You may remember when the Bible tells us that the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta. This Mediterranean island has both a rich biblical and Jewish history – and many tourists have recently flocked to the island to learn more. When the Tablet’s Alyssa Pinsker took a tour of Malta thanks to a new tourism program that introduces visitors to Malta’s Jewish heritage, she learned that Jews have in fact lived here since biblical times.
We learned the history of Jewish Malta along the way, in the streets and in the restaurants of Gozo and Malta. Jews have been in Malta from the time of the seafarer tribes. The first Jew in Malta was Saul, later known as Paul, in 62 CE, who introduced Christianity. The catacombs show that Jews lived on Malta during the fourth and fifth centuries. During the Middle Ages under Norman rule in 1091, 500 Jews lived on the main island of Malta and 350 on Gozo. Jews prospered here and were not required to live in ghettos, but in 1492 the Spanish Edict of Expulsion forced all Jews to leave the country and pay for the losses caused by their expulsion. Several dozen Maltese Jews then converted to Christianity, hence the current Christian Maltese Jewish surnames. Others joined the Levant community in Sicily.
In 1530, Charles V of Spain gave Malta to the Catholic order known as the Knights of St. John. Some conversos moved back, practicing their religion in secret, but Jews were not safe, as the Christian Knights of St. John would take Jews hostage for ransom. Under their rule, there were many Jewish slaves, and any free Jews who wished to visit the country were forced to enter the remaining Jews’ sally port and stay overnight in prisons during their stay. The Jews’ sally port still stands in the capital city of Valletta; a bar nearby is called Jews Sally Port, and its logo is an Orthodox-looking man.
What ultimately freed all Jews was the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. During the two-year French rule from 1798 to 1800 and subsequent British rule until 1964, when Malta became independent, Jews came from Gibraltar, England, North Africa, Portugal, and Turkey. In the 20th century, many Jews fleeing Nazism came to Malta, as it was the only European country that didn’t require visas for Jews to enter. Today there are about 100 Jews living in Malta.