Over 5 Centuries Later, Palermo Commemorates the Expulsion of Sicily’s Jews

For the first time since the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily 523 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1493, the Palermo community gathered last Tuesday to hold a daylong series of public events to commemorate the anniversary of this dark chapter in the island’s history. Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orland0 was present (second from right) Photo Credit: Sandro Riotta.
More than 1,000 Palermo natives from all walks of life participated in various activities throughout the day, which were coordinated by Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”) of southern Italy and Sicily. Photo Credit: Sandro Riotta
Moving testimonies from the archives of the Inquisition were read aloud, telling the stories of various Sicilian Bnei Anousim who were imprisoned for continuing to practice Judaism in secret even after they had been forced to convert. Photo Credit: Sandro Riotta

Series of events, organized by Shavei Israel and ISSE, highlights the past and future of the Bnei Anousim in Sicily and southern Italy

For the first time since the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily 523 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1493, the Palermo community gathered last Tuesday to hold a daylong series of public events to commemorate the anniversary of this dark chapter in the island’s history. The events were organized by the Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shavei Israel, the largest and oldest organization in the world working with the Bnei Anousim in Italy and elsewhere, in partnership with Istituto Siciliano di Studi Ebraici (ISSE, or Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies).

More than 1,000 Palermo natives from all walks of life participated in various activities throughout the day, which were coordinated by Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”) of southern Italy and Sicily. The Bnei Anousim are descendants of Iberian Jews who were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, but many continued to preserve their Jewish identity in secret despite the oppression and persecution of the Inquisition. While a small ceremony marking the expulsion was held last year in Palermo, this year marks the first time that an array of public events is being held.

“In recent years, a growing number of Bnei Anousim in southern Italy and Sicily have begun to re-embrace their roots,” said Shavei Israel Founder and Chairman Michael Freund. “Today’s commemoration in the heart of Palermo underlines the fact that neither the expulsion nor the Inquisition could extinguish the immortal Jewish spark,” he noted, adding: “We must intensify our efforts to reach out to the Anousim in Italy and elsewhere. Their return to the Jewish people is an extraordinary testimony both to the power of Jewish memory and the pull of Jewish destiny, and we owe it to them and to their ancestors to welcome them back.”

The day’s schedule in Palermo opened with the screening of the film, “La passione di Giosuè l’Ebreo” (The Passion of Joshua the Jew), which explores Catholic persecution of the Jews in the years leading up to the expulsion. The screening, which was held at the palace of Zisa in western Palermo, was followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Pasquale Scimeca, who is a descendant of Sicilian Anousim. Later, the community gathered at the Palermo municipal historical archives – built on the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Palermo, the greatest synagogue in the world according to 15th-century Italian Rabbi Obadiah De Bertinoro – for a panel on the expulsion of Sicily’s Jews featuring Palermo Municipal Historical Archive Director Elina Calandra, University of Palermo Professor Giovanna Fiume, and Shavei Israel’s Rabbi Pinhas Punturello.

In addition, moving testimonies from the archives of the Inquisition were read aloud, telling the stories of various Sicilian Bnei Anousim who were imprisoned for continuing to practice Judaism in secret even after they had been forced to convert. Afterwards, a selection of Sephardic songs was played by the Sicilian-Spanish musician Aleandra Bertolino Garcia.

About Sicilian Jews and Bnei Anousim

The history of Jews in Sicily dates back more than two millennia, to the Second Temple period. According to some scholars, the first Jews in Sicily were slaves brought to the island by the Roman legion after the capture of Jerusalem. Despite enduring various periods of legal restrictions and persecutions over the ensuing centuries, the Jews of Sicily flourished and produced many great scholars and rabbis.

In the late 14th century, Sicily’s Jews were confined to ghettos and faced increasingly harsh decrees as well as massacres and forced conversions to Catholicism. These measures culminated in 1492 with the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the remaining Jews to leave. At the time, Sicily was under the control of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were at least 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering more than 37,000 people. After a series of delays, the deadline for their expulsion was set at January 12, 1493. But large numbers of forcibly converted Jews were compelled to remain behind, where they suffered under the heavy hand of the Inquisition.

About Shavei Israel

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in more than a dozen countries and provides assistance to a variety of communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others. For more information visit: www.shavei.org.

JV Staff

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