Malta Diary “To the love of our Father Jahwe”
The Phoenicians from Tyre and Sidon (Lebanon) began their trading connection with Malta and Gozo between 1200 and 1000 BC and appraised the Stone Age Temples at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija (Gozo) that had been built at least 2,000 years preceding their arrival.
At this period of time it is recorded that Tyre and Sidon had established extremely friendly terms with the Jewish race in Palestine and further records the Phoenicians and Jews having agreed to carry out joint trading ventures throughout the rest of the Mediterranean. The Jews were represented by the seafaring tribes of Zebulon and Asher and thus is recorded the first Jewish acquaintance with the Maltese islands.
Having already embraced monotheism, the Jewish arrivals were probably bemused and maybe angered by the temples as evidence of heathenism and polytheism and thus their being amongst “barbarians” as in 60 AD another accidental Jewish personality arrival in Malta pronounced – i.e. the shipwrecked Saul of Tarsus (St Paul) – in describing the Maltese inhabitants he found, polytheistic, heathen and non-Latin speaking.
The Phoenician-Jewish seafarers also found their way to Gozo and on the hard ground near the inner apse of the Ggantija Temple in Gozo, in the Phoenician alphabet is scratched the phrase “To the love of our Father Jahwe” to assert their venerated monotheism to the One that could not be called by Name.
During the Roman occupation of Malta (200 BC to 550 AD) there is evidence of Jewish community settlement in Malta as seen by carved Menorahs (the seven branch candlesticks) and a number of Greek inscriptions on a number of Jewish catacombs at Rabat (Malta). In recent years there were plans to build over the catacombs which led to protests by present-day Jewish inhabitants in Malta.
The accidental arrival of Saul of Tarsus in 60 AD changed the course of the islands’ history as a result of his successful work during his three-month stay to convert the “heathen and barbarian” Maltese to Christianity and thus the veneration of another Jewish personality i.e. Jesus Christ.
When the Roman Empire collapsed and the Carthaginians were expelled from Malta by the invading Moors of the Islamic Caliphate it is estimated that a community of 250 Jewish people was living in Malta, engaged in medicine, commerce and farming and continued to live here under Arab rule (870 to 1090 AD).
A census taken at the time records that there were 47 Christian families in Malta living alongside 25 Jewish families – taking “family” in the widest sense of the word, that is common surnames and inter-related surnames. There were also five Jewish families living in Gozo.
However, when the Arabs withdrew and were finally expelled by a succession of French and Spanish royal rulers, matters took a nasty turn. On the European mainland there had already sprung rampant signs of anti-Semiticism and these were carried over into Malta. The Jewish community was forced to pay heavy taxes, finance military campaigns and build fortifications by the Colonial masters of all the islander residents.
Things became even nastier in 1492 when Spanish royalty ordered the immediate expulsion of all Jews from Spain, Malta and Sicily. When the King of Spain handed Malta and Gozo to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem after they had been expelled from Rhodes, discrimination became even nastier. Captured Jews were forced into slavery and many worked as galley slaves, estimated to be the darkest of episodes in Malta’s long Jewish legacy.
During this period the British author and playwright Christopher Marlowe published his book “The Jew of Malta” with all its sinister depictions as with Shylock in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.
Nevertheless, members of the Jewish faith played their part in defeating the invading Ottoman Turks in the 1565 Great Siege of Malta, playing their part in helping relieve the besieged fort of St Elmo and when the Ottomans were finally defeated and Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette set out to build the new capital city of Valletta, they laboured in the construction of fortifications.
With the expulsion of the Knights by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, he immediately removed all restrictions on Judaism and similarly when the British undertook responsibility and protection of Malta, all restrictions were removed.
As a result of this new liberal freedom, and a boom in trade resultant from the British naval presence, Jewish families began to return to Malta, many coming from Gibraltar, England, Portugal, Italy and North African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, including rabbis but also entrepreneurs and traders. By 1881, the majority were British having been born in England, Malta or Gibraltar. Many were in commerce or finance, together with a number of shopkeepers and tradesmen.
During World War II, Malta was the ONLY country in which incoming Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany did not require visas.
One of the more famous personalities in Jewish history during the Middle Ages was Avraham Ben Samuel Abulafia who lived in Malta for many years as a hermit on the tiny island of Comino. Born in 1240 in Zaragossa (Spain) he claimed to be a visionary and a prophet and later declared himself as The Messiah when he predicted the Messianic era would begin in the year 1290 and further declared that Judaism, Christianity and Islam would become one religion.
In 1280 on Ros Hashana (the Jewish New Year 5040) he foolishly decided to visit Pope Nicholas III to declare his prophesy and to plead for an end to persecution of Jews and for his pains was instantly sentenced to be burnt to death. With the pyre already stoked up, Pope Nicholas died suddenly from a heart attack and Abulafia was freed and returned to Malta where he continued to write many mythical essays, philosophical and grammatical works until his death some time after 1291. The family name Salafia (Abu means father in Semitic) still exists in Malta today.
The majority of Jewish families before expulsions commenced resided mostly in Mdina (the old Maltese capital city) and were known to be prosperous, had large houses and owned agricultural land. There was also a smaller community at Birgu (Vittoriosa). Various places around Malta and Gozo still have Jewish connotations to this day and are popularly known as “Ghar Lhudi (i.e. Jehudi)” (Jewish Cave) and “Ghajn Lhudi” (Jewish well). Several villages in Malta and Gozo have a square named “Misrah Lhudi” (Jewish Square) and Gozo has a “Wied Lhudi” (Jewish Valley).
With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, relations between Maltese Governments and Israel have always been friendly and cooperative. In the late 1950s, even though Malta was still a British colony, the then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff (who had extremely friendly relations with Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser) unsuccessfully acted as a go-between to reconcile Egypt and Israel. Official diplomatic relations were established in 1966 (two years after Malta’s Independence) and there was extensive cooperation in the agricultural sectors.
In 2005 a bilateral cooperation agreement was signed between the two governments covering developments in health and medicine and encouraging joint studies and consultations. In 1997 extensive cooperation was established in technical trades training and in October 2013 Malta’s current Prime Minister Joseph Muscat paid a first official visit to Israel, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and further strengthening bilateral relations in the energy and health sectors.
There are still three Jewish cemeteries in existence in Malta, the Kalkara Jewish Cemetery (which is now closed), the Ta’ Braxia Jewish Cemetery and the Marsa Jewish Cemetery which is still in use today. Unfortunately, the numbers of Jewish families have now dwindled throughout Malta and Gozo, but the Jewish legacy remains historical and strong.