Main suspect in Berlin Christmas market attack killed in Italy


Italian police shot dead the main suspect in a terrorist attack that killed 12 people in Berlin, including an Israeli tourist.

Police stopped the suspect, 24-year-old Anis Amri of Tunisia, for a random inspection in a Milan suburb in the early hours of Friday morning, Reuters reported. He took out a pistol and opened fire, hitting one of the police officers in the shoulder. The officer is recovering.

Other officers returned fire, killing Amri, who German authorities believe plowed a stolen truck on Monday through a Christmas market in Berlin. Among the dead was Dalia Elyakim, who was buried Friday in Israel.

Rami Elyakim, her husband, was among 50 wounded in the attack, which the Islamic State in a statement claimed was the work of one of its “soldiers.” He did not attend his wife’s funeral in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, as he is undergoing treatment in Germany for serious, though not life-threatening injuries, Army Radio reported.

Amri was caught on camera by police on a regular stakeout at a mosque in Berlin’s Moabit district early Tuesday, a few hours after the attack, Germany’s RBB public broadcaster reported. He was not a suspect at that time, and when police raided the mosque Thursday morning they could not find him, RBB said.

German investigators had said they believed Amri was still lying low in Berlin because he is probably wounded and would not want to attract attention, Der Tagesspiegel reported, citing security sources.

In the early hours of Friday morning, special forces arrested two brothers from Kosovo suspected of planning an attack on a shopping mall in the city of Oberhausen, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, police said in a statement.

The brothers, aged 28 and 31, were arrested in the city of Duisburg on information from security sources, the statement said.

Volunteers ride to the rescue in Italian earthquake disaster, Israel offers to send support team


Within hours of the earth shaking and houses collapsing, thousands of volunteers from all over Italy had descended on the country's stricken central mountains to bring what help they could. 

Some were specialist rescuers, who train in their spare time to search for the living and the dead, others were young men and women from nearby communities who just wanted to lend a hand.

The Civil Protection Department said that of the 5,400 people working under its command in the quake zone, including police, soldiers and firemen, more than half were volunteers.

“We dedicate all our free time to training, often to the detriment of our families. Many of us are divorced,” said Paolo Cortelli, a member of the Alpine Rescue national service who is a veterinarian by profession and comes from the nearby city of Terni.

The magnitude 6.2 quake hit before dawn on Wednesday, wreaking havoc on a cluster of towns, villages and hamlets in the heart of Italy. By Thursday, the death toll was put at 241.

Allies such as Germany, France and Israel all offered to send teams to support the disaster relief, but the government politely declined, saying its hugely experienced emergency service and army of unpaid workers did not need any back up.

Pescara del Tronto, a small town perched on the side of a mountain valley, was flattened by the quake, homes folding in, one on top of the other. The majority of men and women who were digging through the dust and debris were volunteers.

“We have helped dig out six or seven corpses,” said Marco Palatroni, 23, who had driven over from his hometown about 40 minutes away with three of his friends to lend a hand.

“I didn't think it would be as dramatic as it seemed on television, but now I think it is even worse.”

Palatroni and his friends brought blankets, food, clothes and water to hand out. Other volunteers came wearing motorcycle helmets instead of hardhats, wearing T-shirts and tennis shoes. 

The fire department chief directing rescue operations in the village, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, welcomed the help of the young people and especially appreciated the expert work of the specialist volunteers from the Alpine Rescue and Civil Protection.

“In the first 24 hours, it's a big help to have all the volunteers we can get, because time is of the essence in an emergency,” he said. 

Three dogs from the Alpine Rescue searched for human scent below the crumpled rubble, helping to find more than 20 bodies on Wednesday, said Cortelli.

Two dogs, both Belgian Malinois Shepherds, were flown down by helicopter from northern Italy. Ax, a male, and Babi, a female, searched what was left of the town, sniffing between the heaps of shattered brick, terra cotta, wood and concrete.

They signaled areas where human smell was still present. Afterward, the volunteers went to work digging, with their hands, with axes, chainsaws and hammers.

“The dogs detect the odor of the living. The dead have a totally different smell, but they retain some of the smell of the living for a few hours,” said Cortelli.

Some of the volunteers were veterans of the rescue effort in Italy's last comparable quake, which hit the central city of L'Aquila in 2009 and killed more than 300 people.

“This is worse than L'Aquila,” said Stefano, 41, who had driven to the quake site some 70 km (45 miles) from his home. “This place is just a pile of rubble. There is nothing left.”

‘Voices under the rubble’ after quake hits Italy; at least 73 dead


A powerful earthquake devastated a string of mountain towns in central Italy on Wednesday, trapping residents under rubble, killing at least 73 people and leaving thousands homeless.

The quake struck in the early hours of the morning when most residents were asleep, razing homes and buckling roads in a cluster of communities some 140 km (85 miles) east of Rome. It was powerful enough to be felt in Bologna to the north and Naples to the south, each more than 220 km from the epicenter.

A family of four, including two boys aged 8 months and 9 years, were buried when their house in Accumoli imploded.

As rescue workers carried away the body of the infant, carefully covered by a small blanket, the children's grandmother blamed God: “He took them all at once,” she wailed.

The army was mobilized to help with special heavy equipment and the treasury released 235 million euros ($265 million) of emergency funds. At the Vatican, Pope Francis canceled part of his general audience to pray for the victims.

Rescue workers used helicopters to pluck trapped survivors to safety in the more isolated villages, which had been cut off by landslides and rubble.

Aerial photographs showed whole areas of Amatrice, voted last year as one of Italy's most beautiful historic towns, flattened by the 6.2 magnitude quake. Many of those killed or missing were visitors.

“It's all young people here, it's holiday season, the town festival was to have been held the day after tomorrow so lots of people came for that,” said Amatrice resident Giancarlo, sitting in the road wearing just his underwear.

“It's terrible, I'm 65-years-old and I have never experienced anything like this, small tremors, yes, but nothing this big. This is a catastrophe,” he said.

The national Civil Protection Department gave the official death toll of 73 at about 12 hours after the pre-dawn quake struck. Scores more will still believed unaccounted for, with the presence of the summer holidaymakers making it difficult to tally.

DISAPPEARING INTO DUST

Patients at the badly damaged hospital in Amatrice were moved into the streets.

“Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi told state broadcaster RAI. “The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there.”

Stefano Petrucci, mayor of nearby Accumoli, said some 2,500 people were left homeless in the local community, made up of 17 hamlets.

Residents responding to wails muffled by tonnes of bricks and mortar sifted through the rubble with their bare hands before emergency services arrived with earth-moving equipment and sniffer dogs. Wide cracks had appeared like open wounds on the buildings that were still standing.

The national Civil Protection Department said some survivors would be put up elsewhere in central Italy, while others would be housed in tents that were being dispatched to the area.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he would visit the disaster area later in the day: “No one will be left alone, no family, no community, no neighborhood. We must get down to work .. to restore hope to this area which has been so badly hit,” he said in a brief televised address.

A spokeswoman for the civil protection department, Immacolata Postiglione, said the dead were in Amatrice, Accumoli and other villages including Pescara del Tronto and Arquata del Tronto.

Most of the damage was in the Lazio and Marche regions. Neighboring Umbria was also affected.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which measured the quake at 6.2 magnitude, said it struck near the Umbrian city of Norcia, while Italy's earthquake institute INGV registered it at 6.0 and put the epicenter further south, closer to Accumoli and Amatrice.

INGV reported 150 aftershocks in the 12 hours following the initial quake, the strongest measuring 5.5.

The damage was made more severe because the epicenter was at a relatively shallow 4 km below the surface of the earth. Residents of Rome were woken by the tremors, which rattled furniture, swayed lights and set off car alarms in most of central Italy.

“It was so strong. It seemed the bed was walking across the room by itself with us on it,” Lina Mercantini of Ceselli, Umbria, about 75 km away from the hardest hit area, told Reuters.

Italy sits on two fault lines, making it one of the most seismically active countries in Europe.

The last major earthquake to hit the country struck the central city of L'Aquila in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

The most deadly since the start of the 20th century came in 1908, when an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed an estimated 80,000 people in the southern regions of Reggio Calabria and Sicily.

Italy’s Jewish community pledges aid to areas hit by earthquake


Italy’s umbrella Jewish organization and the Rome Jewish community have set up a blood donation center to aid victims of the deadly earthquake that hit central Italy early Wednesday morning.

Noemi Di Segni, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, or UCEI, issued a statement saying Italy’s Jews expressed full solidarity with the quake victims and were ready to mobilize “in a concrete and immediate way to confront the current state of emergency.”

The blood center initiative was organized in collaboration with the Jewish Medical Association and an association of Jewish blood donors.

The 6.2 magnitude temblor, followed by numerous aftershocks, devastated towns and villages and killed more than 20 people in a mountainous region about 85 miles northeast of Rome. There are no Jewish communities in the affected region.

After a deadly earthquake hit the town of L’Aquila in 2009, the Italian Jewish community launched an appeal to its members for aid and offered the services of the Jewish hospital in Rome and other health facilities.

Also Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent condolences to the people of Italy over the victims of the earthquake and wished a quick recovery for the injured. He offered search and rescue assistance to his Italian counterpart, Prime Minister Mateo Renzi.

Italy’s Parliament approves bill criminalizing Holocaust denial


Italy’s Parliament approved a bill making spreading Holocaust denial illegal.

The bill, which adds to an existing anti-racism bill, was approved Wednesday evening by the lower assembly of the Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, by a vote of 237-5, with 102 abstentions.

The new law would go after those who deny genocide or crimes against humanity, using the definition by the International Court of Justice, the German news agency DPA reported. Those convicted could face prison terms of two to six years.

The measure punishes ideas “based entirely or partly” on negationist ideology only when “there is a real danger of their dissemination,” according to DPA.

Italy grants $29 million to enable completion of national Jewish museum


Italy’s national Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah, or MEIS, under fitful development in the northeast city of Ferrara for more than a decade, has received a $29 million government grant in order to enable its completion.

Italian Culture and Tourism Minister Dario Franceschini announced the grant Monday as part of a $1.15 billion package of state grants for 33 cultural heritage sites and projects throughout the country.

MEIS was established by federal laws in 2003 and 2006 and has been slowly developed in the building of a former prison in Ferrara. It is due to open with its first major exhibition in a restored part of the building next year.

MEIS will not only be a Holocaust museum, Franceschini told the Italian Jewish information website moked.it.

“It will in fact above all be a place to recount Italian Judaism in all its richness and many facets — its history, its traditions, its multi-millennium presence in this country,” he said. “Culture as a bridge, culture to sweep away any prejudice. To recognize the links between Judaism and the story of Italian cities is in fact the best way to defeat anti-Semites and preachers of hate.”

Italian Torah scroll identified as oldest still in use by a Jewish community


A Torah scroll from the synagogue in the northern Italian town of Biella has been identified as probably the oldest in the world still owned and used by a Jewish community.

Dario Disegni, the president of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Italy, told a meeting of the foundation board in Rome on Wednesday that Carbon 14 dating carried out by the Geochronology Laboratory of the University of Illinois put the date of the scroll at around 1250.

“This is exciting news that is of extraordinary importance for Italian Judaism,” he said.

The scroll, which since 2012 had undergone restoration on behalf of the foundation by an Italian scribe, or sofer, will be returned to the Biella synagogue at a ceremony on Sunday.

The scroll was one of several ancient Torah scrolls examined by experts in 2012 and then chosen as the one best suited for restoration. It was believed originally to date from the 14th century.

It is not rare to find extremely old Torah scrolls, the sofer, Amedeo Spagnoletto, told Italian Jewish media.

“But in this case the scroll has remained completely intact, without a single piece of parchment substituted, from 1250 until today,” he said.

The Biella scroll is not the oldest Torah scroll to have been found in Italy, but is the oldest that is still kosher and used by a Jewish community. In 2013 a Torah in the collection of the University of Bologna library was carbon dated to between 1155 and 1225 and identified as the oldest complete Torah scroll known to exist.

The foundation has launched a $22,000 crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the Biella scroll restoration.

Italy summons US envoy over wiretaps, including Netanyahu-Berlusconi conversation


The Italian government summoned the U.S. ambassador to complain about reports that the United States eavesdropped on a conversation between Israeli and Italian leaders, among others.

John Phillips was called in to “clarify” the latest WikiLeaks revelation, the country’s foreign ministry said Tuesday, the French news agency AFP reported.

The latest batch of U.S. government cables released by Wikileaks, an organization dedicated to government transparency, reveals eavesdropping in 2010 and 2011 on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as on then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. WikiLeaks released the cables to German and Italian newspapers.

One conversation was between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Berlusconi following the fallout between the Obama and Netanyahu governments over an Israeli announcement of building in eastern Jerusalem made during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

In the conversation of March 13, 2010, Berlusconi promises Netanyahu to help mend ties after the Israeli asks for his assistance, the Times of Israel reported.

Italy releases classified documents related to Nazi war crimes


The Italian government has released thousands of previously classified documents related to fascist and Nazi war crimes committed in Italy during World War II.

On Tuesday, the historical archives of the Chamber of Deputies put an index of some 13,000 pages of material on its website. The documents concerned specifics of crimes ranging from anti-Jewish persecution to massacres of civilians that in total resulted in 15,000 deaths.

Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the move a “historic breakthrough.”

The documents were declassified by a parliamentary commission after it investigated the concealing of files related to the crimes. Specifically, the commission had dealt with what was dubbed the “cabinet of shame” – a wooden cabinet discovered in 1994 in a storeroom of the military prosecutor’s headquarters in which 695 files on war crimes had been hidden for decades. Original documents were hidden in the cabinet.

Users can consult the online index and request digital copies of specific documents.

Opening the cabinet of shame to the public, Gattegna said, “fills a serious gap and announces the start of a new season of awareness about the crimes and responsibilities of fascism and Nazism in Italy.”

Pope Francis to visit Rome’s main synagogue


Pope Francis will visit the main synagogue of Rome, the city’s Jewish community announced.

The visit is scheduled for Jan. 17, according to the Tuesday morning announcement.

It will be the third time that a sitting pope will visit the synagogue: Pope John Paul II came in 1986 and Pope Benedict the XVI in 2010.

During his visit, Francis will meet with national and local Jewish leaders.

Whose 5776?


Until I graduated from college, I hadn’t traveled farther than a few hundred miles from home.  Aside from a family visit to Washington, D.C., when I was 11, my firsthand knowledge of the world was limited to the northeast corridor from New Jersey to Boston, and it felt like just about everyone I knew was Jewish. Via media, of course, I acquired vicarious experience through other people, places and times, and what I learned in college, in classes and from books left me thinking I was pretty cosmopolitan. But the truth was that my immediate, unmediated exposure to the global human community put me barely a notch beyond having just fallen off the turnip truck.

I realized how experience-poor I actually was as soon as I began to travel, which I’ve done as often as I can ever since. Anyone who has escaped a parochial bubble knows the advantage of losing your bearings, the fraught discovery that everything you’ve thought was normal turns out to be just your own tribal variant of an unimaginable profusion of ways to know, feel and act in the world. There are, you come to learn, countless local versions of a normal breakfast, a normal parent, a normal song, a normal god. It’s disorienting to realize that when you get back home again and are going about the routine business of your life, the foreign lives you’ve glimpsed are still going on as strangely — and as ordinarily — as ever.  And it’s discomfiting to realize that if they knew how much we privileged our own normalcy, they’d figure out what kind of hicks we’d have to be to believe that.

It’s not an especially original idea, I know, but the first time it hit me was on a trip to Italy. I was 21 and, as I said, still basically a greenhorn about the world. I was a graduate student in England on spring break, on a ferry circling Lake Como, and as the boat made its way from village to village, girls in school uniforms got on and off at each stop, in sight of snowcapped Alps, palm trees and gothic steeples. The ferry functioned as their school bus, and while I was marveling at how exotic a means of getting to and from home it was, to them it was just another weekday. Soon I’d be back at my own weekday life, riding my bike in an ordinary Cambridge drizzle, but these girls in their gray pleated skirts would still be commuting on the lake, whether I was there to witness them or not. My reality wasn’t Reality; it was just mine.  

Last week, for the first time since, I was back on Lake Como. I didn’t see any schoolgirls, but there were plenty of Italians going about their normal business, hopping on and off the ferry. I’m back home now in L.A., and that boat is still making its rounds. As I think about Rosh Hashanah and the kind of year it’s been for me, all around the planet, billions of people not in my tribe have no idea that the New Year is on its way. Yet my cycles and theirs co-exist. My identity is enmeshed in my calendar and my customs; so are their identities, in their cultures. 

It would take a kind of absolutism beyond my capacity for me to maintain that my practices are uniquely holy. Travel has a knack for turning us into anthropologists, relativizing our habits and beliefs. How different is encountering the varieties of religious experience, in their global simultaneity, from witnessing the varieties of human language, dress, diet, manners, family structures, initiation rites, origin stories, hierarchies of status, concepts of time, senses of humor, reasons for war?

I don’t think my Rosh Hashanah is any less real because I don’t — can’t — endow it with transcendent authority. Human history is a chronicle of the carnage that can flow from such certainty. Absolutism isn’t a requisite for moral behavior; the many versions of the golden rule provide a reliable basis for drawing lines between right and wrong. Like it or not, the world is now flat: The local and the global are inextricable. The strength of fundamentalism derives from its isolation, from the impermeability of the bubble built around it. Empathy, like travel, pierces that boundary. It’s the disorienting diversity of human experience, not the uniqueness of being chosen, that inspires my awe during these Days of Awe. 

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

Facing declining numbers and a bad economy, Italian Jews stay upbeat


Whenever Georges De Canino worries about the future of Italian Jewry, he looks at the bricks in the building across the street from his apartment in the center of this city’s old Jewish ghetto.

A painter who sometimes stares at the stones for inspiration, De Canino claims that they originally came from the Colosseum, and they remind him of history’s long arc.

The stones have been in Rome for nearly 2,000 years. The city’s Jews have been here for longer. And neither of them, De Canino says, is going anywhere.

“Above all, it’s a community that survives invasions, barbarians, the economy,” De Canino said. “We’re a small community that is reborn, that grows. We play a very important role in Italy.”

It’s a sentiment widely shared by other members of Italy’s 24,000-member Jewish community. At a time when growing anti-Semitism and rising immigration to Israel is prompting even large European Jewish communities to fret publicly about their future, community leaders here are surprisingly optimistic even as they contend with many of the same challenges facing small communities elsewhere: high intermarriage rates, young people moving abroad and shrinking numbers.

“The Jewish community in Italy is a small world, but very diverse,” said Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “There is a phenomenon of demographic decrease of the Italian communities. But I think this is balanced out by the increase of the cultural activities.”

The community has an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, and many young people, driven by a skyrocketing youth unemployment rate – it hit 44 percent this year – have sought better opportunities abroad. Last year, 340 Italian Jews moved to Israel, doubling the previous year’s figure. The national Jewish community’s numbers are also declining, from an official figure of almost 27,000 in 1995 to 24,000 today.

“I don’t think of the future of my children in Italy,” said Johanna Arbib-Perugia, former chair of the Jewish fundraising operation Keren Hayesod in Rome. “I don’t see Italy as a country that presents brilliant prospects for the future – not in terms of jobs.” She added that some Italian Jews “see Israel today as the land of opportunity.”

With a history dating to the time of the Roman Empire, Italian Jewry predates – and developed in relative isolation from – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Judaism. What has resulted is a Jewish population with distinctive customs and dress. Florence’s 1,000-member community has a prayer book with a liturgy and melodies all its own, as do Rome, Venice and other cities. Unlike other European communities, many Orthodox Italian synagogues have organs – a holdover from a 17th-century legal ruling.

But Italy’s Jewish leadership appears unfazed in the face of declining numbers that would seem to imperil the community’s survival. Leaders call unemployment a national problem, not a Jewish one, and Gattegna said that plenty of people move back and forth between Israel and Italy. Rome and Milan, he predicted, would preserve the traditions of smaller communities.

“Jewish survival doesn’t depend on numbers, it depends on ideas,” said Guido Vitale, who edits the national Jewish newspaper, Pagine Ebraiche. “People who see problems in small communities are people who want to treat Jewish people like an army that needs to go to a war of propaganda.”

Several Italian Jews preferred to focus on what they described as a vital community. Rome supports more than 20 kosher restaurants, many of which opened in the past few decades. One eatery, Ba’Ghetto, has opened two branches in the past seven years to meet demand from locals, not tourists. The capital also has three Jewish kindergartens and one K-12 school.

In Florence, an effort to engage more with the wider community led to the launch of Balagan Cafe, a biweekly series of cultural events. In Milan, the local Chabad outpost hosted an annex to the EXPO Milan 2015 food fair that focused on kashrut. And in Florence and Torino, Jewish student associations have formed to organize cultural events and celebrate holidays.

“I think the communities of Rome and Milan and Florence and Torino will have a very strong Jewish life,” said Gabriele Fiorentino, a consigliere, or board member, of the Union of Young Jewish Italians. “There is a part that moves to another country, but there are also young people that remain in Rome or in Milan, so I think in the near future there’s no danger for the bigger communities.”

Roman Jews say the increase in kosher restaurants and the active Jewish school scene are part of a rise in Jewish observance that began in 1967, when 5,000 Libyan Jews escaping anti-Semitic riots fled to the city. On the whole, the Libyans were more religious than the native Romans. Though they still maintain their own synagogues, the two communities have married and merged, spreading Jewish observance.

“You dress and speak Italian, but at a certain point when it comes to your culture, only you can keep it,” said the Libya-born vice president of the Rome Jewish community, Claudia Fellus. “After the Libyan Jews came, there were many more kosher butchers.”

One of the community’s greatest strengths is what it lacks – a fear of anti-Semitism. There have been attacks, but leaders and laypeople alike dismissed them as a fringe phenomenon or tied them to developments in the Middle East.

On a recent summer day, Italian Jews wore yarmulkes on the street and tourists loudly spoke Hebrew under Israeli and Italian flags. The scene stood in stark contrast to Jewish communities elsewhere in Europe, where locals warn visitors against any outward signs of their Judaism.

Community members say Italy’s Jews have always gotten along with their neighbors. This contact, Gattegna says, isn’t a threat but a strength. He says Italian Jewry could grow even stronger by channeling that instinct for integration toward Jewish communities in neighboring countries, forging contacts with them to play an active role in world Jewry’s future.

“Italian communities are not well connected with other European communities or American communities,” Gattegna said. “It is a mistake not to develop this contact. We risk missing a great chance for cultivating friendly relations.”

De Canino disagrees, saying the community should invest in emphasizing its own distinctiveness. Italy has succeeded, he says, in drawing tourists to view its historical and cultural landmarks, and Italy’s Jews should do the same. That, he says, is how the community will live on, like stones from the Colosseum.

“The future of this community is as a cultural community,” he said. “We need to invest in culture, in tourism, a role of hospitality, a cultural role. Petroleum runs out. St. Peter’s Basilica never ends. Venice never ends. Milan never ends. The Uffizi never ends.”

Wearing my kippah in Italy, and feeling fine


During my four months studying in Italy in the fall of 2007, you could say I had more than my fair share of strange Jewish experiences.

Running late for a train one morning in Florence, I decided the best course of action would be to lay tefillin in the station’s janitor’s closet — only to have a policeman threaten to arrest me for trespassing. Lost in Rome one Friday afternoon, a Smart car pulled up alongside me, a 17-year-old leaned out the window and — in Hebrew — invited me to jump in. He dropped me at my hostel, blocks away from his synagogue.

And at the end of my semester, my Jewish classmate and I made the stunningly idiotic decision, eight nights in a row, to prop a lit menorah up on a can of liquid plaster on the second floor of a centuries-old palazzo. I’m still relieved it didn’t burn down.

But one thing I never experienced was anti-Semitism, even as I wore my kippah everywhere, every day. I was physically or verbally accosted that year in Barcelona, Budapest, Paris and Prague. But from a Florentine street of Arab merchants to the northern city of Cremona, no Italian ever seemed to treat me worse for being Jewish.

Back in Italy this week for work, I wanted to see if things had changed. In recent years, strong anecdotal evidence, data on rising anti-Semitism and urgings from European Jews had convinced me to take my kippah off while on the continent.

Would Italy be the same? Reports of anti-Semitism, after all, had risen there too. I decided to use myself as a test subject: I kept my kippah on and waited to see what would happen.

The answer: nothing.

Instead, I found a surprising self-confidence among Italian Jews that had been absent in my visits to Paris, Madrid and Kiev, Ukraine. Over the course of a week, I meet with Jews of all stripes in three different cities — not one suggested I hide my head covering or told me to watch out.

An armored car and a soldier sat outside major synagogues, but they weren’t guarding a frightened community. When Italian Jews did mention local anti-Semitism, they dismissed it as either a fringe phenomenon or tied it to recent events in Israel. Italians, they said, had no beef with their Jewish neighbors.

In Milan, a Chabad rabbi strode smiling through the central train station fully clad in hat, coat and beard. In Florence, I went to Ruth’s kosher restaurant, my old haunt, only to find there were no free tables — though they were mostly filled with tourists. And in Rome, home to Italy’s largest Jewish population, I found a thriving community.

A cobblestone avenue in the old Jewish ghetto is lined with 10 kosher establishments serving traditional Italian dishes and Israeli food. When I walked into a nearby cafe for an afternoon espresso, the barista made sure to tell me the food wasn’t kosher. Down the street, a large Israeli flag hung from a building alongside European Union and Italian flags, over tourists speaking loudly in Hebrew and Orthodox Jewish locals wearing long skirts or kippahs. In an alley, a Chabadnik solicited passersby to put on tefillin.

Policemen, waiters, bellhops and cabbies treated me no differently than in New York or Tel Aviv. Telling people where I lived elicited no special reaction. By the end of the trip, I’d settled back into forgetting my kippah was on.

Then, on my last day, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked about it. Bracing myself, I turned around to find an older Roman man. He just wanted to know how my kippah stayed on.

I showed him my clips and prepared to exit the bus. But before I left, he made sure to tell me his father, a devout Catholic, had worked with many Jewish vendors in business over the years. Of all his associates, he said, they were the most honest.

And with that, he smiled, said, “Ciao, ciao” and sent me on my way.

Italy’s top court acquits Amanda Knox of murder


Italy's top court on Friday annulled the conviction of American Amanda Knox for the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher and, in a surprise verdict, acquitted her of the charge.

The Court of Cassation threw out the second guilty verdict to have been passed on Knox, 27, and her Italian former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito for the lethal stabbing.

It had been widely expected that, even if the court overturned the previous convictions, it would order a retrial.

Italian lawmakers urge recognition of Palestinian state


 Italian lawmakers backed a non-binding resolution urging the government to recognize Palestine as a state.

Italy’s Chamber of Deputies voted by 300 to 45 to pass the motion presented by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, the news site repubblica.it reported on Friday.

Friday’s symbolic vote does not change the position of the Italian government, which, like other European countries, still supports a negotiated two-state solution.

Ireland, Britain, France and the European Parliament held similar votes toward the end of last year. Sweden went further, officially recognizing Palestine, whereas Spain’s congress passed a motion that says Spain should recognize a Palestinian state only after its establishment is agreed upon in bilateral negotiations with Israel.

Italy expelling Moroccan imam who called for killing of Jews


Italy is expelling a Moroccan imam who called for Jews to be killed.
Raoudi Aldelbar, the imam of a mosque in the town of San Dona di Piave, near Venice, was filmed during a sermon there last month saying, among other things, “Oh Allah, bring upon [Jews] that which will make us happy. Count them one by one, and kill them one by one.”
The video clip of the sermon was posted on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute and later shared on social media.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he had ordered the “immediate expulsion” of Aldelbar “for seriously disturbing public order, being a danger to national security and for religious discrimination.”
The decision was made after counterterrorism, police and other security experts had examined the video and investigated.
Alfano said it was “unacceptable to pronounce a speech of clear anti-Semitic tone, containing explicit incitements to violence and religious hatred.” He said his decision to expel the imam would serve “as a warning to anyone who thinks that in Italy one can preach hate.”

Germany, France, Italy jointly condemn Gaza-related anti-Semitic acts


In a joint statement the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy condemned anti-Semitic acts arising out of the recent wave of anti-Israel demonstrations across Europe.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, France’s Laurent Fabius and Italy’s Federica Mogherini met in Brussels Tuesday to coordinate a response to protests in Berlin, Paris, The Hague, Antwerp and Brussels that have included chants calling for the murder of Jews and that in France have devolved into riots targeting synagogues.

“Anti-Semitic agitation, hate speech against Jews, attacks against people of Jewish belief and against synagogues cannot be tolerated in our societies in Europe,” the ministers’ statement reads. “We strongly condemn the outrageous anti-Semitic statements, demonstrations and attacks in our countries in recent days,” the joint statement said.

Nine synagogues in France have been targeted over the last week, Jewish groups said.

On Wednesday, approximately 10 youths assaulted a disabled Jewish woman in southeastern France, the French Jewish community’s SPCJ security unit reported. The youths hurled stones at the woman and chanted slogans about killing Jews.

Speaking at a Holocaust commemoration in Paris on Sunday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the phenomenon as a “new anti-Semitism.”

“Traditional anti-Semitism, this old disease of Europe, is joined by a new anti-Semitism that cannot be denied or concealed, that we must face,” he said. “It happens on the social networks and in workers’ neighborhoods, among ignorant young men who hide their hatred of Jews behind a facade of anti-Zionism or hatred of the State of Israel.”

Germany, France, Italy condemn anti-Semitism in anti-Israel protests


The foreign ministers of GermanyFrance and Italy on Tuesday condemned anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia that have marred rallies against Israel's role in its conflict with Hamas in which about 600 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died.

After 10 days of bombardment, Israel on Thursday also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip to halt rocket fire out of the territory. So far 29 Israelis, 27 of them soldiers, have died in the fighting.

On Sunday, French media showed the burnt-out front of a kosher grocery shop in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, which is home to a large Jewish community, and clashes between pro-Palestinian marchers and riot police outside two synagogues.

“Anti-Semitic incitement and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish faith and synagogues have no place in our societies,” the three foreign ministers said in a joint statement issued in Brussels.

France's Laurent Fabius, Italy's Federica Mogherini and Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “Nothing, including the dramatic military confrontation in Gaza, justifies such actions here in Europe.”

The ministers' statement on Tuesday came as Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip, saying no ceasefire was near as top U.S. and U.N. diplomats pursued talks on halting the fighting.

French authorities had refused to allow several pro-Palestinian protests scheduled for the weekend due to fears of violence, but gave the green light for a rally planned in Paris on Wednesday.

France has both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe and flare-ups of violence in the Middle East often add to tensions between the two communities.

In Germany, police in Berlin said it had detained 13 people after demonstrators pelted police with stones after a pro-Palestinian protest on Monday. Police also banned an anti-Semitic slogan used by protesters, according to media reports.

“We will do everything together and in our countries so that all citizens can continue to live in peace and safety, unoffended by anti-Semitic hostility,” the ministers said.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) welcomed the statement from the three ministers.

“The situation has reached unexpected dimensions. The wave of anti-Semitism in the course of pro-Palestinian demonstrations is getting worse from day to day,” said Deidre Berger, director of the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish relations.

Berlusconi stresses support for Israel, Jews in wake of Hitler comparison


Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stressed his support for Israel and Jewish causes after sparking outrage by comparing his family to Jews under Hitler.

In an excerpt of a book to be released Friday, the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Berlusconi was quoted Wednesday as saying that because of the long series of court cases against him, “my children say they feel like Jewish families must have felt during the Hitler regime. Truly everyone is against us.”

Berlusconi, 77, was convicted of tax fraud earlier this year after a long series of other charges and legal woes.

Italian Jewish leaders reacted with shock and anger to the comparison. A photo montage made the rounds of Facebook showing a picture of his family alongside a picture of concentration camp inmates.

“The life of the Jews of Europe under Nazism was marked by a black vortex of violence, persecution and death,” Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said in a statement. ”Any comparison with the situation of the Berlusconi family is thus not only inappropriate and unacceptable but is also an offense against the memory of those who were deprived of any rights and, after atrocious and unspeakable suffering, their very lives.”

Nichi Vendola, a leader of the left-center opposition, wrote on his Facebook page, “To trivialize a terrible tragedy like the Holocaust for everyday political polemics, as Berlusconi has, is chilling.”

Emanuele Fiano, a Jewish member of Parliament and a political opponent of Berlusconi, called the statement “an insult to history, to the six million Jews who were killed, and to those who try to impede history from being forgotten or manipulated.”

Berlusconi responded in a statement on the website of his Forza Italia party, calling the furor over his remarks “a controversy blatantly instrumental, based on a phrase extrapolated from a broader context.” He added,  “My history, my friendship toward Israel, my consistent government action at the international level in favor of the State of Israel, do not allow any doubt about my awareness of the tragedy of  the Holocaust and my respect for the Jewish people. ”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, told Berlusconi in a personal letter on Wednesday that he failed to teach his children the “lessons of their history.”

“As badly as they feel you are being treated by the courts and by Italian society,  your problems cannot at all be compared to the tragedy that befell the Jews at the hands of the genocidal Nazis,” Foxman wrote.

“It is painful for me to discover that your children have never really learned the lesson of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people, and I urge you, in friendship and out of deep respect, to begin to teach them,” the letter concluded.

Italian cyclist Gino Bartali recognized as righteous gentile


Yad Vashem posthumously recognized the Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali as Righteous Among the Nations.

The Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem said in a statement Sept. 23 that during the German occupation of Italy, beginning in September 1943, “Bartali, a devout Catholic, was part of a rescue network spearheaded by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of Florence together with the Archbishop of Florence Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa,” who has been recognized as a righteous gentile.

The Jewish-Christian network, Yad Vashem said, “saved hundreds of local Jews and Jewish refugees from territories which had previously been under Italian control, mostly in France and Yugoslavia.”

Bartali, who died in 2000 at 85, had acted as a courier for the network, according to Yad Vashem, “secreting forged documents and papers in his bicycle and transporting them between cities, all under the guise of training.”

It added, “Knowingly risking his life to rescue Jews, Bartali transferred falsified documents to various contacts, among them Rabbi Cassuto.”

The decision to recognize Bartali was based in part on testimony obtained and published by the Italian Jewish monthly Pagine Ebraiche, including from a man, Giorgio Golderberg, who said Bartali had hidden him and his parents in his cellar.

The recognition drew an emotional response in Italy.

“Gino Bartali was an immense champion, on pedals and in life,” Pagine Ebraiche editor Guido Vitale wrote. “The recognition by Yad Vashem is the just reward for an exemplary human undertaking.”

Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi told the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Web site that it was “the best present to the city and the most serious way to give meaning to the world cycling championships.”

Yad Vashem said a presentation ceremony will be held in Italy at a date to be determined.

Head of Venice Jewish community resigns abruptly


Venice Jewish community president Riccardo Calimani abruptly announced his resignation during Rosh Hashanah services.

Calimani, an author and historian who had been elected four months ago, did not offer a reason for his resignation on the evening of Sept. 4 during services at the centuries-old Spanish synagogue in the historic Venice Ghetto.

But local news reports over the weekend said that during a pre-Rosh Hashanah inspection of the community’s home for seniors  Carabinieri Police found and confiscated 130 pounds of meat that had been improperly frozen and whose expiration date had passed.

The 110 boxes of meat had been in the freezer since well before Calimani took office, the reports said, but legal responsibility rested with him as Jewish community president, since the home is run by the Jewish community.

A Jewish community source in Venice said members of the 400-member community were “rightly outraged” to have learned about the affair through newspaper reports and not Jewish community channels.

Calimani’s best-known book is a history of the Venice Ghetto.

Piazza Palatucci


Last weekend, on a gorgeously sunny afternoon in a remote (and extraordinarily picturesque) village high in the mountains of central Italy, I attended a ceremony that, in signature Italian style, was operatic in its mix of hyperbole and sincere commitment.

The occasion was the dedication of a new piazza named in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is widely revered in Italy as “the Italian Schindler,” an almost legendary Raoul Wallenberg-type hero who reputedly saved thousands of Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps by, among other things, providing them false documents. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II. 

Palatucci has been honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among Nations, and the Roman Catholic church has begun the process that could lead to his beatification. The ADL, the Italian Jewish community and the Italian Police also have honored his memory. The ADL even created a curriculum to teach about him.

The new piazza in Polino, a tiny medieval fortress of about 300 people, joined squares, streets, schools and other places named for Palatucci all over Italy. Etched in stone, now,  its name plaque honors Palatucci for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.” 

The problem is that recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on whether Palatucci actually did what he is revered for doing. Though documentation shows that he saved at least a few Jewish individuals, the figure of 5,000 that is usually cited for the number he rescued appears to be considerably inflated. And though it is commonly believed that the Nazis arrested him and sent  him to Dachau for saving Jews, this also does not appear to be the case — he was sent there, research indicates, for having been in touch with Allied forces.

“A growing chorus of historians and scholars,” Italian journalist Alessandra Farkas wrote recently in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, say Palatucci “is nothing but a myth, a sensational fraud orchestrated by the alleged hero’s friends and relatives who claim he saved more than 5,000 Jews in a region where there lived fewer than half that number of Jews.”

The Primo Levi Center in New York organized a round-table discussion on the issue in April 2012. There, the former director of  the department of the righteous at Yad Vashem, Mordecai Paldiel, said  Palatucci had been recognized in 1990 as a Righteous Gentile for having helped save “just one woman” in 1940, and the commission had received no other information that he had saved others, though that might be possible. (The full round table can be viewed on line at: http://vimeo.com/40177189)

In Italy, the Giovanni Palatucci Association angrily rejected the criticism. And, in an article in the Vatican's official newspaper, Italian-Jewish historian Anna Foa wrote thar more documentation and study were needed before Palatucci's actions were discredited.

But the ADL announced it this week it would remove Palatucci’s name from its Courageous Leadership Award to Italian and American law enforcement officers. And the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is removing material on Palatucci from its exhibitions and web site. The Vatican is also said to be reviewing its recognition.

General view of Polino from above (in early spring).

The controversy dates back half a dozen years and more, as scholars for the first time began serious research on the history of rescuers .

“There is very little clarity on historical sources,” historian Marco Coslovich, who published a book in 2008 questioning the extent of Palatucci’s actions, said in an interview with the deputy director of the Primo Levi Center in 2010. “The Police archives have no records detailing what Palatucci has allegedly done to save thousands of Jews.”

Regardless of the facts — whatever they may be — Palatucci remains a beloved popular hero here, a potent  symbol of what Italians like to believe they are, or what they could – or should — be. 

This was strikingly evident Saturday in Polino at the dedication ceremony. Speeches held him up as an example of righteous — even saintly — Christian behavior.  And — like the plaque denoting the newly named piazza — honored him for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.” 

The mayor, in his red-white-and-green sash; regional police representatives; two priests, including a police chaplain, and other VIPS all took part. One of the words I heard them use most was “altruism” – a clear attempt to urge citizens to care for others, in a society where “family first” is often still a guiding principle.

In the end, I took part in the ceremony, too. 

No Jews live (or probably ever lived) in Polino; there are only about 30,000 or so Jews among Italy’s 60 million people. A representative of Italian Jewry had been invited, but could not come because it was Shabbat.

I was at the ceremony not because I’m a Jew, but because I'm a friend of the local artist who created the sculptural monument erected in the new piazza: a bust of Palatucci framed by a gate bearing the “arbeit macht frei” Nazi slogan.

Still, as the speeches went on, and the police band played, and the priests blessed the monument, it became clear to me that a Jewish voice was sorely lacking. I felt compelled to say something, amid all the high ideals and abstract discourse about “Jews,” their salvation and what that meant for Christian values.

So I asked to speak – and was welcomed by the officials when I did so.

The Mayor of Polino (in sash) unveils the monument and piazza Giovanni Palatucci plaque. The plaque reads that Palatucci “sacrificed his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.”

I didn’t know if anyone else there was mindful of the shadows being cast now over Palatucci's record, and under the circumstances I felt I could not even refer to this.

Perhaps it’s the thought that counts anyway – and despite the hagiography, the thought behind the ceremony was not just to honor someone who is widely believed to have risked his life to save Jews, but to encourage today's Italians themselves to step in and help people in need. 

In my brief remarks I ended up, in fact, not talking about Palatucci at all, but about the importance – the duty — to honor those who did what others did not do during the Shoah, and by extension those who do what others do not do in the face of today’s injustices. We have a teaching, I told them, that whoever saves one life is considered to save the world.

And then I also presented the message I always feel that I must expound when speaking as a Jew at Holocaust commemorations or similar events in small Italian towns where few if anyone in the audience has ever actually seen a living Jewish person.

That is, that we are people like them, human beings — and not abstract stereotypes, or statistics, or eccentric oddities or victims in death camp striped pajamas.

And PS: more than 500 Italians have been named Righteous Gentiles, though few know any name other than Palatucci. I found it somewhat ironic that one of these heroes, Odoardo Focherini,  who actually was deported and killed for saving Jews, was beatified by the Catholic church the day after the Polino Piazza Palatucci ceremony.

David Miliband resigns from soccer team after hiring of fascist coach


Britain's Jewish former foreign secretary resigned from the board of a soccer club after the team appointed a coach who gave a Nazi-style salute at a game in Rome.

Italian Paolo Di Canio, who was appointed head coach of the Sunderland team on Sunday, is a self-described fascist and admirer of fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

David Miliband resigned Sunday as the vice chairman of the English soccer club.

“I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future,” Miliband said. “However, in the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.”

Miliband left politics in March to take a job in New York as head of the International Rescue Committee, an international humanitarian aid organization, Reuters reported.  His brother, Ed, is head of Britain's Labor Party and in line to be the next prime minister. The Miliband brothers are the sons of Polish Jewish immigrants.

Finding jewels of Judaism on Italy’s Adriatic coast


It’s a foggy fall morning, and standing atop Mount Cardeto on the east coast of central Italy, I can barely make out the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea. As I look out toward the cliff’s edge, what I do see is a vast, grassy slope dotted with gravestones. Most of the stones are circular — thick, stubby posts with decorative tops — and are engraved in Hebrew, though some are in Italian. Many are lopsided, having settled part way into the ground over the hundreds of years since they were first erected.

This hilltop cemetery — used continuously from the early 1500s to 1863 — is in the port city of Ancona, which in 2004 completed a massive restoration of its Campo degli Ebrei (Field of Jews). In all, more than 1,000 gravestones were recovered, including hundreds that had fallen into the sea. The information carved on them — name, lifespan, place of birth, occupation, names of other family members, etc. — has been entered into a digital archive that visitors can now search on-site.

The size of the cemetery attests to a once-vibrant Jewish presence in the area. The scope of its restoration attests to something altogether different: a recent interest in, and support for, uncovering and preserving the Jewish past in Italy. 

Which is what brings me here. The Primo Levi Center in New York — an organization that supports research on historical and contemporary Jewish life in Italy — along with the Italian tourism bureau, has brought a group of American journalists to two regions in Italy, places where Jewish history and artifacts have often gone unnoticed. On our six-day journey, scholars, curators and Jewish community members guide us through towns in Marche, along the country’s central Adriatic coast, and in Apulia, a southern region that extends through the heel of Italy’s boot.

Recovered gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Ancona.  Photo by Anita K. Kantrowitz 

In Ancona, a city in Marche, Jews played a vital role in the economy, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were merchants and traders of the many commodities that passed through the busy port; they were also artisans, craftsmen and moneylenders. In other Marche towns, Jews enjoyed periods of similar success, albeit with variations due to local economy or rule: Jews in Pesaro and Urbino enjoyed periodic protections under some of the Montefeltro dukes, while Jews in the free port of Senigallia prospered from the Fiera della Maddalena, one of Europe’s largest market fairs. 

Despite periods of relative peace and prosperity, Jews in Marche also experienced restrictions, persecution and ghettoization, and in the 20th century, fascism and World War II devastated the Jewish population. Today, Ancona is home to the only remaining official Jewish community in Marche, with approximately 200 members, including Jews who live in nearby Urbino and Senigallia.

Ghettos were created in the 1630s in each of these towns, as they were wherever large numbers of Jews lived, and Jews from smaller communities were forced to move to them. When people left the outlying communities, they often brought sacred objects with them. 

This was the case when, in 1633, a ghetto was created in the walled city of Urbino, home to Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s majestic 15th century Palazzo Ducale, or Ducal Palace. The one remaining synagogue of the period, at 24 Via Stretta — just steps from where a gate to the ghetto once stood — now houses dozens of Torah scrolls, most brought by Jews from surrounding areas. It also houses a collection of Torah covers and parochet (ark curtains), made by women in the community and donated to their synagogues to mark a birth or wedding. Embroidered on silk, satin or velvet in rich hues and gold threads, many with lace and beadwork, these textiles reflect a grandeur seemingly at odds with ghetto life. 

In the mid-1860s, ghettos throughout the region were opened. Some were subsequently razed, destroying original synagogues. When Ancona’s ghetto area was revamped, the first Levantine-rite synagogue — built in 1569 — was demolished, though some furnishings were preserved. In 1876, using plans from the original building, the synagogue was reconstructed in the heart of the old ghetto, at 14 Via Astagno; it is used to this day. 

Its prayer room, like those in many of Marche’s historic synagogues, is a rectangular, airy two-story space, with women’s galleries lining the long sides of the upper floor. Elegant brass chandeliers cast a golden light; gilded decorative elements lend an almost regal air to the room. The 17th century Baroque-style ark was preserved from the earlier building; red-painted wooden columns flank its silver doors — lavishly decorated with Jewish symbols — and an elaborate crown tops the whole structure. 

For hundreds of years before Jewish settlement reached its apogee in Marche, there were well-established, learned Jewish communities to the south, in Apulia. Especially between the ninth and 13th centuries, towns such as Trani, Oria, Bari and Otranto were renowned for Torah and Talmud scholarship, while other parts of the region were centers of Hebrew manuscript production. 

But this land was part of the Kingdom of Naples, which under Spanish rule became less and less hospitable to Judaism. In 1541, the kingdom issued its final expulsion edict for Jews in all of southern Italy.

In some Apulian towns today, the only remnants of a Jewish presence are place and street names, such as Via della Sinagoga in Lecce. And in some places, Jewish gravestones were “recycled” and used as building materials; in Trani, for example, you can find Hebrew inscriptions on doorjambs and lintels made from old gravestones.

Between 1200 and 1400, there were four synagogues in the Jewish area (giudecca) of Trani; around 1380 they were converted to churches, and today two remain standing. One of these — originally the Scola Grande synagogue, later the church of St. Anna — now houses the museum of the archdiocese of Trani-Barletta-Bisceglie, which contains a Jewish section. Archeological finds and archival documents describe the history of Jews throughout southern Italy, especially in Trani. Displayed within the stone walls and under the soaring domed ceiling of the old synagogue/church, the artifacts include medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, a 13th century mezuzah from the rabbi’s house in Trani, and plans and photos revealing synagogue features no longer visible.

Via Stretta, in Urbino, was a main street in the Jewish ghetto. Photo by Anita Kantrowitz

The second Trani synagogue that still stands is the more modest Scola Nova, which was completed in the 13th century. It was also converted into a church but recently became a synagogue once again. Francesco Lotoro, a musician who has spent many years uncovering and recording music composed in concentration camps, was a driving force behind re-creating a place for Jewish worship in Trani. 

A convert to Judaism, Lotoro believes he is descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. After his conversion was finalized in 2004, and at the suggestion of his rabbi, he reached out to the 40 or so Jews who were living in Apulia — a few Israelis married to Italians, other converts — to join him in re-opening the synagogue at Scola Nova. After successful negotiations with the city, which at the time owned the empty building, Lotero’s group made some alterations to the space and has been conducting services there since 2006.

How appropriate that this was the last stop on our trip, a trip that began in a cemetery. For it is here, in Trani, that a single thread from the 2,000-year-old tapestry of Italian Jewry has been picked up again, and for the first time in 500 years, Jews are once again worshipping in a medieval synagogue in Apulia. 

Moshe Kantor awarded Italy’s highest honor for non-citizens


Italy awarded Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, its highest decoration given to a non-Italian.

Kantor was honored earlier this week with the Knight’s Grand Cross of the Order of Merit “for his work in promoting tolerance and reconciliation, human rights and interfaith dialogue, and his struggle against anti-Semitism and racism,” the European Jewish Congress said in a statement Wednesday.

Kantor was in Rome as part of the World Jewish Congress Steering Committee, which met with Italy’s foreign minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata on Monday.

Headed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, the group also included Latin American Jewish Congress President Jack Terpins, Euro-Asian Jewish Congress President Vadim Shulman, as well as the president of Italy’s umbrella Jewish group.

The European Jewish Congress statement said that during the meeting Kantor “asked for Italy’s help in adding Hezbollah to the European Union list of proscribed terrorist groups in the wake of the evidence demonstrating that the Lebanese-based terrorist group was behind the murder of Israeli tourists in Burgas last year.”

It said that Sant'Agata had reiterated the importance of Italy’s relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.

Naples to open Jewish library


Naples is getting a Jewish library, one of three in all of Italy.

An exhibition called “Judaism and the Shoah in 500 Books from Five Centuries” opened Wednesday in the local Tucci library.

The Italian Jewish portal Moked reported that when the exhibition is over, the 500 books will remain to form a Judaica section of the library.

The books are in various languages, including English, French and Hungarian, in addition to Italian.

The oldest book in the collection dates from 1632, but most of the others deal with the Holocaust period, according to Moked.

Moked reported that this will be the first Jewish library open to the public in southern Italy and only the third in the country, after libraries in Rome and Milan. Naples is home to a small Jewish community.

Italian Holocaust victims remembered


The names of 8,000 Italian Jewish victims of the Holocaust were read aloud on Jan. 25 as part of four area events in honor of Italy’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The names were split among four venues in L.A. County: the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pan Pacific Park, Milken Community High School in Bel Air, Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School in Harvard Heights and St. Bede the Venerable Catholic church in La Canada Flintridge.

“We vow never to forget the sanctity of their lives,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Los Angeles chapter, said of the victims. He read names at LAMOTH, where he was joined by Giuseppe Perrone, consul general of Italy in Los Angeles; Perla Karney, vice president of LAMOTH’s board of directors; and the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

In 2000, the Italian government declared Jan. 27 a day of remembrance, which honors the 8,000 Jewish Italians deported by the Germans to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps following the fall of Italy’s fascist government in 1943. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated Jan. 27 — the date in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau — as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the more than 8 million victims of the Holocaust.

This was the second year that AJC and the Italian Consulate General in Los Angeles co-sponsored a remembrance ceremony.

One of the 8,000 Italian Jews was Dario Gabbai, 90, a Holocaust survivor and former member of the Sonderkommando, a team of prisoners forced to move and cremate the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers. Gabbai visited Milken and the LAMOTH to read names aloud.

Reading in the morning from the list at Milken, Gabbai paused when he came upon one he recognized. 

“I knew him,” he told the crowd, explaining how this friend had died in Auschwitz.

Interested in forming Jewish partnerships worldwide, students at Milken, one of the largest Jewish day schools in the country, organized the Italian remembrance ceremony at their school. It was an unfamiliar, albeit rewarding, ceremony for Milken 11th-grader Jenna Goldstein, who co-chaired the event with fellow student Shauna Shafai.

“Most of my life, I’ve been honoring everyone as a whole, so it was a different experience to focus on Italian Jews,” Goldstein said.

St. Bede’s participation arose because the school’s leader, the Rev. Antonio Cacciapuoti, has a “close relationship with the [Italian] consulate,” said Gosia Szymanska Weiss, assistant director for international relations at AJC-Los Angeles.

As for Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto’s participation, it was born from past collaborations  between the AJC and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees Catholic high schools, among other institutions. Representatives of the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles and of AJC joined the school’s students in reading 2,000 names.

Two days later, the LAMOTH honored International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Tours included pieces on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum of Poland, and survivors spoke in person.

Perrone, the consulate general, is one of dozens of diplomats who works with AJC on global Jewish advocacy. He said that the Holocaust is difficult to talk about, and so, in this case, “We decided to let the names do the talking.”

Italian Prime Minister says he will stand by country’s Jews


Italy’s prime minister promised Italian Jews he would stand beside them in the fight against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

“We know that anti-Semitism has not been eradicated in Europe,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said at a ceremony Tuesday night marking the 69th anniversary of the World War II round-up and deportation of 1,024 Roman Jews to Auschwitz. “We will not leave you alone.”

Monti, who was joined by Rome's mayor, several government ministers and other officials, spoke before several thousand people gathered outside Rome’s Great Synagogue to mark the anniversary. Earlier, many had taken part in a torchlight memorial march through the city.

Monti promised that the government would act against mounting racial prejudice and xenophobia in Europe.

Remembering racist persecution during World War II, he said, “means also assuming a responsibility: to combat every form of anti-Semitism and racism and to work so that minorities are protected and not discriminated against.”

Warning against the dangers of Holocaust denial and revisionism, Monti urged people to remember what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi once wrote: “Those who deny Auschwitz are ready to do it again.”

Honoring of Italian fascist angers local Jewish group


A new Italian women’s group has added its voice to protests over a publicly funded monument honoring the World War II-era fascist leader Rodolfo Graziani.

The leadership of Binah, an all-women Jewish party represented on the board of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, recently urged Italian Jewish leaders to take urgent measures against what it called a “shame on Italian soil” and also take a firm stance against other perceived episodes of anti-Semitism in Italy.

The monument, a mausoleum and park dedicated to Graziani, a former defense minister in the fascist Italian Social Republic of Salo, was inaugurated in August in the town of Affile, near Rome. According to news reports it was financed by about $150,000 of regional and local public funding.

The monument triggered widespread controversy and sparked protests, including a demonstration two weeks ago that drew hundreds of protesters.

The National Partisans Association announced last week that it would sue the Affile mayor for an “apology for fascism” and related crimes.

Graziani signed the 1938 fascist racial laws against Jews. He also took part in massacres of anti-fascist partisans and was responsible for the brutal executions and killings of thousands in Africa.

Italy commemorates Munich 11 victims


Events in Italy marking the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics ranged from a minute of silence in Parliament to Jewish community commemorations.

Hundreds of people, including representatives of local authorities, gathered outside Rome’s main synagogue Thursday night for a memorial ceremony at which 11 memorial candles were lit. The mayors of Turin and Milan took part in similar ceremonies in their cities.

On Wednesday, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, led the Chamber in a minute of silence to remember the attack.

in London, Gianni Petrucci, the president of the Italian Olympic Committee, announced at a news conference Thursday that the Italian team, in coordination with Israel, would observe a minute of silence in the Olympic Village to honor the slain Israeli athletes. Italian media reported that would take place over the weekend.