Jews have lived in Italy, without interruption, from the days of the Maccabees until the present, a period of 21 centuries. The historian Josephus records at least 8,000 Jews living in Rome in 4 BC. During the Roman imperial period, it is estimated that the Jewish population reached 50,000, of whom over one-half where in the Rome area.
The acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire commenced an era of successive restrictions and persecutions with brief interludes of calm. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Italian Renaissance offered some relief and resulted in significant economic and cultural achievements by the Jewish community, including many Jews exiled from Spain.
The Counter-Reformation (16th and 17th centuries) marked the end of the advancement made during the Renaissance and culminated in the introduction of the ghetto. Ghetto life was degrading and difficult. Many of the ghettos, including Rome, were severely overcrowded and unhealthy. Any Jew who went outside the ghetto had to wear a distinguishing badge on their clothes. Travel out of town required special permits.
Prior to the French Revolution, reforms began to take place in certain areas such as Lombrady, Trieste, Tuscany and Parma. When the French armies entered Italy in 1796-98, nearly all the Jews were temporarily emancipated, but in 1815, the Restoration resulted in an almost complete renewal of the old conditions. Full and permanent emancipation did not develop until the unification of Italy from 1848 to 1870. As a result of emancipation and its acceptance by the Italian people, Jews immediately began to appear in positions of prominence and distinction and integrated quickly into the general community. The Jewish population formed 0.15 of the total in 1861 and 0.13 in 1938: yet 11 Jews sat in the chamber of deputies in 1871, 15 in 1874, and nine in 1921; in the senate there were 11 in 1905, and 26 in 1923. In the universities the proportion of Jewish professors was 6.8 in 1919, and 8 in 1938. The proportion of Jews in the liberal professions and public administration was 6.4 in 1901 and 6.7 in 1928.
Mussolini took power in 1922, and until 1937, his Facist government did not formally interfere with the equality of Italian Jews. However, as a result of its ties with Germany, the government became strongly anti-semitic in late 1936. As a result, the Jewish community which numbered 47,485 in the 1931 census was reduced by 1939 to 35,156. With the fall of the Facist regime and surrender of Italy in September, 1943, the country was split in two with the north controlled by the Germans and the south by the Allies. The Germans immediately began the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. This effort resulted in the Jews going underground and, with the help of sympathetic Christians, many were able to survive. It is estimated that about 85 of Italy's Jews survived the war.
It is estimated that the Jewish population today is about 45,000, with the bulk residing in Rome and Milan.
Susan Zuccotti, The Italians and the Holocaust
Encyclopedia Judaica, CD-Rom Edition, Keter Publishing
© 1998-99 Edward Victor