The Israelites march out of Egypt beyad ramah, “with a high hand”, in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach. (To read my 2013 essay on that rare phrase in the Torah, you can click here: Beshallach: High-Handed.)
Beyad ramah, like the English idiom “high-handed”, means arrogantly doing something without consulting or collaborating with others. In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite slaves march out of Egypt fearlessly, even arrogantly, taking their Egyptian neighbors’ jewelry with them.
Three days later at the Reed Sea, they see the Egyptian army behind them and they feel powerless once more. Forty years later in Canaan, they kill, plunder, and conquer the native population in a way that could be considered high-handed. After that a few Jewish kings act arrogantly in the Torah, but the Israelites as a people rarely have the opportunity. Both Israelite kingdoms are small and eventually swallowed up by their powerful neighbors.
For almost two millennia, from the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. to the founding of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem and its surrounding province were subservient to the government of one larger empire after another. Jews who emigrated to other countries were only rarely considered peers of the majority group; discrimination ranged from being charged an extra tax to being murdered by mobs. An individual Jew could be high-handed in his own sphere, but a group of Jews could not pull it off until the twentieth century.
When I started working on volunteer committees I learned that if I just did something without consulting everyone who might be involved, I was being high-handed. I remembered how I had hated being treated unfairly and without respect when I was younger, and I learned how to collaborate better.
Can whole groups of people live together with mutual respect?
Sometimes, in some places, Jews have been one respected group living in harmony with other groups. Over the last two millennia, this was often the case in Split, Croatia, the city where I am living this winter.
A Short Illustrated History of Jews in Split
(all photos by Melissa Carpenter)
In the first century B.C.E. the Romans acquired both Syria (which included Jerusalem) and Dalmatia (which included Split). Julius Caesar set an example by granting Jews an exemption from Roman religious practices and permission to follow their own customs. In Jerusalem and the district of Judea, Jews protested in 66 C.E. against Roman taxes and soldiers, and the Roman governor responded by plundering the treasury of the temple. During the war that ensued, the Romans razed the temple.
Meanwhile in Dalmatia, Jews came with the Romans and settled along the coast. Jewish artifacts from as early as the third century C.E. have been found in both Split and the Roman city of Solana across the bay.
Emperor Diocletian, who built his retirement palace in Split around 300 C.E., persecuted and executed local Christians, but left Jews free to observe their own religion.
The Roman Empire was collapsing when Slavs and Avars invaded Dalmatia in the 6th century and seized the city of Salona north of Split. Both Jews and Christians fled across the bay and built stone houses inside the shell of Diocletian’s palace. Archaeologists have yet to determine whether the menorahs carved into buildings stones in the cellars of the palace date from this time or an earlier century.
In the 1490’s Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews. Some ports on the Adriatic Sea refused to accept these refugees, but Split made room for them, and these Sefardic Jews settled in the northwest quarter of Diocletian’s former palace. Eventually that became the Jewish neighborhood of Split.
Split and the rest of the Dalmatian coast north of Dubrovnik were part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1796. In the 16th century one of the Jewish immigrants from Portugal, Daniel Rodriga, persuaded the Venetian government to turn Split into a major port by adding a lazaretto with warehouses and a quarantine building. The doge in Venice agreed and put Rodriga in charge of building the lazaretto in 1572. Rodriga got permission from local authorities to establish a Jewish cemetery on the slope of nearby Marjan Hill in 1573.
Split boomed thanks to Rodriga’s lazaretto, and in the 17th century the Venetians built a defensive wall with bastions to protect their valuable port from the Ottomans, who had captured the other side of the bay. When Ottomans attacked Split in 1657, the Venetian wall was still under construction. The local Jews were trusted with the defense of Diocletian’s northwest tower. The Ottomans were unable to penetrate the city center inside the palace, and townspeople started calling that tower Zidovska Kula, “Jewish Tower”.
At first the Venetian ruling class was remarkably tolerant of Jews compared to the Christians in other countries, and the Jews of Split were free to follow any trades they chose. The only restriction imposed on them was that they could not own property; they had to rent, but they could buy long-term leases. And although Venice itself established a ghetto in 1516, Jews in Split could lease houses wherever they wanted. Most, but not all, chose to live in the old Jewish neighborhood.
This harmony between Christians and Jews lasted until the 18th century. Then in 1738 the Venetian rulers of Split started requiring Jews to wear special hats. In 1778 they ruled that Jews could no longer employ Christians, and created a Jewish ghetto by putting gates in seven of the stone archways over the narrow streets of Diocletian’s old palace. The gates were placed so the ghetto included the buildings where most of the Jews already lived. Jews had to be inside the gates from midnight to sunrise.
When Napoleon captured Split in 1806, all restrictions on Jews were eliminated. But then the Dalmatian coast fell to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which did not grant Jews complete equality and freedom until 1867.
At the end of World War I, Dalmatia became part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was conquered by the Axis powers during World War II. In 1941 Germany installed a puppet government for inland Croatia called the Ustase, which shared the Nazi attitude toward Jews. Meanwhile Italy annexed most of the Dalmatian coast, and the people of Split organized armed resistance against the Italian fascist occupiers. The Jews of Split arranged for Jewish refugees from inland to escape through the port.
Although Italy refused to deport or murder Jews, in 1942 a mob including Italian soldiers attacked the Split synagogue and the people inside, and looted 60 Jewish homes. The following year Italy surrendered to the Allies, and Germany took over, assigning the Dalmatian coast to inland Croatia’s Ustase government. Dedicated to exterminating Croatian Jews and Muslim Serbs, the Ustase created their own concentration camps.
In Split the Ustase found a new use for the barracks at Fort Gripe, which had been built by the Austrians on the north side of a Venetian fort, and occupied by Mussolini’s soldiers for two years. In 1943 the barracks were converted into a prison for the remaining Jews of Split. Two Split doctors, Andrija Poklepovic and Mihovil Silobrcic, managed to rescue some of those Jews by transferring them to a hospital and then claiming they were quarantined because of disease.
The rest of the Jews imprisoned in Split were deported to two Ustase camps, Sajmiste and Jasenovac, where they were all murdered. About 150 of the 284 Jews living in Split in 1940 survived until liberation in 1945.
Croatia and its Dalmatian coastline were part of Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the end of the war to 1991, and due to the country’s official atheism, no rabbis were allowed. The first president of the independent nation of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, was known for his anti-Semitic slurs, and appointed former members of the Ustase to government posts.
Under the new Croatian constitution following Tudman’s departure from office, Jews are one of twelve “autonomous national minorities”, and elect a special representative to the Croatian parliament. The only anti-Semitic incidents I could uncover in the 21st century were the chanting of Ustase slogans, particularly at soccer matches, and the carving of a swastika into the turf of the soccer field in Split in 2015, which resulted in a 100,000 euro fine.
Today the Jewish population of Split is small; about 100 families belong to the Jewish community, which restored the old 16th-century synagogue in 1996 and meets there regularly.
So does Split count as a place where the Jews are respected and live in harmony with other groups? Not always, but more often than most places over the last 2,000 years.
(My thanks to Ivica Profaca, to “Albert” at the synagogue, and to the world’s biggest library, the Internet.)