Anger in Italy as statues covered to save Iranian blushes


Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came under fire on Tuesday after ancient nude statues in Rome's Capitoline museum were covered up to avoid any possible offense to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who is visiting the country.

Italy and Iran will sign up to 17 billion euros of business deals during the two day visit of the Iranian delegation which began on Monday, but Italian opposition leaders and commentators said Renzi had gone too far to please his guest.

Politicians on the left and right said not only had Renzi made almost no reference to Iran's human rights record during a joint news conference, but had also “surrendered” Italy's cultural identity by hiding the nude statues of women.

“Respect for other cultures cannot and must not mean negating our own,” said Luca Squeri, a lawmaker in former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party. “This isn't respect, it's cancelling out differences and it's a kind of surrender.”

At Iran's request Italy also kept wine off the menu at a ceremonial dinner on Monday evening.

Northern League deputy Barbara Saltamartini said covering the statues with white panels was an “act of submission,” while the party's leader Matteo Salvini wrote on his facebook page that it was “crazy”.

Gianluca Peciola, of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party, called on Renzi to explain “a disgraceful decision which is a mortification of art and culture as universal values”.

The 41-year-old Renzi met with similar criticism last year when he covered up nude pictures in the renaissance town hall of Florence, the city where he used to be mayor, on the occasion of a visit by the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates.

Pope Francis to visit Rome synagogue for first time


Pope Francis will make his first pontifical visit to Rome's Great Synagogue next year, the Vatican and the city's Jewish community said in statements on Tuesday.

Francis, who had a good relationship with the Jewish community in his native Argentina, will go to the synagogue on the bank of the Tiber River on Jan. 17 for the first time since he was elected pope in 2013.

He will be the third Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the seat of Rome's Jews after his predecessor Benedict and John Paul II.

Pope Francis meets with Jewish leaders on 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate


Jewish leaders met with Pope Francis in Rome on the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the declaration promulgated by Pope Paul VI that led to improved relations between Jews and Catholics.

“Yes to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity. No to anti-Semitism,” the pope said Wednesday morning during the public audience on St. Peter’s Square.

Later, Francis said, “Since Nostra Aetate, indifference and opposition have turned into cooperation and goodwill. Enemies and strangers became friends and brothers.”

The landmark document inaugurated historic changes in the Catholic Church’s relations with other faiths. Its 600-word section on Judaism — approximately one-third of the document — rejects the charge, long leveled against the collective Jewish people, that Jews are guilty of killing Christ.

The Jewish leaders were part of a delegation of representatives of the World Jewish Congress in Rome for a meeting of its governing board. The meeting focused on the situation of Jews around the world, as well as the current tensions in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe and the Iranian threat.

In St. Peter’s Square, Francis effusively greeted a Jewish leader from his native Argentina.

“You’re still alive?” the pope greeted Julio Schlosser, head of the Jewish political umbrella DAIA , giving him a hug.

Schlosser underwent treatment  in June; he had suffered a major heart attack in 2012.

“I’m very happy to see you,” the pope told him. “You know how much I prayed for you.”

Prior to the public audience, the pope received WJC President Ronald Lauder in a private audience.

The WJC Governing Board at its meeting, which ended Tuesday, adopted a resolution calling on the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to return to direct peace negotiations without preconditions as soon as possible. Another resolution called on the international community to maintain, and if necessary expand, sanctions against Iran pending verification of compliance with the nuclear agreement reached in the spring with world powers.

2,000 rally in Rome in solidarity with Israel


An estimated 2,000 people demonstrated in solidarity with Israel in front of the Israeli Embassy in Rome.

Sunday’s rally, organized by the local Jewish community with the support of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and other groups, included representatives from both wings of the political spectrum.

“In the media there is a constant misinformation about what is happening in Israel,” Israel’s ambassador to Italy, Naor Gilon, said at the event. “But we will win because our country is strong and determined.”

Fabrizio Cicchitto, president of the Foreign and Community Affairs Commission of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, also participated in the rally.

Also on Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis called on Israelis and Palestinians to “say no to hate.”

“In this moment there is a need for much courage and much fortitude to say no to hate and vendetta and make gestures of peace,” the pope said Sunday after Mass in St. Peter’s Square, which is attended by tens of thousands of people.

Vatican paper raps film depicting Pope Pius XII as rescuer of Jews


A new movie depicting Pope Pius XII as a savior of Jews was criticized by the Vatican newspaper and an Italian Jewish publication.

“Shades of Truth,” featuring international stars Christopher Lambert and Giancarlo Giannini, had its premiere on Monday in Vatican City.

The movie attempts to prove that Pius XII was not “Hitler’s Pope,” as some have dubbed him, but “the Vatican’s Schindler,” in reference to the German businessman Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving some 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.

Critics have long accused Pius of not having done enough to help Jews during the Holocaust, while the Vatican has asserted he worked behind the scenes to save Jews.

According to the film’s director, Liana Marabini, the skillful diplomacy of Pius XII saved some 800,000 Jews from persecution.

But the Holy See’s daily newspaper, l’Osservatore Romano, called the film “naive” and “not credible.” Works such “Shades of Truth” do not help the historical understanding of the efforts of Pius XII during World War II, the paper said, because “when the means of production and art are not up to a task of that importance, it is better to give up.”

An editorial in the Jewish online publication Pagine Ebraiche featuring the headline “Pius XII, a fiction that rewrites history” was quoted Monday in the national press.

“The Vatican archives are still closed but at least Catholic cinema gives us one more fiction to rewrite history,” the editorial read.

Pope Francis will see “Shades of Truth”‘ in September during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. In an interview in June, Francis defended Pius XII’s record during WW II, calling the former pope “the great defender of the Jews.”

Spate of anti-Jewish, anti-Israel graffiti blankets Rome


Italian police are investigating a widespread spate of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel graffiti in Rome that local media speculate could be the joint work of left-wing and right-wing extremists.

Dozens of swastikas, slogans and posters were found spray-painted or plastered on walls and shop windows Monday in various parts of the city — as many as 70 or more in all.

They included slogans such as “Dirty Jews,” “Jews your end is near,” “Out with Zionists” and “Israel executioner.”

Some posters bore a swastika and the phrase “Anne Frank storyteller.” Other posters, apparently put up by a neo-fascist group, showed a Celtic cross and a Palestinian throwing a rock at an Israeli tank.

Jewish leaders, and local and state officials, strongly condemned the vandalism.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino called the affair shameful and “an insult to all Romans.” He expressed solidarity with the Jewish community, saying “Rome wants and must be the capital of dialogue and peace, and not the terrain of barbarism.” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano promised “maximum” efforts by law enforcement to identify the culprits and curb further outbreaks.

Pope calls Rome chief rabbi to offer condolences for teens


Pope Francis phoned Rome’s chief rabbi to express condolences on the murder of three Israeli teenagers.

Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the pope called him at home on Tuesday afternoon, the day the teens were buried side by side and within hours of the Vatican releasing a strong statement condemning the killings, according to the daily Il Messaggero.

Di Segni told Il Messaggero that the pope said, “Good evening. This is Pope Francis. I wanted very much to personally express my grief for the death of the three youths.”

The rabbi, who said he first thought the call was a prank, also said the pope had said he would pray for the boys and their families.

Earlier in the day, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi had called the murders “terrible and dramatic.” He said “the assassination of innocent people is always an execrable and unacceptable crime and a serious obstacle on the path toward the peace for which we must tirelessly continue to strive and pray.”

Lombardi said Pope Francis “participates in the unspeakable suffering of the families struck by this homicidal violence and the pain of all persons afflicted by the consequences of hatred, and prays that God might inspire all with thoughts of compassion and peace.”

Also Tuesday, clashes in Rome between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators left several injured, including one pro-Palestinian demonstrator who reportedly was beaten up by supporters of Israel.

Francis pledges to further Jewish-Catholic dialogue


Pope Francis reaffirmed his commitment to fighting discrimination and furthering Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

During an audience at the Vatican Thursday with a 60-member delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Francis said that he has “repeated many times, in recent weeks, the church’s condemnation of any form of anti-Semitism.”

Such condemnations were just part of the solution, he said, noting that Christians remain persecuted in some regions.

“I would like to underline that the problem of intolerance must be faced in its entirety,” he said, according to an official English text of his address released by the Vatican. “When any minority is persecuted and marginalized on account of its religious beliefs or ethnic origin, the good of society as a whole is placed in danger, and we must all consider ourselves affected.”

The church has raised particular alarm about discrimination and violence against Christians in some Arab countries.

“Let us unite our strengths to promote a culture of encounter, of mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness,” Francis said, stressing that education was key in transmitting experience, and not merely knowledge, to the younger generation.

“We must be able to transmit to them not only knowledge about Jewish-Catholic dialogue, about the difficulties overcome and the progress made in recent decades,” Francis said. “We must, above all, be able to transmit to them our passion for encounter and knowledge of the other, promoting the active and responsible involvement of young people.”

During the audience, Wiesenthal Center Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier called the pope “an ally in our struggles against anti-Semitism.”

“We want to reiterate to you that you have an ally in the Simon Wiesenthal Center in your struggle to secure the rights of religious minorities everywhere, especially endangered historic Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and beyond,” Hier said.

Hier said the he hoped that Francis’s expected visit to Israel next year would “help all those committed to a lasting Middle East peace, to finally recognize the existence of a Jewish state alongside her twenty-three Arab neighbors.”

The pope has said he would like to visit the Holy Land next year but no date has yet been announced.

Netanyahu will not meet pope during Rome visit


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not meet with Pope Francis during a visit to Rome, as the Israeli leader’s office had announced.

The Vatican reportedly never was asked to schedule a meeting for this week, and due to complex and conservative Vatican protocol cannot schedule a visit with one week’s notice, which would be insulting, Haaretz reported Monday.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement last week saying that Netanyahu would meet with the pope at the Vatican on Wednesday and during the same trip meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome to discuss the peace talks with the Palestinians, as well as Iran, Syria and other issues of mutual concern.

On Sunday, the Vatican officially informed the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, Zion Evrony, that a meeting of Netanyahu and Francis could not be scheduled this week.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with the pope earlier this month in Rome.

The pope has expressed an interest in visiting Israel, though no date has been set.

Pope warns of anti-Semitism as Rome commemorates Holocaust victims


Pope Francis urged vigilance against any resurgence of anti-Semitism ahead of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Rome’s Jews to Auschwitz.

Pope Francis made the warning Friday during a meeting at the Vatican with Italian Jewish leaders, including Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.

Commemoration of the 1943 deportation, he said, “will also be an occasion to recall the importance of remaining vigilant in order that we do not regress, under any pretext, to any forms of intolerance and anti-Semitism, in Rome and in the rest of the world.”

More than 1,000 Roman Jews were deported by Nazi occupiers on Oct. 16, 1943; only 16 survived.

Noting that Jews had lived in Rome for more than 2,000 years, the pope said that this history “as we well know” was “often marred by misunderstandings and real injustice.” However, he added, “by now this history includes, with the help of God, many decades of the development of friendly and brotherly relations.”

Francis also indirectly responded to criticism of wartime Pope Pius XII by noting that many Catholic religious institutions helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Critics say Pius turned a blind eye to the persecution of Jews during the Shoah.

The pope said he hoped to contribute “to that nearness and friendship” in the way that he had with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, where he had been cardinal.

He added, “It is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. His roots are in part Jewish. A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic! May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and the life of every man and woman!”

Francis also paid tribute to Christians who aided Jews during the Holocaust. “We know that many religious institutions, monasteries and indeed the Papal Basilicas, in accordance with the wishes of the Pope, opened their doors to provide a fraternal welcome, and that Christians offered the assistance, great or small, that they were able to give.”

Pope Francis, Rome chief rabbi exchange holiday greetings


Pope Francis and Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni exchanged greetings to mark Passover and Easter.

The two holidays overlap this year: Easter is on Sunday; Passover started last week and ends Tuesday.

The holidays, Di Segni wrote to the pontiff, “represent both the link and the separation between our religions.” He noted that over history, Easter often was the occasion of anti-Semitic attacks.

Today, however, “these days are experienced by both faiths in joy and harmony,” the rabbi wrote, and he paid tribute to “all those people who have been committed to this healing.”

Di Segni offered a prayer for the pope “in the spirit of respect and brotherly friendship” with the hope that the Lord “renders us able to reciprocally understand the sense of difference and the value of brotherhood.”

In his message to Di Segni on the eve of Passover, the pope prayed that “the Almighty, who freed His people from slavery in Egypt to guide them to the Promised Land, continue to deliver you from all evil and to accompany you with His blessing. I ask you to pray for me, as I assure you of my prayers for you, confident that we can deepen [our] ties of mutual esteem and friendship.”

Celebrating his first Easter as pontiff, Francis in his holiday message issued a plea for global peace, including in the Middle East and specifically between Israelis and Palestinians.

Listing a number of conflict areas around the world where he prayed for peace, he spoke of “peace for the Middle East, and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, who struggle to find the road of agreement, that they may willingly and courageously resume negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted all too long.”

On Sunday, Christian pilgrims from around the world marked Easter in Jerusalem, where the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead on Easter.

Pope at installation gives shout-out to Jews


Pope Francis gave a shout-out to Jews during the open-air Mass that formally installed him as pontiff.

Francis began his homily Tuesday by greeting the Catholic dignitaries and faithful in the huge crowd that crammed St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area. He thanked “representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.”

Among the crowd were Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; Riccardo Pacifici, the president of the Rome Jewish community; and more than a dozen other Jewish representatives.

It is said to be the first time that Rome’s chief rabbi has attended a papal inauguration.

Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had invited Di Segni to his inauguration on April 24, 2005, but Di Segni did not attend because it was the first day of Passover.

Benedict also singled out Jews in his welcoming remarks, greeting “with great affection …  you, my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises.”

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.

Benedict’s papacy: a period of close Jewish relations with occasional bumps


Pope Benedict XVI’s eight-year reign as head of the world’s 1 billion Catholics sometimes was a bumpy one for the Vatican’s relations with Israel and the wider Jewish community. But it was also a period in which relations where consolidated and fervent pledges made to continue interfaith dialogue and bilateral cooperation.

Both elements were evident in the tributes that flowed from Jewish leaders following the surprise announcement Monday that due to his advanced age and weakening health, Benedict would step down on Feb. 28.

“There were bumps in the road during this papacy,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement. “But he listened to our concerns and tried to address them, which shows how close our two communities have become in the last half century and how much more work we need to do together to help repair a broken world.”

The German-born Benedict, 85, is the first pope to resign since the 15th century. He announced his decision at a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican.

[Related: Pope Benedict XVI to resign, citing frailty]

“In today’s world,” he declared in Latin, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

The pope’s brother told the German news agency DPA that Benedict had been weighing the decision for months. Still, his resignation came as a shock.

“There were moments of divergence, inevitable because of the essential and irreconcilable differences between the two worlds,” said Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. “But there was always a positive will to compare and construct.”

Under Benedict’s leadership, the Vatican “has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. “Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been, and the positive dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a testament to his belief in dialogue and cooperation.”

Less than two weeks earlier, in fact, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, had said that after years of fitful negotiations, Israel and the Vatican were “on the verge” of resolving outstanding bilateral issues and finalizing the Fundamental Agreement governing relations between the two states.

Benedict was elected pontiff in April 2005 following the death of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been a close friend and adviser to the charismatic John Paul II, who had made fostering better relations with the Jews a cornerstone of his nearly 27-year papacy.

“For Jews and Israel, Benedict’s papacy has meant a consolidation and confirmation of the developments and achievements during John Paul II’s papacy,” Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, told JTA.

Benedict’s own personal history also helped shape this commitment. Born in Bavaria, he grew up in an anti-Nazi Catholic family but, like all teenagers, was obligated to join the Hitler Youth organization and was conscripted into the German army. Eventually he deserted.

As pope, Benedict met frequently with Jewish groups and visited synagogues in several countries. His first trip abroad as the pontiff was to his native Germany, where he made it a point to visit the synagogue in Cologne and issued a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism and “the insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The visit marked only the second time a pope had visited a synagogue. Benedict later visited synagogues in Rome and New York.

He also confronted his troubled past in Poland in 2006 when he visited Auschwitz and, declaring himself “a son of Germany,” prayed for victims of the Holocaust, as well as on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009 when he visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and met with Holocaust survivors.

As a young theologian in the 1960s, Benedict attended the Second Vatican Council, which aimed to liberalize the Church. In 1965, the council promulgated the Nostra Aetate declaration that opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Benedict repeatedly reaffirmed commitment to Nostra Aetate’s teachings. Still, several issues that emerged during his tenure called that commitment into question, casting a shadow over Catholic-Jewish relations.

These included the revival of a pre-Vatican II Good Friday Latin prayer that called for the conversion of Jews, moving the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood and reaching out to a breakaway ultratraditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, in an effort to bring it back into the mainstream Catholic fold. In doing so, Benedict revoked the excommunication of three of the movement's bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Vatican officials said a conclave of cardinals will be convened in March to elect a new pope. But there is no clear indication as to who might be picked, or from what country or continent he might come. Vatican observers said that since all the cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope had been appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict, whoever is elected would probably follow similar overall policies.

Like John Paul II, Benedict is a doctrinal conservative, staunchly opposed to female priests, gay marriage, abortion, birth control and divorce.

“History will view Benedict as the last of the traditional European pontiffs, the last pope who personally experienced World War II and the Holocaust, and one of the last Catholic leaders to have participated in the historic Second Vatican Council,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the AJC’s senior interreligious adviser, who first met Ratzinger in the 1970s.

The next pope will have to deal with fallout from scandals that tainted Benedict’s reign, from continuing accusations of sex abuse by priests to a security breach that saw Benedict’s butler leaking the pope’s private papers to a reporter. It remains to be seen, however, whether fostering Jewish-Catholic relations will receive less attention under a younger and possibly non-European pope without the historic memory of the Holocaust and Vatican II.

“Doctrinally this will never happen, but in terms of visibility and engagement that may happen if he is from a place where there is no significant Jewish community present today or in the very recent past,” Rosen said.

Rosen added, however, a non-European pope might be less encumbered by the burdens of the past.

“Past tragedy and past failure are not the best basis for a long-term future relationship,” Rosen said. “This has to be based upon nurturing the sense of common patrimony, roots. Some African cardinals are better in this regard than many European ones.”

Alleged anti-Semitism of Rome team’s soccer fans to be investigated


European soccer authorities have opened disciplinary proceedings against the Rome soccer team Lazio for the alleged anti-Semitism of its fans.

The action follows alleged racist chanting and other racist and anti-Semitic behavior on the part of hardcore fans at a match with London’s Tottenham Hotspur team in Rome in November. Tottenham has many Jewish supporters who sometimes call themselves the “Yid army.”

According to a statement issued Monday by the Union of European Football Associations, “Proceedings will also be instigated against Lazio for throwing of missiles and/or fireworks by their supporters, incidents of a non-sporting nature, late team arrival at the stadium, and late handling of the team sheet.”

At the Nov. 22 match, Lazio fans chanted “Juden Tottenham” and unfurled a large banner reading “Free Palestine.” The game ended in a 0-0 draw. Lazio is known for its militant, far-right hardcore fans.

The night before the match, several Tottenham fans were injured when dozens of men wearing masks and helmets, and wielding knives and clubs, attacked them at a pub on central Rome’s popular Campo de’ Fiori.

The UEFA statement said the soccer union “will also commence proceedings against Tottenham Hotspur FC, who face charges related to crowd disturbances.” The UEFA's Control and Disciplinary Body will discuss both cases on Jan. 24.

Criminalize anti-Semitic websites, Rome provincial council says in motion


Rome’s provincial council is calling for websites that promote racism and anti-Semitism to be blocked and such online hatred criminalized.

The council on Monday unanimously passed a motion voicing solidarity with Rome local official Carla Di Veroli and with the Rome Jewish community in general following anti-Semitic attacks on Di Veroli that appeared last week on the neo-Nazi website Stormfront.

Di Veroli, who is Jewish, has long been an anti-fascist and minority rights activist.

The motion also commits provincial officials to “assume every appropriate initiative” to urge the relevant authorities and institutions to block websites that “spread ideas that instigate racial hatred, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia.” It pushed for a law to brand online hate spread on websites as a criminal act.

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.”

Roman Jewry mourns Italian Muslim leader


The Rome Jewish community mourned the death of an Italian Muslim leader who was a key figure in promoting interfaith Jewish-Muslim relations.

Mario Scialoja, a retired Italian diplomat and the first president of the Italian office of the World Muslim League, died Monday in Rome. His funeral took place Tuesday in Rome’s Grand Mosque.

Scialoja, who was 82, converted to Islam in 1988 when he was an Italian diplomat at the United Nations in New York. His last diplomatic post was as Italian ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1994-96.

“A sincere friend with whom we shared genuine dialogue initiatives has left us,” said Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Rome Jewish community. “Even in moments of tension, he always demonstrated he knew how to maintain the level of dialogue and respect.”

Jewish celebration in Rome canceled to honor earthquake victims


Roman Jews canceled an outdoor celebration at Rome’s main synagogue to honor the national day of mourning for the victims of last month’s earthquakes in northern Italy.

Quakes in the Emiglia-Romagna region on May 20 and May 30 killed at least 24 people, left thousands homeless and caused widespread damage to art and architectural heritage.

Monday’s celebration in Rome was to have marked the 68th anniversary of the 1944 reopening of Rome’s main synagogue after the liberation of Rome by allied forces. The ceremony was to have included military representatives from Italy, the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Poland, France, India and Israel.

The Italian Jewish community said it was working on plans to aid quake victims possibly by opening Jewish summer camp facilities to children victims and providing counseling and other medical and health care aid.

Miss Sixty founder dies


Wicky Hassan, a Libyan-born Italian Jew who founded the popular Miss Sixty fashion brand, has died in Rome.

Hassan died Friday after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 56.

Born in Tripoli, Hassan arrived in Rome with his family in the late 1960s when thousands of Libyan Jews were forced out of their country in the wake of the Six Day War. In addition to Miss Sixty, he also founded brands such as Energie and Killah.

Taking a cue from Apple, following the death of Steven Jobs, the Miss Sixty web site filled its home page with a portrait of Hassan and his birth and death dates.

Five arrested in Rome for plotting against Jewish community


Police in Rome have arrested five neo-fascists on charges of plotting violence against the Rome Jewish community.

The accused also plotted to attack Rome’s Jewish community president, Riccardo Pacifici, as well as the city’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno; the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini; and the president of the Senate.

Police said 11 others were under investigation.

The charges include criminal association to spread racial hatred, incitement to violence, and discrimination for racial, ethnic and religious reasons.

Those arrested Wednesday included five members of the neo-fascist Militia group, including its longtime leader, Maurizio Boccaci, who is in his 50s. Police raids were carried out in several cities across the country.

According to Italian state television, the accused wanted to foment a “revolutionary war” against the official Italian institutions. Alemanno and Fini both are mainstream right-wing politicians who had their political roots in the neo-fascist movement but now demonstrate strong support for Israel.

Alemanno has been the target of neo-Nazi Militia banners and graffiti. Alemanno and Pacifici made a two-day visit to Israel this week to meet with freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

As Berlusconi exits, new report shows rising anti-Semitism in Italy


Crowds on the streets of Rome jeered and cheered when their long-serving, scandal-plagued prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, stepped down over the weekend. A choir even sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in front of the presidential palace as he handed in his resignation.

Italian Jews don’t expect Berlusconi’s ouster to have specific repercussions on their community or on Rome’s close relations with Israel. Indeed for many, these questions are largely secondary to deep-seated concerns over the general impact of Berlusconi’s exit as Italy struggles to regain financial footing and restore a tarnished international image.

“Will something change in respect to the Jews?” asked Laura Quercioli Mincer, a Jewish intellectual and university professor. “I didn’t even ask myself this.”

The lack of concern for Jewish welfare as Berlusconi leaves political life is a sign of the relative security and stability enjoyed by Italian Jews. However, a report released last month by the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism found mounting levels of anti-Semitism in the country.

The parliamentary report cited a 2008 study by Italy’s Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation showing that 44 percent of Italians express attitudes and opinions “in some way hostile to Jews” and that 12 percent are “fully fledged anti-Semites.” Of Italians aged 18 to 29, some 22 percent were found to be hostile to Jews. The figure was even higher among males in northern Italy, the heartland of the anti-immigrant Northern League party.

The report was the fruit of more than two years of work by the committee, which was chaired by journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, a parliamentarian for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. It also revealed a dramatic proliferation of anti-Semitic websites and social networks, and a level of hatred against Israel that the report says goes far beyond the limits of legitimate criticism.

The committee, instituted in 2009 by the president of the Chamber of Deputies, was composed of more than two dozen members of parliament from all political parties. Its work involved analyzing polls and surveys, holding hearings with experts and carrying out other investigations.

“We have been attempting to understand the new aspects of this phenomenon, which is as aggressive and genocidal as it always was, but it is presently hiding itself by assuming new forms,” Nirenstein said at the official presentation of the report.

Berlusconi’s resignation Saturday came after the Italian parliament passed emergency austerity measures to tackle the country’s debt crisis. President Giorgio Napolitano immediately appointed Mario Monti, a respected economist, to head a new government expected to consist of non-political technical experts.

A flamboyant billionaire media mogul who has dominated Italian politics since the mid-1990s, Berlusconi, 75, long had been a divisive figure in a highly polarized country. He was elected in 2008 to his third (though not consecutive) term as prime minister at the head of a center-right coalition that included his People of Freedom party and the Northern League.

In general, Jewish attitudes toward Berlusconi echo mainstream right-left political divisions.

“The Italian Jewish community is a mirror of the country as a whole,” said Daniele Nahum, vice president of the Milan Jewish community, which with more than 6,000 members is the country’s second largest after Rome.

Jewish political figures occupy prominent positions on both the left and right. They include Emanuele Fiano, a member of parliament for the leftist Democratic Party, and Nirenstein, a Berlusconi ally.

In a recent interview with the Israeli daily Israel Hayom and reprinted on Nirenstein’s website, Nirenstein called Berlusconi “a brilliant person.”

“In a period when Italy was entirely in the hands of the Communists and the Catholics, he took Italy and ushered it into the era of modern economy,” she said. “All the rest is less important to me.”

Berlusconi has had a complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with the Jewish world. He was notorious for telling “Jewish jokes,” making tasteless references to the Holocaust and committing other gaffes on Jewish matters.

But his staunch support for Israel won him and his center-right government backing from many of Italy’s 30,000 Jews and plaudits from groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Italy and Israel cooperate closely in a variety of fields, and Italy is among Israel’s top economic partners in Europe.

“I’ve heard many times people say that this is why they voted for him,” Nahum said.

Nahum said that he found this particularly true among the thousands of Jews who had settled in Italy in recent decades after being forced out of Libya and other Arab states.

But Berlusconi and his allies also won support from Italian-born Jews who were alienated by the strong pro-Palestinian bent of much of the left.

Still, many Italian Jews remain firmly opposed to Berlusconi and his political allies, and they deplored the backing Berlusconi had received from some far-right politicians and his alliance with the Northern League.

“We here in northern Italy sense the influence of the Northern League more vividly than in the south,” Venice University professor Shaul Bassi, an active member of the Venice Jewish community, told JTA.

“In my opinion, it’s racist,” he said. “It’s been a surprise how Berlusconi could ally himself with a party that uses the same type of rhetoric that the Nazis used against foreigners.”

Even some critics who praised Berlusconi’s relationship with Israel described it as ambiguous.

“Berlusconi was a very, very loyal friend of Israel,” said political commentator David Parenzo. “But he also was a friend of Moammar Gadhafi, who pitched his tent in Rome when he visited. There are always two roads open.”

Nahum said, “Berlusconi’s relationship with Israel was positive. But then again he retained close ties with the dictatorial Arab regimes. The failure of this policy could been seen during the Arab Spring.”

The financial crisis that brought Italy to the brink of default was the immediate trigger for Berlusconi’s downfall. But it came in the wake of years of sex and corruption scandals, revolts by former political allies and international concern over his close relations with questionable international figures. Last year, WikiLeaks revelations quoted U.S. diplomats calling him a mouthpiece for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Gad Lerner, an influential leftist Jewish TV host and political commentator in the national media, celebrated Berlusconi’s downfall. He described Saturday as a “day of liberation.”

“What happens next is uncertain,” Lerner wrote on his widely read blog. “But the shame of being represented in the world by a man like that is now behind us.”

Libyan Jewish exile to leave country


A Libyan Jewish exile attempting to restore Tripoli’s main synagogue will leave the country following angry protests.

David Gerbi, who arrived in Libya from Italy this summer when Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi was ousted in a rebellion, agreed Sunday to return to Rome on a military transport scheduled to leave Tuesday, according to The Jerusalem Post.

On Yom Kippur eve, hundreds of protesters called for Gerbi’s deportation and carried signs reading “There is no place for the Jews in Libya,” The Jerusalem Post reported. The protesters attempted to forcibly remove Gerbi from his central Tripoli hotel, he told the Post, but were stopped by hotel and Libyan security, and government officials.

Gerbi began trying to clean up the site of the Dar al-Bishi synagogue earlier this month but said he was forced to leave the site by armed men. He said since then he has been holed up in his hotel room.

He said he had spent weeks getting permission from the country’s new leaders to clean up the site.

Gerbi, a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, had told Reuters that he was applying to become a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a full member to represent the Jewish community and planned to reclaim Jewish properties confiscated by the state.

Most Tripoli synagogues have been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries also have been torn down to make room for office buildings.

Gerbi fled Libya with his family in 1967 when he was 12 years old.

Rome’s Jewish community to protest right-wing extremist


Rome’s Jewish community has threatened to stage a counter rally against a right-wing extremist who announced a recruitment rally next month for a paramilitary-style nationalist vigilante group.

Rome Jewish community president Riccardo Pacifici joined political leaders in condemning extremist Gaetano Saya’s weekend announcement of a recruitment rally Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 in Genoa for a “homeland defense legion.”

Italy’s minister of equal opportunity meanwhile opened an investigation into Saya’s declarations against gays, Roma and immigrants.

Pacifici called on Italy’s interior minister and local authorities to take action against Saya’s planned rally, threatening a counter-protest if it wasn’t blocked.

If nothing is done, he said in a statement, “We Jews will make our voices heard by promoting, on the same day and in the same place, a demonstration against this xenophobic and racist initiative.”

Two years ago Saya sparked outrage when his Italian Nationalist Party, a neo-fascist movement modeled on Britain’s National Front, launched a paramilitary group, which came under immediate investigation for promoting fascism, which is illegal in Italy. A Nationalist party video that is still online shows Saya and other members giving the stiff-armed fascist salute and wearing uniforms reminiscent of those from pre-World War II fascist militias.

Talmud to be translated into Italian


The Talmud will be translated for the first time into Italian thanks to an official collaboration between the Italian government and the Italian Jewish community.

A protocol launching “Project Talmud” was signed Friday in Rome by cabinet ministers, the president of Italy’s National Research Council, the president of the umbrella Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) and Rome’s chief rabbi.

The project foresees the translation of the original Aramaic version of the Babylonian Talmud, with commentaries, as well as an introductory volume about the structure, contents and language of the Talmud.

UCEI president Renzo Gattegna said the initiative demonstrated how “the cultural collaboration between state institutions and the reality of Italian Judaism has assumed new awareness and meaningful commitment.”

Ghetto Tour of Rome


From Jewish Times of South Jersey:

“My name is Micaela Pavoncello, thank you for contacting Jewish Roma Walking tours.” That was the first line of the response we got about joining Micaela on one of her Jewish-themed tours in Rome. While not inexpensive, her tour of the Jewish Ghetto was definitely the highlight of our stay in Rome.

Micaela is a dynamic and attractive woman whose heritage as a Roman Jew goes back two thousand years on her father’s side! In the second century BCE, the Maccabee family led a successful revolt against the Seleucid Greeks, who were defiling the Holy Temple and demanding that Jews worship King Antiochus IV Epiphanes as a god. During the war against the Seleucid empire, which lasted more than 25 years and included hundreds of battles, the brothers allied themselves with various regional powers whom they thought would help them in their audacious war. In 161 BCE, Jews arrived in Rome from Jerusalem as envoys of Judah Maccabee to elicit Rome’s cooperation and aid.

Read the full post at Jewish Times of South Jersey.

Pope Admits He Mishandled Bishop Matter


ROME (JTA)—Pope Benedict XVI admits in a letter that his rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop backfired.

The remarkable letter to bishops, whose text was officially released Thursday by the Vatican, also says the Vatican must become Internet savvy to
prevent further mishaps.

Benedict specifically addressed the Jan. 21 lifting of the excommunication order on Richard Williamson and three other traditionalist bishops, saying
it unleashed “an avalanche of protests” whose “bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment.”

Lifting the excommunications had been intended to heal a rift in the church. But due to the uproar over Williamson, the pope said, it “suddenly appeared
as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews,” and a revocation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The pope continued, “A gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an
apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council—steps which my own
work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support.” This, Benedict said, he “can only deeply regret.”

“I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned
the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news,” the pope said.

A pontiffs very rarely issues a document admitting errors in such a detailed and personal way. Benedict said he was particularly hurt by the “open
hostility” from within the Church itself.

“Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the
atmosphere of friendship and trust which—as in the days of Pope John Paul II—has also existed throughout my pontificate and, thank God, continues
to exist.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder praised the pope.

“The Pope has found clear and unequivocal words regarding Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denial, and he deserves praise for admitting that
mistakes were made within the Vatican in the handling of this affair,” Lauder said in a statement.

“The Pope’s letter conveys the essential requirements for interreligious dialogue: candor and the willingness to tackle difficult issues squarely.
His expressed anguish at the events following the Holocaust-denying statements by Williamson reflects the similar emotional pain felt by Jews
worldwide during this affair,” he said. “We reciprocate his words of appreciation for Jewish efforts to restore interreligious dialogue and will
continue to work with the Catholic Church to further strengthen mutual understanding and respect.”

Skirball photo exhibit shows Pope John Paul II’s lifetime of outreach to Jews


A large photo in the exhibition “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” shows a smiling Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, warmly welcoming the pontiff to Rome’s Great Synagogue in 1986.

Today, when interfaith meetings and celebrations are routine, it is difficult to imagine the impact of the first papal visit to the synagogue after 2,000 years of Catholic antagonism and persecution of Jews.

John Paul II, who once worked in a stone quarry, seemed destined by history and background to smash a large opening in the wall that had separated the two faiths for centuries.

As richly illustrated through text panels, documents, photos and videos in the Skirball Cultural Center exhibition, which continues through Jan. 4, the pope’s 84-year lifespan is divided into four chronological segments.

The first section introduces the young boy, born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, about midway between Krakow and Oswiecim (Auschwitz).

In contrast to most Polish towns, Catholics and Jews mingled freely in Wadowice. The Wojtyla family lived in a predominantly Jewish apartment building, many of Karol’s classmates were Jewish, and he played goalie on a Jewish soccer team.

Next comes Karol’s young adulthood, when the Nazi invasion and occupation closed the Krakow seminary attended by the future pope. He and 800 other students organized underground classes and continued their clandestine studies.

In the third section, with the war over, Wojtyla rises from priest to bishop, cardinal and archbishop of Krakow. He participates as a junior member in the Second Vatican Council, which opens a new chapter in the church’s attitude toward other faiths. At the same time, he renews ties with the surviving Jewish community of Poland.

The final and climactic section, both in the exhibit and in Wojtyla’s life, is his papacy, from his election in 1978 to his death in 2005.

This period included his visits to Auschwitz and to the Rome synagogue, and his formal repentance for his church’s past antagonism toward the Jewish people. Earlier, in 1993, John Paul II commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in words imprinted in the exhibit’s title:

“As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.”

In 2000, the pope undertook a pilgrimage to and formally recognized the State of Israel, inserting a note between the stones of the Western Wall.

In commemoration of this visit, a replica of part of the Western Wall stands near the exhibit’s exit. There visitors can write their own notes and prayers, which will be transferred to the actual Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Across from the simulated wall is a bronze casting of the pope’s hand as “a symbolic expression of the power of John Paul II’s personal touch in reaching out to people across the globe,” said Skirball senior curator Grace Cohen Grossman.

The Skirball center is making a special effort to attract Catholic visitors and members of the Polish community in Los Angeles to the exhibit, said museum director Robert Kirschner.

A large number of parochial schools have signed up for tours and the regular Skirball docents will be supplemented by guides drawn from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Given the large number of non-Jewish visitors, who may not be too familiar with the Holocaust, the exhibit also includes information on the extermination of Poland’s and Europe’s Jewry.

Two areas not covered in the show are the generally conservative doctrine and theology of John Paul II, and the attitudes and transgressions by past popes toward Jews.

“Our focus is on the remarkable outreach toward Jews and other peoples by John Paul II, his charisma and personal connections with people, and how the experiences of his early years led to his later accomplishments,” Kirschner said.

The exhibition was created and produced by Xavier University, a Jesuit institution, and the Hillel Jewish Student Center, both in Cincinnati, together with the Shtetl Foundation. The local showing is supported by the Polish consulate in Los Angeles and private donors.

Several related public programs will complement the exhibition during its nearly four-month run. Included are concerts, films, classes, lectures, family workshops and gallery tours. For more information, call or phone (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org.

VIDEO: A Good Joke


A classic joke in a new short video by Nick Fox-Gieg of www.fox-gieg.com

When in Rome, eat kosher like the Romans


Just 50 yards from the Trevi Fountain, in the heart of old Rome, is a new kosher fast food spot and pizzeria.

Da Michele is the newest of a flowering of restaurants, fast-food outlets, groceries, butchers and catering services that now offer tourists and Romans many aspects of kosher cuisine.

Shops selling kosher products say the increased demand is coming mainly from Jews. But restaurateurs say at least half their customers are non-Jews who want to sample classic Roman Jewish cooking, which many consider to be the most sophisticated of traditional Roman cuisines.

In a population of nearly 4 million, Rome has only 14,000 “official” Jews, and perhaps as many who consider themselves Jewish but aren’t registered with the community. Observance of religious and kashrut laws traditionally has been very low.

Twenty years ago, the Eternal City had only one kosher restaurant, two butchers, a couple of groceries and a pastry shop. Today there are five full restaurants, eight fast-food places of various kinds, 12 butchers, nine groceries, two bakeries, at least two catering services and one pastry shop that are kosher.

Most of the options aren’t in Rome’s old Jewish ghetto but are scattered in surrounding residential neighborhoods. The menus are no longer limited to the Roman tradition of kosher cuisine. Due in part to the influx of thousands of Libyan Jews in the 1960s and ’70s, they now include many Middle Eastern dishes or new fusion recipes.

Perhaps the most fashionable of Rome’s kosher restaurants is La Taverna del Ghetto, on the main street of the ghetto where until 1870, the city’s Jews were forced to live and locked in at night. The Taverna, a meat restaurant focusing on traditional Roman Jewish cuisine, was opened in 1999 by an Israeli restaurateur named Rafael and his Roman wife, Miriam.

A couple of cobble-stoned streets away is Yotvatah, a dairy restaurant opened in 2002 by Marco Sed, whose family has been in Rome for 2,000 years. Yotvatah specializes in Roman Jewish dishes and also sells kosher cheeses, including mozzarella.

In the residential neighborhood around Piazza Bologna, outside of the ghetto, are two restaurants run by the same family. Amram Dabush, a Libyan Jew with Italian ancestors, left Tripoli in 1967 and moved to Israel. Around 1990 he came to Rome with his wife and four sons, then in their late teens and early 20s.

In 1991 they opened Medio Oriente, which as its name suggests offers Middle Eastern food like shwarma, hummus, couscous, falafel and kebabs. In 2002 the family opened a second restaurant, Gan Eden, which is more Roman-oriented but also provides a number of Eastern delicacies, as well as a more stylish decor.

Rome’s fifth kosher restaurant is the Yesh steakhouse, in another residential area near Viale Marconi, south of the city center. The furnishings and decor are modern; the menu is rooted in the Roman tradition.

Among the many fast-food places, Da Michele is a standout. Owner Michele Sonnino, of ancient Roman-Jewish stock, had opened a fast-food place and pizzeria in 1994 in the ghetto. Ten years later he sold it and opened the current spot by Trevi Fountain.

Along with pizza, Sonnino and his wife, Cinzia, boast an excellent Sicilian version of felafel, omelets, meatballs alla Romana and stuffed pita. They also make what may be the finest suppli, or fried rice balls, anywhere in Rome — kosher or non-kosher.