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The Jewish Community of Marseilles

Haim F. Ghiuzeli

Archeological evidence suggests a Jewish presence in the region already in the first century CE; however the earliest documentary presence of Jews in Marseilles can be traced to late sixth century CE. In a letter dated 591 sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Theodore, the bishop of Marseilles, a mention is made of an attempted conversion by force of a group of Jewish refugees from Clairmont (now Clermont-Ferrand, in central France), who fled similar persecutions from the local bishop some twenty years earlier. Jewish settlement in Marseilles continued through early Middle Ages when various documents refer to properties either owned by Jews or somehow connected to Jews, like a “Jewish valley” attested at the end of the 10th century, and a vineyard mentioned in late 11th century.

According to the Spanish-Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (d.1173), there were 300 Jewish families in Marseilles when he visited the city, apparently in 1165. According to his report there were two Jewish areas of settlement in the city: one in the upper part of the town, which was under the jurisdiction of the bishop; the other was located in the lower town, which belonged to the viscount. However, both communities were placed under the authority of the bishop of Marseilles. Benjamin of Tudela also indicates that the yeshivot and the scholars were established in the upper town and he refers to Marseilles as a “town of learned men and scholars”.

The Jews who settled in the lower part of the city, close to the port, over time developed a network of trade relations with other port cities from Spain and North Africa throughout the Mediterranean to the countries of the Levant, with which they deal in wood, spices, textiles, metals, various products for dyeing, and slaves. During the 13th and the 14th centuries the economic activities of the Jews of Marseilles extended to include new occupations like brokers, wine-, or cloth-merchants, laborers, porters, or tailors and one document mentions even a stone-cutter (magister lapidis).

Immigrants from Morocco at a transit camp near Marseilles, 1949 Beit Hatfutsot, the Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Shifra Dahan, Israel

Immigrants from Morocco at a transit camp near Marseilles, 1949 The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People. Courtesy of Shifra Dahan, Israel

There were some activities in which the Jews were more numerous than their Christian counterparts: there were more Jewish physicians, and the coral craftsmanship, although not very profitable, was practically a Jewish monopoly. There were Jews active in money lending, but in a port city their impact was relatively low and brought about little revenues. The soap production, an industry that later became one of the main sources of revenue of Marseilles is thought to have been introduced to the city between 1371- 1401 by Crescas David, a Jew sometimes nicknamed Sabonerius. He was followed by his son, Solomon David.

Driving school of Celeste and Raoul Becca, Marseilles, c. 1938 Beit Hatfutsot, the Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Elise Cohen-Jonathan

Driving school of Celeste and Raoul Becca, Marseilles, c. 1938
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People.
Courtesy of Elise Cohen-Jonathan

Joseph Botton (1860-1911), Marseilles, 1878 Beit Hatfutsot, the Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Violette Alfandari, France

Joseph Botton (1860-1911), Marseilles, 1878. The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People. Courtesy of Violette Alfandari, France

During the early Middle Ages, the Jews in Provence enjoyed a relatively good social position. In Marseilles, the city regulations of 1257 did not distinguish between the Jewish and the Christian inhabitants of the city referring to all as “citizens of Marseilles” (cives Masasiliae), although that definition should be interpreted as a generic title and not a description of the legal status of the Jews as actually enjoying equal rights with the Christian population.

Immigrants from Tunisia at a transit camp near Marseilles, 1950 Beit Hatfutsot, the Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Ron Debache, Israel

Immigrants from Tunisia at a transit camp near Marseilles, 1950. The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People. Courtesy of Ron Debache, Israel

The legal status of the Jews worsened after 1262, when at the aftermath of an unsuccessful rebellion of the city of Marseilles against the Count of Provence, the Jews of Marseilles became the property of the count and henceforth were compelled to pay their taxes to the Counts of Provence. In exchange, the count extended his protection over the Jews: in 1276 he restricted the extortion of money from Jews by the Holy Office under the pretext that they were wearing smaller Jewish badges than those prescribed by the Church after the Lateran Council of 1215. Other restrictions included the obligation for married Jewish women to wear a special veil (orales), Jews were not allowed to testify against Christians, to work on Sundays and Christian religious festivals, or going to baths more than once a week.

Restrictions were imposed on Jewish international merchants: they were banned from embarking in groups larger than four passengers on the same ship and while aboard, Jewish passengers had to abstain from eating meat on Christian fast days. In order to prevent Jews from interfering with the profitable commerce with Egypt, Jews were not allowed to travel to that destination. According to a reference by Rabbi Shlomo Ben Adret (RASHBA), the Jews of Marseilles had to pay a heavy fine at the end of the 13th century, following accusations that the Jews were mocking Christianity during their Purim celebrations.

The legal status of the Jews improved during the 14th century when they managed to enjoy both the protection of the counts of Provence and that of the city authorities. The rivalry between the municipal authorities and the counts enabled the Jews to maneuver between the two and so to acquire their protection against the Church. There is no mention of an accusation against the entire community, not even in the aftermath of the Black Death epidemic of 1349-51. Jews succeeded in obtaining certain privileges that made possible for them to observe the Jewish Law: they were allowed to trade in flour for mazzot in the Jewish neighborhoods, thus being exempted from the obligation of conducting this commerce only in the place specially designated by the city; they were permitted to sweep the streets in front of their houses on Fridays, instead of Saturdays, like their Christian neighbors (1363), and Jews were exempted from the obligation of walking with a lamp after curfew on evenings of Jewish festivals.

The rulers of Provence, too, protected the Jews: in 1320 King Robert intervened in favor of the Jews and promised to offer them shelter in his castles and fortresses whenever they might come under attack during the Pastoureaux Crusade, this protection was renewed in 1331 and again one year later by Philippe de Sanguinet, seneschal of Provence. Jews took active part in defending the city of Marseilles against attacks (1357) and contributed generously to the taxes and other financial burdens that the city inhabitants were required to pay from time to time to the counts of Provence. This attitude ensured a relative protection from the counts of Provence who occasionally renewed or confirmed the privileges granted to the Jewish community like those of 1387 by Queen Marie, and of 1389, by her son Louis II.

The relatively benevolent attitude of the counts of Provence continued for some time into the 15th century, as attested by the decrees of Yolande, Countess of Provence and Queen of Naples who in 1422 forbade abuses against Jews by her officials, while King René of Anjou (1432-1480) declared in 1463 that Jews have a right to special protection of the authorities especially as they could not enjoy that of the Church. This policy made it apparent when Kind Rene closed the baptistery of Saint-Martin following a complaint by two Jewish deputies, Solomon Botarelli and Baron de Castres, that proved that a Christian woman had baptized a Jewish girl against her will in that place, thus forcing the local Christians inhabitants to have their children baptized in the Church of St. Jacques de la Corrigerie.

The 15th century brought about a general worsening of the Jewish status in Marseilles; they suffered more than the Christian inhabitants of the city when Marseilles was captured by the Aragonese troops of King Alphonso V in 1423. Many Jews left Marseilles at the time seeking shelter in other communities in Provence. When Provence was incorporated into the Kingdom of France in 1481, the situation of the Jews of Marseilles worsened considerably. Following accusations of usury, the inhabitants of Marseilles attacked the Jewish neighborhoods pillaging them and killing numbers of Jews in 1484 and again in the early months of 1485, leading to an exodus of Jews from the city, especially to Sardinia which became home to about 200 Jewish families of Marseilles. King Charles VIII (1483-1498), however, was not inclined to conform to the popular demand of expelling the Jews from Provence. He decreed that all Jews wishing to leave should be allowed to leave Marseilles unharmed on condition they had fulfilled all their engagements with the Christians. The city authorities, on the other hand, were not prepared to let the Jews leave Marseilles with their property and took various measures in order to reduce their emigration, among others they organized an inventory of the Jewish property in Marseilles in 1486.

The resulting protests of the Jews assured the royal intervention and a few additional years of protection. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 brought new Jewish inhabitants to Marseilles, in 1492 the Jewish community of Marseilles ransomed 118 Jews of Aragon captured by the pirate Bartholemei Janfredi, having paid the sum of 1,500 écus, which it borrowed from a Christian. Renewed anti-Jewish attacks in 1493 eventually led to the general expulsion of the Jews from Marseilles as ordered by a royal decree that was carried out completely by 1501. About half of the Jews of Marseilles left for Italy, Northern Africa, Ottoman Empire, especially to Salonika, while others preferred the Papal estates in Provence – the Comtat-Venaissin, with the remaining half converting to Christianity in order to escape expulsion.

Most Jews of Marseilles lived in the Jewish quarter of the city that was known by the name of its main street as Carreria Jusatarie or Carreria Judæorum. Along with the neighboring lanes it formed a kind of island designated Insula Juzatarie. The Church authorities strived to maintain the Jews inside a separate district and opposed any attempt of leaving it. Various documents mention two synagogues in Marseilles during the late Middle Ages: one called Scola Major, and the other Scola Minor, and possibly a third synagogue also functioned for some time. The medieval Jewish cemetery was located at a place consequently known as Mont-Juif or Montjusieu, but following the expulsion of 1501, the place was destroyed having been transferred to a Christian landlord.

Cultural Life in the Middle Ages
Marseilles was during the Middle Ages an important center of Jewish civilization. The Jews of Marseilles were part of the Provencal Jewish culture that was closer to the Jewish culture of Sepharad, although they remained outside the direct influence of the Arabic civilization so dominant in the Iberian Peninsula. Benjamin of Tudela mentions a number of scholars, among them R. Isaac b. Abba Mari of Marseilles (c.1122 – c.1193), commentator, author of prayers, and codifier, best known for his work Ittur Sofrim or Ittur.

Marseilles was the home of several members of the Ibn Tibbon family of translators, philosophers, physicians and commentators who were instrumental in uncovering the Jewish works of philosophy originally written in Arabic for the Hebrew readers of Provence and beyond in France and Northern Europe. Members of ibn Tibbon family who lived in Marseilles include Jacob ben Machir ibn Tibbon (c.1286 – c.1304, in Montpellier), Moses ibn Tibbon (active between 1240 and 1283), Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon (c.1150, in Lunel – c.1230). Solomon Nasi ben Isaac Nasi Cayl, was a liturgical poet known to have lived in Marseilles in the 1280’s. Other distinguished medieval Jewish scholars that lived in Marseilles during the late Middle Ages include Nissim Ben Moses of Marseilles (active in the early 14th century), who wrote a Torah commentary entitled Sefer Ha-Nisim or Maaseh Nissim, widely regarded as delivering a rationalist attitude. One of Maimonides’ letters was sent to the “Wise Men of the Congregation of Marseilles”. Samuel ben Yehudah (ben Meshulam) HaMarsili, also known as Miles Bonjudas (or Bongodos, in Provencal), surnamed Barbaveira, born in Marseilles in 1224, translated a number of philosophical and scientific tractates from Arabic into Hebrew.

Joseph ben Jochanan, sometimes called “the Great” in recognition of his erudition, a native of Northern France, became rabbi in Marseilles in 1343. Yehuda Ben David, also known as Bonjudas Bendavi (or Bondavin) or Maestre Bonjua, was a Talmud scholar and a physician of the late 14th century and early 15th century, later in his life he emigrated to Sardinia, where he settled in Alghero and then became rabbi of the Jewish community of Cagliari. Jacob Ben David Provencali, a Talmud commentator of the second half of the 15th century, lived in Marseilles making a living from maritime commerce, until he left the city for Naples in late 1480’s. There were 34 Jewish physicians in Marseilles during the 15th century, among them a special mention should be made of Abraham de Meyrargues who lived during the early years of the 15th century, and Bonnel de Lattès, a descendent of a distinguished Jewish family, he became a personal physician to Pope Alexander VI.

Early Modern Period
A second Jewish community started in Marseilles after 1669, when two Jews of Livorno, Italy, Joseph Vais Villareal and Abraham Atthias, took advantage of an edict of King Louis XIV, that promised tax exemption for the port of Marseilles, and settled in the city along with their families. They were followed by other Jews, but at the pressure of the citizens of Marseilles in 1682 an expulsion order was promulgated against Villareal, followed by occasional expulsions of other Jews who settled in Marseilles like Lopez, originally from Bordeaux, who was forced to leave the city in 1711.

The modern Jewish community of Marseilles was founded in 1760; by 1768 they already had a small synagogue in a rented house on rue de Rome and a Jewish cemetery started to function in 1783 in the Rouet quarter after the land was purchased with the help of donations by 48 wealthy members of the community. A new synagogue was opened in 1790 at 1, rue du Pont. This new community was known for a long period as the Portuguese community as most of its founding families belonged to the Sephardi communities of Livorno, Italy – de Silva, Coen, de Segni, Attias, Foa, Gozlan, Cansino, Vital, and Tunis – Darmon (also spelled D’Armon), Boccara, Lumbroso, Daninos, Bembaron. They were joined by Jewish families from Avignon – Rigau, Duran, de Monteaux, Ravel, Ramut, Graveur, Caracasone, while others came from the Eastern Mediterranean countries – Constantini, Huziel, Brudo, Coen de Canea and from Tunisia – Semama, Lahmi, Bismot.

Sabaton Constantini, a merchant of Candia (now Heraklion, in Crete, Greece) was instrumental in setting the basis of the new community. Constantini even met King Louis XVI of France in 1782 and received the royal approval for Jewish settlement in Marseilles and immediately 13 families received the right of settling in Marseilles.

The Parliament of Aix-en-Provence recognized the Jewish community of Marseilles in 1788 and the privileges granted to it already in 1776. On the same occasion Daniel de Beaucarie, a Provencal Jew, is recognized as representative of the Jewish community of Marseilles. The “Jewish Nation” of Marseilles, numbering about 200 members, was granted full emancipation by the French Revolution already in January 1790, almost two years before the general emancipation of all Jews in France.

New settlers came to Marseilles from other Jewish communities in Provence – Cremieu and Delpuget from Avignon, other branch of the Delpuget family came from Cavaillon as well as Jews from Aleppo (now in Syria): Marini, Sciama, Altaras. The community adopted the rite of the Jewish community of Livorno and Spanish was employed on a daily basis. In the wake of internal disputes, the community was reorganized in 1804, at the time its population was estimated at about 300 members. The establishment of a consistory in 1808 reinforced the leading role of the Jewish community of Marseilles over other Jewish communities in the south of France.

The Establishment of the Modern Community

The growth of the Jewish community of Marseilles continued throughout the 19th century when many local Jews distinguished themselves in the economic life of the city. Jews were active in the industrial and financial development of the city as well as in the international commerce with the countries of Northern Africa. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the sustained economic growth of Marseilles brought about new economic opportunities for the local Jews. The 19th century also saw the integration of the Jewish community into the social and political life of Marseilles. Traditionally supporters of the government in power, at the fall of the Second Empire, the community chose to endorse the Republican parties and especially Leon Gambetta who received the backing of Gustave Naquet, editor of Peuple, a local newspaper that promoted democratic ideals. On the other hand two Jews, Adolphe Carcassone and especially Gaston Cremieux became the leaders of the local Revolutionary Commune in the spring of 1871. Following the fall of the radical movement, Gaston Cremieux who headed the Revolutionary Commission of the Département Bouches-du-Rhône was arrested and tried for his role in the revolt. He was eventually condemned to death and executed in November 1871, the only one among the leaders of the Commune.

The success of the Jews of Marseilles was met by the conservative sections of the society with growing opposition that towards the end of the 19th century turned into open anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish attitudes were propagated by Auguste Chirac of Marseilles in works published already in 1876, but the climax of the anti-Semitic campaign was reached during the Dreyfus affair. Marseilles became an important meeting point for both the supporters of Dreyfus as well as for his detractors. An “Anti-Semitic conference” held in January 1898 in Marseilles generated riots against local Jews with the mob attacking Jewish-owned shops.

During the second half of the 19th century and then in the early years of the 20th century the number of the Jews of Marseilles grew constantly turning the city into the second-largest Jewish community in France, after Paris. Despite the troubled years of the Dreyfus affair, many Jews of Marseilles succeeded in climbing the social ladder and occupying important positions in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the city. Special mention should be made of such personalities as Jules Isaac Mires (1809-1871), a Bordeaux-born financier who played an active role in promoting the local press in Marseilles as well as in undertaking large construction projects of a harbor and new districts, and Jacques Isaac Altaras (1786-1873), born in Aleppo, Syria, who became a ship-builder and philanthropist. Altaras was president of the Jewish Consistory of Marseilles for some thirty years, during which he tried unsuccessfully to advance a project of resettling Russian Jews in the French-occupied Algeria.

The cultural life of the Jews of Marseilles was enriched by the activities of the author and journalist Louis Astruc (1857-1904), the painter Edouard Cremieux (1856-1944), Edouard Foa (1862-1901), a geographer and explorer of Africa, Andre Suares (1868-1948), an author best known for his Condottiere (1910), and the world-famous composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), born in Marseilles.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish community of Marseilles endeavored to purchase land for a new cemetery that finally opened in 1855 in St. Pierre neighborhood. The old cemetery of Rouet was closed and in the 1970’s it disappeared beneath new urban developments, the remains and the headstones having been transferred to the new cemetery.

A second synagogue was opened in 1820 in rue Grignan, but the demographic growth of the community soon brought about the need for an additional, more spacious synagogue. Donations by community members enabled the acquisition of a land plot on rue Breteuil, not far from the old port of Marseilles. The new synagogue, called Temple Breteuil, opened on September 22, 1864, having been built according to the plans of the architect Nathan Salomon. The design chosen uses Oriental motifs fashionable at the time, especially in Marseilles that tried to present itself as the “Gate to Orient” and contained similarities with a number of important churches built at the same time in Marseilles. The architectural style tried to express the desire of the local Jewish community of presenting its Judaism as more acceptable for their Christian neighbors, an attitude typical of the decades following the Jewish emancipation. Temple Breteuil also houses the offices of the Jewish consistory.

The Holocaust
The growth of the Jewish community of Marseilles continued into the first half of the 20th century. In 1939 there were about 39,000 Jews in Marseilles. Along with Lyons, Marseilles had the largest Jewish population in the south of France and sheltered the largest number of Jewish organizations and institutions. During the late 1930’s numerous Jewish refugees from Germany, many of them lacking legal documents, and after 1940, also Jews from other regions of France sought shelter in the city. Marseilles remained in the “free zone” of France from 1940 until 1942 when following the Allied landing in North Africa, the Germans occupied the city. The German occupation worsened the condition of the Jews in Marseilles; many went underground while many others were arrested during massive operations conducted jointly by the Germans and the French police. Some 6,000 Jews were arrested on the night of January 23rd, 1943. Of the arrested Jews of Marseilles, about 4,000 were eventually deported to Nazi concentration camps. Jewish property was seized and transferred to “Aryan” owners. At the end of WW II, there were only about 10,000 Jews left in Marseilles.

Hiram (Harry) Bingham, IV (1903-1988), who served as US vice-consul in Marseilles distinguished himself as a Righteous among the Nations: during his service in Marseilles between 1939 – 1941, he issued more than 2,500 US entry visas to Jewish and other refugees, including many personalities like the painter Marc Chagall and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. Bingham cooperated with the French Resistance movement in smuggling Jews to Spain or North Africa, sometimes paying the expenses out of his own money. Some Jews went underground and joined the French Resistance movement; however, their actions were not aimed at stopping the deportations of Jews.

The 2000’s
After WW2 Marseilles served for a long period of time as a transit port for Holocaust survivors and then for Jews from North African countries on their way to Israel. The independence of Tunisia in 1956 and the Suez campaign in Egypt in the same year brought about a wave of Jewish immigrants to Marseilles. They were joined in the early 1960’s by Jewish emigrants from Morocco and Algeria.

In 1969, the Jewish community of Marseilles numbered about 65,000 members: at the time it was the second-largest Jewish community in France and the third-largest in the whole of Western Europe. During the early 1970’s there were more than a dozen of active synagogues in Marseilles and its suburbs, and also three community centers, a Jewish primary school, an ORT vocational school, and a well-developed network of associations and organizations including youth movements.

In the early 2000’s Marseilles harbors about 80,000 Jews, the second largest Jewish community of France and one of the largest anywhere in the Diaspora. Marseilles also has by far the largest Jewish population anywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, outside Israel. The religious and the community life of the Jews of Marseilles are coordinated by the Consistory. During the last decades of the 20th century, it has been instrumental in providing the means for strengthening the spiritual as well as the material needs of the community. The Jewish community of Marseilles operates 44 synagogues that are attended daily by more than 5,000 people. In addition, there are 20 Jewish study centers. Marseilles has a Beth Din, and there are some 50 rabbis serving in the city’s synagogues. The largest number of Jewish wedding ceremonies, Bar and Bat-Mitzvah ceremonies are being held at the Central Synagogue on Breteuil Street. There are in Marseilles more than 35 stories that sell kosher products as well as more than 20 kosher restaurants. The Jewish education in Marseilles is advanced in 17 Jewish schools; of them, four are State schools. There are 11 Talmud-Torah attended by more than 500 children. Helping the needy is also on the high priorities of the community that operates a well-developed network of charity associations. During the early 2000’s there has been a significant increase in the anti-Semitic attitude and violence in France that also has affected the Jewish community of Marseilles, the arson of Or Aviv synagogue on April 1, 2002, caused a real shock in the community as well as in France and the entire world. The community of Marseilles maintains a warm and strong relationship with Israel and many of its members have relatives in Israel.


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  • Ryan, Donna F. The Holocaust & the Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France.