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[By: Ariel Scheib]

Cyprus, the third largest Mediterranean island, is located south of Turkey and west of Syria and Lebanon. Jews first settled in Cyrpus possibly as early as the third century B.C.E. and they had close relationships with many of the other religious groups on the island and were seen favorably by the Romans. Today, the Jewish population of Cyprus is approximately 500 people, however the country has a growing bilateral relationship with the State of Israel.

- Roman Rule to Ottoman Emprie
- Modern Community
- Relations with Israel

Roman Rule to Ottoman Empire

The Jewish community prospered under Roman rule in Cyprus and there existed at least three synagogues in Golgoi, Lapethos and Constantia-Salamine. During this period, first Paul and then Barnabus, a native of Cyprus, preached Christianity in Cyprus and attempted to the Jews. In 117 C.E., under the leadership of Artemion, the Cypriot Jews participated in the great uprising against the Romans, which was eventually suppressed. As punishment, the Romans forbade Jews from setting foot on the island, however they returned soon after and Jewish residents continued to live there.

After a few years of calm, the Jewish communities began to grow and thrive once again in Cyprus. In the seventh century, there was a large Jewish community in Famagusta and in the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela found three Jewish sects on the island. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, more Jews lived on Cyprus than on any of the other Greek island, and though they suffered some discrimination, in the 14th century, King Peter I attracted Jewish traders from Egypt by promising them equal treatment.

In the 16th century, Cyprus became a part of the Ottoman Empire and the Jewish population dwindled.

Modern Community

Cyprus came under British administration in 1878 until it was granted independence in 1960.

British Detention Camp in Cyprus

During the late 19th and 20th century, multiple attempts were made by European Jews to settle in Cyprus due to the problematic nature of settling in Eretz Yisrael at the time. The first attempt, in 1883, was a settlement of several hundred Russians established in Orides near Papho. In 1885, 27 Romanian families settled on the island as colonists, but were not successful in forming communities. Romanian Jews in 1891, again bought land in Cyprus, although they did not immigrate to the country.

In 1897, fifteen Russian families under the leadership of Walter Cohen founded a colony at Margo, with the help of the Ahavat Zion of London and the Jewish Colonial Association (JCA). In August 1899, Davis Trietsch, a delegate to the Third Zionist Congress at Basel, attempted to get an endorsement for Jewish colonization in Cyprus. Although his proposal was refused by the council, Trietsch persisted, convincing two dozen Romanian Jews to immigrate to the land. Beginning in 1900, under the sponsorship of the JCA, these settlers established farms at Margo, Kouklia and Cholmakchi. After World War I, Margo's second generation of Jews moved to Palestine and in 1928 the JCA closed down its operations in Cyprus.

Most Jewish communities during the early 1900s were located in Nicosia. In 1901 the Jewish population of the island was 63 males and 56 females. In 1902, Theodore Herzl introduced the idea of establishing Cyprus as the “Jewish Homeland.” This idea was presented in a pamphlet to the Parliamentary committee on alien immigration in London, bearing the title "The Problem of Jewish Immigration to England and the United States Solved by Furthering the Jewish Colonization of Cyprus."

British Detention Camp in Cyprus

During World War II and the Holocaust, Cyprus played a major role for the Jewish communities of Europe. After the rise of Nazism in 1933, hundreds of Jews escaped to Cyprus. Following the liquidation of the concentration camps of Europe, the British set up a detention camp in Cyprus for Holocaust survivors illegally trying to enter Palestine. From 1946 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the British confined some 53,000 Holocaust survivors on the island. Once the State of Israel was created, most of the refugees made aliyah. In 1951, only 165 Jews remained on the island and in 1970, only 25 Jews were left.

Until 2005, there was no communal Jewish life except for occasional religious services and Israeli Independence Day celebrations held at the the Israeli Embassy in Nicosia. In 2005, Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin arrived and established the Chabad House in Larnaca which holds daily minyans and Shabbat and holiday services and provides kosher meals, holds Torah and Judaism classes, runs a Sunday school and facilitates aid to Cypriots seeking medical treatment in Israel.

Approximately 350 Jewish families live in Cyprus today, many of whom arrived in recent years for professional reasons. Half of the Cypriot Jewish community is Israeli and the remainder are mostly British or Russian.

Relations with Israel

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the country opened a consulate in Nicosia and when Cyprus reached independence, in 1960, diplomatic relations were established on ambassadorial level. Since then, Cyrpus has enjoyed many ties of commerce and tourism with Israel.

Trade have been boosted in recent years after the discovery of vast hydrocarbon deposits in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and security cooperation has likewise developed significantly in the aftermath of the souring of relations with Turkey. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres have each been to Cyprus twice, and Tel Aviv has hosted former Cypriot President Demetris Christofias as well as current President Nicos Anastasiades, when he was still leader of the opposition. The energy ministers from both countries have also engaged in several exchanges.

In 2012, Cyprus and Israel signed two defense agreements to set the basis for continued relations between the countries in the areas of homeland security and counter-terrorism. The two pacts dealt with exchange of classified information as well as defense cooperation and protection, a major need of Cyprus as it has no national navy or air force to act as a deterrent to countries such as Turkey. Signing the two agreements sets the basis for the further development of relations in the area of defence cooperation, Cyprus' Defence Minister Demetris Eliades said.

In September 2013, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and his Cypriot counterpart signed a protocol for cooperation and Edelstein expressed his hope for “further economic cooperation and greater trade and investment in Cyprus.”

Israel and Cyprus are also engaging in public diplomacy. In October 2013, Cypriot foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides presided over the signing of an agreement between the University of Cyprus and the Israeli Embassy in Nicosia for the creation of a Jewish studies program at a local university.

Sources: World Jewish Congress; Jewish Encyclopedia<; Hadassah Magazine; Cyrpus Mail; Wikipedia; The Daily Beast (October 11, 2013); Photos courtesy of: USHMM Photo Archives

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