The first traces of Jewish presence in Montenegro date from ancient Duklja, the ruins of which are located close to the center of Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. Archaeologists have ascertained that the graves discovered in its necropolis had belonged to Jews.
By the 12th century, Jews living within the borders of present-day Montenegro in areas surrounding today’s towns of Pljevlja, Plav, Gusinj, Bijelo Polje, Berane and Ulcinj (then ruled by the Ottoman Empire) were generally well received. Most of the community were Sephardim, from Spain and Portugal (as well as Constantinople at the beginning of the 16th century), and were largely involved in salt trading. The early Montenegrin Jewish community was also hugely influential in the trade route linking the northern and southern ends of the lands ruled by the Ottomans.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Shabbtai Tzvi, who proclaimed himself messiah and had a great number of followers, lived, worked and most likely was buried in Ulcinj. In her work “Traces of Jews in the Bay of Kotor,” Lenka Blehova Celebic emphasizes the influence Jews had on the development of commerce in those regions, especially in organizing international commerce. Isaije Koen, a famous Portuguese doctor and poet of Jewish origin, better known as Flavio Eborenze Didako Piro, who wrote a book about his exile, was buried in Herceg Novi.
A number of conflicts in the region disrupted the Montenegrin Jewish community, notably with the Serbians waging war against the Ottomans for their independence in addition to the more overarching Napoleonic war(s). The aftermath of such fighting saw the emergence of an independent Serbia in 1830 and the return of a larger number of Jewish people in the area. However, the newly independent Serbian government was somewhat hostile to its Jewish citizens, as it prohibited Jews from certain professions.
Despite fluctuations of tolerance and persecution, the Jewish community in the area remained a constant presence, largely seen in Kotor, where a large Jewish community existed. They were mostly concentrated in Kotor, as it was the administrative center. It should be mentioned that Jews were also present in these regions earlier. The fact that one part of Kotor’s cemetery was reserved for Jewish inhumations testifies to the respect Jews in the Bay of Kotor have enjoyed.
The decades following World War II saw a continued fluctuation of attitudes towards the Jewish inhabitants of modern-day Montenegro. The breakup of Yugoslavia saw the Jewish communities of the region thrown into the violence. However, complete Montenegrin independence would not come to fruition until 2006. Today, Montenegrin Jews enjoy a sense of stability that has allowed the community to prosper and flourish.