Home inFocus Europe: Whole and Free? (Fall 2014) The Italian Exception: Defeating the Anti-Semites

The Italian Exception: Defeating the Anti-Semites

Michael Ledeen Fall 2014

The headlines from Europe are all grim. Synagogues assaulted in France, Jews murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and savagely beaten in the streets of Great Britain and Scandinavia, mobs of anti-Semites demonstrating in the central squares, calling for the fulfillment of the Nazi “Final Solution.”

As if that were not bad enough, anti-
Semitism is getting a new lease on life in countries such as Hungary, and public opinion polls show that Jew-hatred and negative Jewish stereotypes are very deeply embedded in Europe. No wonder thoughtful scholars including Michel Gurfinkiel and leaders of the quality of Jewish Agency President Natan Sharansky (“We are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe”) are predicting the doom of European Jewry. No wonder that there is a significant increase in European olim (immigrants to Israel). No wonder one hears more and more French in the streets of Israel.

It remains to be seen if European anti-Semites will gain the upper hand, but in Italy, and especially in Rome—where the largest and oldest Jewish community lives—you will find a very different story. Italian Jews are flourishing, anti-Semites are the ones worried about physical conflict in the streets, and there is even a small, but growing, process of conversion to Judaism, especially in the south.


The oldest remnant of a monotheistic house of worship in Europe is the Jewish synagogue at Ostia Antica, the port of ancient Rome, testifying to the longstanding Jewish presence. There are no reliable statistics about ancient Roman Jews—guesstimates range from a few thousand to more than a million—but there was certainly a sizeable influx after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, and in the next century non-citizen Jews were expelled from Rome. The old Jewish neighborhood on the banks of the Tiber was originally a commercial center, and has remained a largely Jewish neighborhood until the present. Over the centuries, Roman Jews maintained a unique t’filah (prayer) and many claim that the ritual, and especially the music, is the closest exemplar of the celebrations in the Temple. Services in the big synagogue on the Tiber are certainly unique, and a succession of rabbis has maintained their integrity.

Since the entry of Rome into the Italian State (1870), the Jewish population of the capital has apparently been stable at about 15,000 (out of a total national number of 45,000), its current estimated level. There was an influx of refugees from Libya in the 1950s that settled in the area around Piazza Bologna and remain an identifiable group, but that is the only meaningful demographic event.

So the Roman Jewish community has a long tradition, and despite moments of terrible Catholic, fascist and Nazi anti-Semitism, and two hundred years of being closed into the Ghetto area (the Ghetto walls came down in 1870), they have remained proud of their Roman identity. By the early twentieth century, Jews were well accepted in most areas of Italian life and there had been two Jewish prime ministers. During the first fifteen years of the fascist period, Jews held key positions in Italian universities, industry and banking, the arts, literature, and cinema. Mussolini had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti.

Anti-Semitic oppression returned with the passage of the Racial Laws in 1938. Jews were excluded from many professions, subjected to public humiliation, and exiled to labor camps in remote areas (Carlo Levi’s novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, tells a typical story with extraordinary sympathy). Recent literature has painted a much darker picture of Italian fascist anti-Semitism than had previously been presented, but even at its worst, fascist anti-Semitism was incomparably milder than the destruction of the European Jews elsewhere. Nonetheless, the fascists laid the groundwork for extension of the Holocaust into Italy following the overthrow of Mussolini in July 1943 and Italy’s agreement to join the Allies in the war. German troops, which controlled large parts of Italy, immediately began to hunt down the Jews, a task greatly facilitated by a Jewish census in the summer of 1938.

The Roman Jews were grievously diminished: on the night of October 18, 1943, 1,270 Jews were arrested, 235 of whom were released. It went very quickly. On the 23rd, 1,035 Jewish men, women and children arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 839 were murdered in the gas chambers. Today, their names are on small brass plaques in the cobblestones in front of their residences.

During the period between the Racial Laws and the end of the war, there was a tiny Jewish resistance in Rome, from which there emerged a full-fledged self-defense organization in the 1950s. The two key figures were the longtime chief rabbi, Elio Toaff (now retired, 99 years old) and a boxer and street fighter named Pacifico Di Consiglio, better known as “Moretto.”

Toaff was born in Livorno on the Tuscan coast, became rabbi in Venice and went to Rome in 1951. In his public persona, Toaff was modest, unassuming, and careful to cultivate good working relations with the city’s political class and with the Vatican. Privately, he was the driving force of the Jewish underground, and the guru of a new generation of Roman Jews. Over time, Toaff moved the Jewish school from the other side of the Tiber into the old Ghetto area, recruited young teachers, and created a new ritual that incorporated some themes from outside the old Roman tradition. The young Romans frequented the Tempio dei Giovani, the Youth Synagogue, just a stone’s throw from the big synagogue, on the famous island in the river where the Jewish Hospital was housed (and where, in total secrecy, Roman Jews celebrated Shabbat and the holidays throughout the Nazi occupation).

The new t’filah and the revived Jewish schools went hand in hand with self-defense. Moretto was a pure Roman and utterly fearless. Virtually alone, he fought fascist anti-Semites and gave courage to the community. During the Nazi occupation he continued to fight, usually escaping from the SS after the street fights. He was arrested and tortured, but managed to escape, once jumping from a train headed north to the death camps.

Moretto and Toaff worked together very closely, Moretto organizing the fighters who protected the schools, shops and synagogues of the Jewish Community to whom Toaff gave spiritual guidance. Over time, and especially after the murderous assault by Abu Nidal terrorists on the synagogue in 1982, Moretto’s organization increasingly attacked anti-Semitic groups, smashing their offices, seizing their documents, flags and posters, demonstrating in their neighborhoods, and intimidating the fascist sympathizers.

Through most of these years, the Roman Jewish Community was governed by people with no stomach for this sort of conflict. They preferred to curry favor with the city’s overwhelmingly leftist and anti-Israel intelligentsia and political class. But in the early 2000s, the community was taken over by young people who had been raised by Toaff and Moretto, and today their leading figures—notably President Riccardo Pacifici—are outspoken Zionists who constantly denounce all who challenge Jews or Israel. When the Jewish Museum in Brussels was targeted by terrorists a few months ago, the Romans kept their own museum open until midnight in solidarity with the Belgians, and organized a mass rally attended by the country’s political elite. And when three Israeli boys were kidnapped last summer, the Roman Jews organized a mass rally attended by more than a thousand people, including many famous non-Jews.

In Rome, and elsewhere in Italy, the Jews have the upper hand over the anti-Semites. Indeed, Jews, Jewish neighborhoods, and Jewish food have become very popular. The Ghetto neighborhood, which until quite recently was a working-class area, is now very desirable and bursting with activity. Rents and prices are high, lots of kosher restaurants have opened with great success (and the clientele is certainly not limited to observant Jews), and tourists—foreign and Italian—fill the streets.

To be sure, there are Italian anti-Semites and Israel-haters, and their public statements invariably make headlines for all the usual reasons. Yet, during the Gaza battle this summer, there were two big pro-Israel demonstrations, one in Rome and the other in Milan. The Rome demonstration was notable because it was in support of the Jews and Christians in the Middle East. In another significant event, plans for the Rome Shoah (Holocaust) Museum were approved, with the first exhibition already scheduled for next January.

Finally, in yet another indicator of the strength of Italy’s Jewish community, the Italian Government recently expelled an Imam when he preached a radical sermon of the sort commonly heard in Islamist mosques. It was just the most recent of a series of crackdowns.


The self-confidence of Italian Jews is reflected in an unexpected surge of interest in the religion itself, from believers and Christians as well. There are no fewer than eighteen synagogues in Rome, four in Milan, and new shuls (synagogues) are to be found in such very surprising locations as Trani, a small town just outside Bari in the south. There, the concert pianist and researcher Francesco Lotoro—who converted to Judaism in 2004—convinced the authorities to permit him to take charge of one of the town’s oldest churches and turn it back into the synagogue it had been before the Inquisition, the Temple of Scolanova.

Lotoro had a successful performing career, but his enduring contribution is to have collected, performed, arranged, and sometimes recorded thousands of musical compositions from the Holocaust camps. A decade ago, Lotoro decided to become a Jew. He told me he had been interested in, and attracted to, Judaism from the time he was 14 or 15 years old. His grandfather told him about family practices—such as washing hands before meals, not making the sign of the cross at church services, and baking white bread for the Sabbath—that suggested a Marrano background. Years later, he found archival evidence that his grandfather’s grandfather was officially considered to have come from a Jewish family.

Lotoro’s is not the only such story. There is a trickle of conversion throughout the country, but especially in the south, where people are finding evidence that their ancestors were originally Jewish and were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition.

This past March, Shalom Bahbout, at the time chief rabbi of Naples and Southern Italy (now chief rabbi of Venice), sent a letter to the governors of Sicily, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, and Puglia—the old Spanish Viceroyalty—calling on them to institute an annual holiday for “research and memory” about the expulsion or forced conversion of the Jews from the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on Oct. 31, 1541.

“The departure of those people, by all rights native Italians, created grave damage to the cultural, economic, and social patrimony of the southern regions,” Bahbout wrote. His letter stressed that remembering the episode—which is rarely studied or seriously discussed in schools and universities, if at all—was important not only for Jews, but for promoting tolerance of all those considered different or outside the mainstream of society.

Thus far, at least two of the governors have quietly informed their Jewish interlocutors that they will authorize the holiday.

The south has attracted the interest of the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel, which devotes its considerable talents and energies to “lost Jews” worldwide. Its president, Michael Freund, assisted by the former rabbi of Naples, Pinhas Punturello, has organized systematic contact with southern Italian Catholics who have reason to believe they are descendants of forced converts. Last June, they were involved in a very successful Shabbaton (Sabbath program) in the small town of San Nicandro, whose story of the mass conversion of nearly a hundred Catholics during and immediately after the fascist period has become the subject of several books and at least two documentary films.

All this activity revolves around traditional Italian Judaism, and is either managed by, or through, official organizations such as the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. And there is more. An Italian-American Reform rabbi, Barbara Aiello, created a shul in the tiny town of Serrastretta, Calabria, from which her father immigrated to the United States a generation ago. Rabbi Aiello has led public ceremonies in the south, including a Bar Mitzvah in Sicily, only the third public Bar Mitzvah in Sicily since the Inquisition.

Rabbi Aiello also managed the conversion of the celebrant, Vincenzo Uziel Li Calzi. When it proved too difficult to organize through an official rabbinate (Li Calzi’s poor health does not permit him to travel, and the official standards for conversion are traditionally very high and challenging), she brought together three British rabbis who conducted the process by telephone.

Lessons for European and American Jews

With Jews under siege, the Italian case stands out as a remarkable counter-example. First and foremost, it is the story of a tiny community that has not only survived, but flourished, both in terms of physical security and religious enthusiasm. As always, a good deal of the explanation has to do with good leadership. From rabbis like Toaff (and his successor in Rome, Riccardo Di Segni) and Bahbout, to community leaders like Riccardo Pacifici, Italian Jewry has been blessed with brave, tough leaders. But there are other, broader elements, of which two seem particularly important.

1. The role of the state

By and large, European Jews have entrusted their security to their national governments with mixed results. As we see today, when national officials are either personally or politically reluctant to fight anti-Semites, or intimidated by them, the Jews are abandoned. Italians have a deep-seated distrust of government, and determined from the first post-war years to tend to their own defenses. The French, to take the classic example, have relied almost entirely on official security forces to protect them. This subverts efforts from within the community to prepare for dark days. When, in recent months French Jewish self-defense groups defended Parisian synagogues against virulent attacks, official Jewish spokesmen shunned them. In Italy, community leaders organized the self-defense group, and integrated it within an energetic program of religious and cultural training that contributes to the survival and revival of Italian Judaism.

2. The Jew as Victim

Large Jewish organizations in both the old and new worlds devote enormous energy to publicizing anti-Semitism. This is not only proper, but indispensable; it is their raison d’etre. But their campaigns all too often consist of complaints about anti-Semites rather than vigorous action against them. The clearest example in this country is the intimidation of Jewish students and faculty on American college campuses. The Italians do not limit their efforts to public relations; they take the fight physically and politically to their enemies. Rabbis and community leaders are armed and trained, and while they work closely with local authorities, they know there will be times when they will have to defend themselves.

At the June rally in support of the three kidnapped Israeli boys, Rome Community President Pacifici took the microphone and told the crowd, “We are not afraid.”

You don’t hear such words in Paris, Brussels or Copenhagen.

Michael Ledeen is Freedom Scholar, Foundation for Defense of Democracies.