Jews are dramatically under attack in France, but Judaism is booming in Italy.
The mounting campaign against French Jews was notably on display with attacks against Parisian synagogues last week, and with big anti-Israel demonstrations over the weekend despite an official ban. Some Jews are increasingly considering emigration — the French emigration rate to Israel is up 60% — and many others are attempting to conceal their religious identity.
As I have written in some detail, things are quite different in Italy, where big pro-Israel demonstrations are common, kosher restaurants, especially in Rome (the biggest Italian Jewish community at around 15,000), are very popular, the old Jewish quarter around the synagogue has become trendy and pricy, and Jewish festivals abound. There is even a trend, especially and unexpectedly in the south, towards conversion to Judaism. The chief rabbi of Naples recently wrote to the governors of the six southern provinces, proposing an annual day of commemoration of the forced conversion of the southern Italian Jews during the Inquisition, and some of the governors are likely to embrace the proposal.
Why the striking contrast between France and Italy? Why are the French Jews so frightened, while the Italians are doing so well? There are many differences, some historic, others linked to the contemporary behavior of the Jewish communities. I think the lessons from the Italian Jewish revival should be taken to heart by Jewish communities elsewhere, including the United States.
First, the very different national traditions. Keep in mind that France has the largest Jewish community in Europe, while Italy’s is one of the tiniest.
Most people think “Germany” when they think about European antisemitism, but modern mass antisemitism was a late 19th century French invention that subsequently spread to other Western countries. Its infamous early appearance was the Dreyfus Affair, when a Jewish military officer was falsely accused and then convicted of treason. Theodor Herzl attended the trial, concluding that Jews would never be welcome in Europe, and needed their own state. Thus was Zionism born.
The current campaign against the French Jews is in part a continuation of that old-fashioned right-wing antisemitism, intimately tied to nationalist and longstanding Catholic Jew-hatred, in part a result of radical Islamism, with deep roots among the expanding Arab community, and in part encouraged by radical leftist hatred of Israel and Jews who support it.
In contrast, there is no tradition of mass antisemitism in Italy. While the fascist regime did many terrible things, Jew-hatred never gained mass appeal. Unlike France, there was no popular antisemitic movement in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As in France, many Muslims have come to Italy, but they are much more assimilationist and much less Islamist (roughly 5% of Muslims in Italy are regular mosque attendees). As for the Catholic majority, Pope Francis is the third consecutive pro-Jewish pope. When his Jewish friends from Buenos Aires come for a visit, he orders kosher takeout from those popular restaurants around the synagogue. The Vatican reacts critically to antisemites, which counts for a lot in Italy.
In addition, while both countries have center-left governments, French President Hollande has no pro-Jewish background comparable to that of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who assisted the Florentine Jews when he was mayor, and even arranged for the illumination of the city’s synagogue.
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.