party named Kadima emerged under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who left the Likud. It won handily, and formed a goverment together with Labor and other parties (See Olmert).


See Hasidism.

ISRAELS, JOSEPH (1824-1911).

Artist. This Dutch Jew was among the first painters to free his palette from the influence of the dark studio and to execute his sketches in the open air. He was also among the first to capture the spirit of the common people, the humble fishermen in little villages and to paint them at work and at leisure, in happiness and grief. Israels painted many Jewish subjects; notable among them is A Son of the Old People, a sad old clothes dealer sitting before his modest shop, and The Old Scribe, based on a sketch he made while traveling through Tangier, North Africa.


Literally, reward bringer. Fifth son of Jacob and Leah; ancestor of the tribe that settled on the west bank of the Jordan near the Sea of Galilee.


Italy’s Jewish community is the oldest with a continuous history in Europe. During the 2nd century B.C.E. Jewish farmers and traders lived in Rome, Naples, Venice, and other cities. For several hundred years they shared the rights that Rome liberally granted to members of conquered nations. When Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century, these privileges were revoked. Restrictions were relaxed, however, after the fall of Rome. By the 9th century Jews were playing an important part in the commercial life of Italy. In addition to trade, they worked in all the handicrafts and professions; it was only later that Jews were forced into the field of money-lending. During the early Middle Ages, Jewish prosperity and freedom permitted the establishment of great academies at Bari and Otranto, where Italian Jewish grammarians, Talmudists, philosophers, physicians, and poets became famous.

Although many of the decrees which plagued other medieval Jewries had their origin in Rome, Italian Jews were long spared their enforcement. Not until the 13th century did Pope Innocent III succeed in implementing discriminatory measures. Yet even these measures, and the popular outbreaks that became frequent in the following centuries, did not succeed in crippling the economic and cultural life of Jews. Italy was then organized in independent city-states; Rome did not have the power to enforce its decrees in the powerful commercial centers where Jewish merchants contributed to the wealth of the community. In addition, the Renaissance spirit of tolerance had already been born. Papal Rome found room for a thriving center of Jewish culture. Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome (ca. 1270-1330) dedicated Hebrew verses to his friend Dante; scholars such as Pico della Mirandola studied Hebrew with Jewish colleagues in the faculties of medicine, law, and philosophy at the great Italian universities. Between 1230 and 1550, poets, scholars and philosophers writing in Hebrew, Latin, and Italian created a “golden age” of Jewish learning paralleled only in Muslim Spain.

By the mid-16th century, this renaissance began to fade. Italy, torn by civil strife, fell prey to French and Spanish invaders. The Spanish Jews who had swelled the Italian community after their exile from Spain in 1492 were overtaken by the Inquisition, which accompanied the Spanish invaders to Italy. Rome, threatened by the Reformation in the north, adopted the fanatical tactics of the Spanish Inquisition to stamp out heresy at home. The expulsion of the Jewish community from Genoa was the first sign of the change. Soon after, Pope Julius III (1550-1555) ordered the Talmud burned in the streets of Rome and nearly succeeded in expelling the Jews from the Eternal City. His successor confined the Jews of the Papal States to ghettos. As part of a campaign to convert the Jews to Catholicism, the entire community was forced to attend special church sermons.

Many Jews fled from Rome; those who remained suffered from discrimination. The leadership of Italian Jewry then fell to the communities of Venice, Ferrara, and Mantua. A printing press was founded at Mantua, where a new edition of the Talmud appeared in 1590. Also published were popular and scholarly works by writers such as Azariah dei Rossi of Ferrara. Within several decades, however, Spanish and Austrian invaders decimated the communities of Ferrara and Mantua as well, leaving Jews of Venice to bear the burden of Jewish culture. For a century and a half Venetian Jewry produced a line of distinguished scholars and poets. The last and greatest of these was Moses Haim Luzzato, KabbaIist, linguist, scholar and poet. Leghorn (Livorno), where the Jews had some autonomy until the 19th century, remained a center of Kabbalistic learning.

Napoleon’s conquest of Italy in 1797 was the start of the emancipation of Italian Jewry. As in France, he convened a “Sanhedrin” to organize the affairs of the Jewish community and granted full civil rights to Jews. Napoleon’s defeat and the strong reaction that followed led to a revival of the Inquisition. The national movement, which sought the liberation of Italy from foreign rule and the unification of its many states, soon provided a rallying point for Jewish hopes. Espousing the cause of civil rights for all, it drew many young Jews to its ranks. With the final unification of all Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II in 1870, Jews were again granted full citizenship.

The Jews of Italy were grateful for their freedom. Having fought valiantly for independence, they remained ardent patriots and threw themselves vigorously into public life. Within a short time they were finding important positions in government, politics, and society. The urge to take full advantage of their newly acquired rights was so strong that large sections of Italian Jewry began to lose touch with the Jewish community. Intermarriage became common, especially among the upper classes, and the number of conversions was great. Though closely organized communities remained, and scholars maintained the “enlightened” tradition of Jewish scholarship established by Samuel David Luzzato earlier in the century, the threat of assimilation was serious.

But the period of unrestricted freedom was short-lived. The Italian Fascist movement was founded in 1919, and in 1923, Benito Mussolini came to power. At first Mussolini fought the antisemitic elements in his party, which was supported by many influential Jews.

In the hope that the ties of Italian Jews with other Mediterranean and Balkan Jewish communities would be aid his plan for imperialist expansion, he encouraged Zionism and helped German-Jewish refugees settle in Italy. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mussolini took a stand against Nazi antisemitism. By 1936, however, Mussolini found himself in need of German aid for his Abyssinian war and began to adopt the racist Nazi doctrines. By the outbreak of World War II, Jews had been banned from the army, government service, professions, and many branches of trade. Jewish schools, which Mussolini had encouraged and subsidized, were closed. All large-scale Jewish businesses were confiscated, and Jews were forbidden to hold land of any value. Toward the end of the war, when the Italian defense system had broken down and German troops moved into the country, Hitler proposed the deportation and destruction of Italy’s Jewry. Official antisemitism had never struck deep roots among the people, however, and the Italian Jews found protection among their neighbors. The Allied forces invaded and the war was over before Hitler’s plan could be executed.

With the overthrow of Mussolini, Jewish rights were restored. After the war, Italy was the temporary home of more than 35,000 refugees, all but 1,500 of whom left for Israel and other countries. Because of its location, Italy was for a while the chief sailing point for “illegal” immigrants on their way to Israel.

Today, there are close to 30,000 Jews living in Italy, a little below the prewar total. They live under the law of 1930 which requires that all Jews affiliate with the official Jewish community to which they pay taxes. Rome has the largest concentration with 13,000; Milan follows with 8,000. The rest of the Jewish population is scattered in 21 other cities, only six of which have communities of more than 1,000. This dispersion again raises the problem of assimilation, a problem which community leaders tried to solve by means of an intensive educational program. The educational system now includes Jewish day schools in eight cities, a rabbinical seminary in Rome
, and special courses for Hebrew teachers. In Rome, a vocational training school is maintained by ORT. A monthly magazine is published by the community. There is an active Zionist organization, and close ties are maintained with Israel.

In recent years, Italy has been almost completely free of antisemitic activities, and Jews have again achieved prominence in national life. Alberto Moravia, Paolo Milano, Carlo Levi, and Primo Levi are leading literary figures. Jews are prominent in the professions and several branches of the economy.

Italy has served as an important transition place for the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel during the last two decades.


Eighth month of the Jewish civil calendar, falling during the Omer. Israel’s Independence Day is celebrated on the fifth of Iyar.