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The presence of Jews in Europe is certified from the third century B.C.E., mainly thanks to archeological sources and inscriptions both in Greece and in Italy. The wars of the Romans in Asia Minor mark the origin of the arrival of Jewish captives on the Roman slave market, while Rome itself attracted emissaries and merchants. Rabbinic sources, the New Testament, and Josephus confirm the establishment of an important Jewish community there in the first century C.E., attested to by catacombs and hundreds of inscriptions. Jews were also present in many other places in Italy, especially along the trade routes leading to the ports commanding trade with the East. Archeological remains of catacombs and synagogues have been discovered in Apulia and Calabria. It is probable that no Roman province existed without a Jewish settlement. The Jewish population of Rome has been estimated in dozens of thousands.
In the early Middle Ages, Jews settled throughout major regions of Europe. In this period the Mediterranean–Hellenistic Jewry of antiquity separated and developed into Byzantine–southern Italian, Roman, Catalan-southern French and Arabic–Sicilian branches. During the later part of the Ashkenazic (northwestern and northern European) and Sephardic (Iberian) periods, Jewish communities came into being as distinctive entities, distinct from earlier collective trends. Jews held to a common creed yet differed in language, religious custom and ritual, social organization, occupations and legal standing.
The Jewish diaspora in Europe at the beginning of the modern age was characterized by small communities, whose presence in the various territories was determined by specific economic and social dynamics. Growing religious intolerance and the establishment of a strong Christian anti-Judaism was the cause of numerous massacres and expulsions of Jewish communities. The communities of the Rhine area were overwhelmed by the first Crusades; several burnings of Hebrew books and forced conversions are recorded in France and Spain in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; expulsions occurred in France and England. The most significant expulsion occurred in Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). Since the end of the 15th century, the European Jewish population has increasingly concentrated in the central eastern area of the continent. While starting from the mid-16th century many Jewish communities were forced to live in ghettos, the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania facilitated the immigration of Jews, to whom it offered moderate administrative autonomy, as evidenced by the institution of the Va'ad Arbà Arazòt, the Committee of the Four Lands, in place from the mid-century to the end of the 1700s.
With the French Revolution and then with the birth of bourgeois nations, the Jewish minority was slowly but progressively emancipated and Jews became citizens equal to others, no longer subject to special laws.
At the end of the nineteenth century, growing anti-Semitic pressure generated numerous massacres (pogroms) of Jews in Russia, leading to the emigration of over two million Jews to the United States and Western Europe. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jewish population in Europe was still concentrated in the central-eastern area where several million of Jews were settled. Poland housed more than three and a half million Jews, one tenth of the total population.
In the 1930s, Hitler’s rise to power and the birth of various racist and fascist regimes in Europe propelled the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews. With the Second World War, the strategy of the so-called "final solution" was finally activated, leading to the deportation and assassination of about six million European Jews in extermination camps.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the remains of the European Jewish communities were reorganized. There were several outbound migratory flows, mainly to Israel, and some inbound, mostly Jews expelled from Arab and Muslim countries. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, several hundred thousand Russian Jews emigrated to Israel, Germany and the United States. Since the beginning of the new millennium, tens of thousands of Jews from Israel have immigrated to Europe.
Today, Jewish communities in Europe number about 1.5 million individuals and are organized into communities of different religious orientations, both Orthodox and Reformed. Most European Jews are secularized. Since 1986, the European Jewish communities have established a representative body, the European Jewish Congress.
Gadi Luzzatto Voghera