PALERMO, capital of Sicily. Jews apparently lived there in Roman times. Evidence of their presence is first supplied by Pope *Gregory I. His intervention in 598 with Bishop Victor of Palermo, who had requisitioned the synagogue and hospice, indicates that the community had by then attained some prosperity. The Jews could not resume possession of the buildings since they had been consecrated as churches, but they were indemnified and the religious objects restored to them. During the Muslim period the community was augmented by Jews who had been sold as slaves in Sicily and ransomed by their coreligionists. A description by the 10th-century Muslim geographer Ibn Hawkal mentions the location of the Jewish quarter in Palermo. Documents from the Genizah shed light on important events regarding Jewish life under Muslim rule. A rhymed letter written in Hebrew in the 10th or 11th centuries by a Jew of Palermo addressed to a Jewish leader (perhaps the head of the Diaspora in Babylon) gives a moving account of the suffering of the population during an episode of civil war among Muslim factions that led to Byzantine intervention. According to the author, the armies desecrated synagogues. Nevertheless, Sicilian Jews prospered during the Muslim period. They donated money to the Palestine yeshivah, collected money to ransom prisoners, and conducted a lucrative trade between Sicily, North Africa, and Egypt. Like the other Jews in Sicily in this period, those of Palermo had to pay a poll tax (jizya) and an impost on real estate (khârāj), and in the second half of the 11th century they had to pay a special tax on imported goods, the tenth (– ushr). A letter written on the eve of the conquest by the Normans, around 1060, describes the suffering of the people of Palermo. Other letters from this period provide information on the last Muslim ruler of Palermo, Muhammad Ibn al-Babā al-Andalusī. The latter appointed Zakkār ben Amār as nagid over the Jews, and he was also in charge of supplying most of the provisions of the ruler. With the fall of Palermo (1072) the Jews came under the jurisdiction of the Normans, who continued collecting the jizya from them, in addition to the impost they paid to the local archbishop in 1089. However, the Jews were recognized as full citizens with the right to own property, excepting Christian slaves, and free to engage in a variety of crafts. A prominent number were fishermen and artisans, and Jews had virtually a monopoly of the silk and dyeing industry. The art of silk weaving was developed in Palermo by Jews brought there as prisoners from Greece by Roger II in 1147; they later settled throughout Italy, leading in this craft for four centuries. In 1211 a tax was collected for the right to practice dyeing by the ecclesiastical curia in Palermo. According to *Benjamin of Tudela, 1,500 Jews (or Jewish families) were living in Palermo around 1172. In 1312 Frederick II of Aragon revoked a former decree that expelled the Jews from the Cassaro situated in the city center and confined them to a special quarter outside the city walls. However, despite repeated attempts to segregate the Jews and relegate them to a separate quarter, the Jews continued to live until the expulsion in the Cassaro, where many Christians also lived. Before 1393 the Jews of Palermo had been allowed to wear a distinguishing *badge much smaller than the size stipulated for the other Sicilian Jews. The Jews of Palermo had to attend missionary sermons. The incitement of fanatical preachers frequently resulted in bloodshed, as in a riot which occurred in Palermo in 1339. In 1393 the Palermo community petitioned King Martin I to prevent the inquisitors from persecuting foreign Jews who came to the city under the pretext of being Christians. It is probable that that petition attests to the arrival in Palermo of refugees from the Iberian Peninsula following the pogroms and forced conversions of 1391. Besides paying taxes levied by the royal administration, the Jews in Palermo sometimes had to contribute funds to rebut libels; in 1437 they paid 150 gold ounces to defray the expenditure of the war against the Kingdom of Naples, and in 1475 they paid 500 gold ounces to silence a false accusation. In 1450 Alfonso confirmed the appointment of Iacob Exarchi, papal commissioner, to investigate matters concerning the Jews of Sicily. He was to look into the religious practices of the Jews, investigate the practice of usury, and ensure the separation of Jews from Christians. In the same year the Jewish communities, headed by the community of Palermo, paid 10,000 florins in return for a royal writ that approved their old privileges. In 1453, following complaints that the Jews of Palermo were forced to payan unfair portion of the tax burden, the viceroy decreed that they were to pay only one-seventh of the tax burden rather than a quarter. The investigations initiated in 1473 by the inquisitor, the Dominican Salvo de Cassetta, hit the Palermo community particularly hard, accusing it of crimes against the Christian faith, The accusations concerned blasphemy against the Virgin, probably because the Jews were found to possess an anti-Christian polemic compilation, known as Toledot Yeshu. Several Jews were found guilty of that crime, and after having been tortured they confessed and were burned. On August 2, 1474, the Jewish community of Palermo paid a fine of 5,000 florins in return for a royal pardon that did not include Jews outside Palermo. However, in the same month Pope Sixtus ordered the archbishop of Palermo to assist Salvode Cassetta in implementing his commission and proceeding against the Jews of Sicily. The investigations were probably at the root of the anti-Jewish riots that broke out in the summer of 1474 throughout Sicily.
Obadiah *Bertinoro, who spent some months in Palermo in 1487–88, gives a vivid description of the community which he estimated at 850 families, mainly coppersmiths, ironworkers, laborers, and porters, much despised by the Christians because of their ragged clothing. The main synagogue, with its sweet-voiced cantors and its elaborate subsidiary buildings, was the most beautiful he had ever seen.
Twelve proti (from the Greek πρῶτοι) or notables assisted by councilors were in charge of the communal administration (see *Sicily). In 1393, by a decree issued by King Martin I, the Giudecca, or Jewish community body of Palermo, was given the function of acting as a court of appeal in legal disputes among the Sicilian Jews. Outstanding among those who contributed to the cultural life of the community were the physician Master Busach; *Moses of Palermo, translator of works from Arabic, who served at court; the poet Saul b. Nafusi of Palermo; the dayyan Anatol b. Joseph who spent about ten years in Palermo (1170–80); the poet and physician *Ahitub b. Isaac to whom Solomon b. Abraham *Adret of Barcelona addressed a polemic against the kabbalist Abraham *Abulafia; Joseph *Abenafia, born in Syracuse, physician at the court of Martin I, was the first *dienchelele of the Jewish communities of the realm. However, it is uncertain whether the story of the poet and physician Moses *Remos, who was unjustly sentenced to death and wrote a poem on the eve of his execution in Palermo, has an historical basis. It is possible that the story is connected to the trials held in Palermo in 1474. In 1491 the intervention of the Jews in Palermo prevented Jewish refugees from Provence who had arrived in Sicily from being sold as slaves.
After the decree of expulsion of 1492 was issued, the Jews of Palermo, then numbering about 5,000, were obliged to leave the island. After the expulsion, according to inquisitorial records, about 170 families of converts were living in the city, and according to 16th-century Sicilian historian Tommaso Fazello, there was a multitude of converts who attempted to return to Jewish rites. In June 1511 an auto da fé was conducted in Palermo and 10 New Christians were burned at the stake for the first time in Sicily. Palermo also served as a slave market where Jewish prisoners were sold after Spanish victories in the North African campaigns of 1510 and 1535. When the Jews were temporarily readmitted to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in 1695–1702 and 1740–46, a few presumably came to Palermo. In the early 1920s a minyan could be obtained, at the most, composed of Jews from central or eastern Europe who had acquired Italian citizenship. Two of them, Philippsohn and Beretvas, lectured at the faculty of medicine. Most had left Sicily before 1938, when Mussolini's racial laws deprived them of Italian citizenship. On July 22 the allied forces entered Palermo, and subsequently abolished the racial laws. At that time many refugees from the concentration camp of Ferramonti came to Palermo, among them Meir Artom, son of Elia S. Artom of Florence. Meir's letters to his father describe the refugees he encountered, and the fact that the allied forces established a synagogue in Palermo. Though in the early 21st century there were Jews living in Palermo, there was no organized Jewish community in the city.
C. Roth, Gleanings (1969); Milano, Bibliotheca, index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S.D.Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 1–6; idem, "Sicily and Southern Italy in the Cairo Geniza Documents," in: Archivio Storico per la Sicilia Orientale, 67 (1971), 9–33; M. Ben Sasson, The Jews of Sicily 825–1068 (1991); M. Gil, In the Kingdom of Ismael, vol. 1 (1997), 531–89 and index; Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, 1–6, index; G. Palermo, "New Evidence about the Slaughter of the Jews in Modica, Noto and Elsewhere in Sicily (1474)," in: Henoch, 22:2–3 (2000), 247–317; M. Krasner, "La comunità ebraico palermitana nel XV secolo attraverso uno studio sui documenti notaril" (Ph.D. dissertation, Tel Aviv, 2003); N. Zeldes, The Former Jews of this Kingdom. Sicilian Converts after the Expulsion (1492–1516) (2003); idem, "Un tragico ritorno: schiavi ebrei in Sicilia dopo la conquista spagnola di Tripoli (1510)," in: Nuove Effemeridi. Rassegna trimestrale di cultura, 14:54 (2001), 47–55; N. Bucaria, "Tempio di Palermo non c – era il Sefer Torah. Le lettere di Meir Artom al padre," in: N. Bucaria, M. Luzzati, A. Tarantino (eds.), Ebrei e Sicilia (2002), 279–97; H. Bresc, Arabes de langue, juifs de religion. L'evolution du judaïsme sicilien dans l'environment latin, XIIe–XVe siècles (2001).
[Sergio Joseph Sierra /
Nadia Zeldes (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.