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Corfu, Greece

CORFU, Greek island, the second largest of the Ionian group. The town of the same name is the largest on the island. *Benjamin of Tudela , in c. 1160, found only one Jew in Corfu. The number of Jews increased during the 13th and 14th centuries with the arrival of newcomers from the mainland. The Jews on the island were subject to violent attacks and persecution; they were forced to row on the galleys, to provide lodging for soldiers, were summoned to the law courts on Sabbaths and festivals, and as elsewhere in the Byzantine orbit had to act as public executioners. From time to time the authorities were forced to publish defense orders to protect them from the hostility of the general population. When Corfu surrendered to Venice (1386), the deputation of six persons sent to arrange the terms included the Jew David Semo. A decree of 1387 reaffirmed the previous rights of Jews under Byzantine rule, but in 1406 they were forbidden to acquire land and were ordered to wear a distinguishing *badge. Jewish women had to wear yellow veils. In 1408 they were forbidden to own land worth 2,000 ducats, later increased to over 4,000 ducats. The Venetian authorities frequently imposed heavy taxes on the Jewish community in order to finance the wars against the Turks. On the other hand, the Jews sometimes gave voluntary contributions and assisted in the fortification of the walls. The Jews lived at first in two streets between the Old Town and the fortress. When this area was included in the new fortifications, the two Jewish areas were eliminated and the Jews were scattered for a while throughout the city, but in 1622 they were confined to a ghetto. Despite these restrictions, the Venetian authorities were more liberal toward the Jews of Corfu than they were toward the Jews of Venice itself.

During the 16th century there were two congregations in Corfu, that of the *Romaniots who preserved the ancient Byzantine rite (known as Minhag Korfu), and that of the Italians. In the course of time the Italian community was enlarged by Jews from Apulia, Spanish exiles, Portuguese Marranos, and Ashkenazim, who ultimately adopted the Sephardi rite. The eminent Sephardi Spanish courtier and religious scholar Don Isaac *Abravanel stayed in Corfu for a short time in 1594, finished his commentary on Deuteronomy, was depressed at the state of the spiritual deterioration of Spanish Jewish exiles, and continued to Naples to reunite with his wife and other close family members. Relations between the two communities did not always run smoothly. The Romaniot community enjoyed special privileges and objected to the right of permanent residence being granted to the Italians. Between 1662 and 1664 all Jews in Corfu received equal status. Each of the communities had two "overseers" (syndikoi), two kashrut supervisors, and two parnasim. In 1563 the traveler Elijah of Pesaro reported that the Italians constituted the majority of the Jewish colony in Corfu. They imposed their language on all the Jews of the island, most of whom spoke the Apulian dialect interlaced with Greek words.

In 1522 there were about 200 Jewish householders; in 1558, about 400; and in 1663, 500. The Jews of Corfu engaged in dyeing, leather tanning, moneylending, trading, and the brokerage of goods between Venice and the Levant. The Jewish merchants of Corfu were granted privileges not granted to those of Venice itself. A New Testament in Judeo-Spanish was printed in Corfu in 1829, no doubt for missionary purposes. Hebrew printing by Jews began in 1853 and continued until 1896. Of 14 items published, 13 were by Joseph Nahamuli, who also supplied a Greek translation to some of the liturgical items.

From 1861 to 1863, he published the Greek/Italian bilingual Chronica Israelitika. When in 1716 the Turks besieged Corfu, the Jews distinguished themselves in the defense of the island. The loyalty of the Jews of Corfu to the Venetian government lasted until Venetian rule ended in 1797. Under French rule of Corfu (1797–99 and 1806–15) Jews had equal rights with other citizens, and the community's rabbi enjoyed the same privileges as the religious heads of the other communities. Their condition deteriorated under British rule (1815–64); they were excluded from public office and disenfranchised, and Jewish lawyers were forbidden to plead in court. Judah *Bibas , known for his support of the ideal of the return to Zion and of the Haskalah movement, was rabbi of Corfu from 1831. He defended the regional etrog growers in Aya, Parga, and Rapeza in light of insinuations of non-kosher grafting by East European etrog importer Rabbi Eleazar Ziskind Mintz of Brody in the work Pri Etz Hadar (Lemberg, 1846). Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margulies (1760–1828) of Galicia had previously defended the Corfu etrogim. From the late 1840s and in the 1850s, a small group of Corfiote Jewish cotton merchants settled in Manchester, attracted by its commercial and industrial growth, and were among the founders of the Cheetham Hill Road Sha'are Tefilla Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in 1873. The eminent Rabbi Israel Moses *Hazzan of Izmir succeeded Bibas and served from 1853 to 1857 before moving to Alexandria, Egypt. In 1855 the Jewish community comprised 4,000 persons and was visited by the philanthropist Sir Moses *Montefiore of England. In 1863, the Jewish community numbered 6,000, 9.23% of the local population. The local population maintained their old prejudice, and when equal rights were restored to the Jews upon the island's annexation to the kingdom of Greece in 1864, riots broke out, causing a large exodus of Jews to Greece and Italy. Despite, local Greek-Orthodox hostility toward the local Jews, the latter had significant political weight in the city of Corfu. Numerous Jews who worked as lawyers and notaries enjoyed a high public profile. Councilman and international olive oil merchant Eliias da Mordo was appointed as deputy mayor, and in 1870 he was elected mayor.

In 1891, when the Jewish population of 5,000 still lived in their own quarter, a *blood libel caused a storm on the island and throughout Greece and brought in its train large-scale emigration. The ensuing riots lasted three weeks and some 22 Jews died. Foreign ships were sent to the island to quell the disturbances in light of the apathetic attitude of the Greek authorities. From then on the Jewish community waned; many Jews emigrated to Trieste and Alexandria, Egypt. The local Alliance Israélite Universelle representative, the philologist Lazaros Belleli, represented the Jewish community at the subsequent trial, which ended in a mockery in light of the acquittal of the perpetrators. Belleli did not find his place in academia in Greece and eventually migrated to London, where he became a professor of linguistics. The French novelist Albert *Cohen grew up in Corfu in the early 1890s and depicted the picturesque Jews of the island in many of his works. In 1897, the journalist and Jewish community leader Moïse *Caimis started the Zionist organization Mevasser Zion and from 1899 to 1901 edited the Zionist organ Israelite Chronographos. Under the influence of the Russian Hebrew teacher Bezalel Davidson, who passed through the island in 1906, the Zionist society Mekkitz Nirdamim was formed. In 1913, Haim S. Mizrahi formed the Zionist organization Tikvat Zion and in 1924 a new group, called Theodor Herzl, was formed and it eventually affiliated with the Zionist Revisionist movement. In World War I, the community suffered another blood libel with rioting mobs, but there were no casualties and the authorities assisted in the quelling of the disturbances.

In 1923 about 3,000 Jews lived on the island, most of them small tradesmen who struggled to earn a livelihood. There were four synagogues in the town of Corfu all now following the Sephardi rite: the Greek synagogue, the Apulian, the Apulian-Spanish, and the Apulian minyan. In 1932, after Rabbi Judah Nehama failed to persuade members of the Italian Hevra to accept leadership positions in the Jewish community administration, since they refused to accept the authority of the Greek Hevra, the Supreme Court in Athens ruled that each Hevra would remain separate from the communal organization. On the eve of World War II the community numbered 2,000. During the occupation by the Italians (1941–43) there was relative quiet. The Germans occupied the island on September 27, 1943. On June 14, 1944, 1,800 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. By 1948, the number of Jews in Corfu was reduced to 170, in 1968 to 92.

In the early 21st century fewer than 50 Jews remained, and only one of the four synagogues.



C. Roth, Venice (1930), index; Romanos, in: REJ, 23 (1891), 63–74; Kaufmann, ibid., 32 (1896), 226–34; 33 (1896), 64–76, 219–32; 34 (1897), 203–75; M. Horovitz, Korfu (1891); L.A. Schiavi, Gli ebrei in Venezia e nelle sue colonie (1893), 309–33; S.W. Baron, in: Kove? Madda'i le-Zekher Moshe Schorr 1944, 25–41; idem, in: Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 169–82. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Rivlin, "Corfu," in: Pinkas Kehillot Yavan (1999), 353–70; Y. Kerem, History of the Jews in Greece 1821–1940, Part I (1984), 415–94; P.L. Preschel, "The Jews of Corfu" (Diss., New York University, 1984).

[Simon Marcus / Yitzchak Kerem (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.