The biggest difference lies in the behavior of the Jewish communities. The Italians faced an active neo-fascist movement after the war, and quickly figured out they could not rely on the state for decent security. Jewish leaders knew they would have to do it by themselves. Led by the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, the Jews organized an underground defense organization and created new, small synagogues to nurture and train young men. This organization, led by tough-minded rabbis (the “political” leaders of the Rome community were generally fashionable leftists who had no stomach for fighting. This changed in recent years), defended the Jews and attacked the neo-fascists and neo-Nazis (breaking into their offices, seizing and publicizing their documents, and attacking them in the streets).
The result? Today, Italian antisemites — who certainly exist — are very careful. They do not expect to win either a political confrontation or a street fight.
The French Jewish community, including much of the rabbinate, relied much more on the state. The “political” leaders, as in Italy, catered favor with the government, and there was no organization of the sort that blossomed, and eventually won, in Rome and elsewhere on the peninsula. To be sure, there are defense organizations — notably Betar and the Jewish Defense League, as we saw last week when they defended the synagogue in Rue de la Roquette in Paris — but they are not integral parts of the community. If anything, they are often shunned by community leaders.
One hears a great deal about the presumed doom of the Jews of Europe, and undoubtedly Jews are under attack in many quarters of the old continent. But we would do well to avoid generalizations about the condition and future of “European Jews,” and look more closely at specific cases. The picture is not entirely gloomy. Judaism is flourishing in Italy, both religiously and politically. We should learn.