Letter from Rome, by Anna Maria Cossiga

With all that’s been happening in Gaza, being Jewish might seem especially difficult right now. People tend to identify Israel and Israeli politics with Jews as a whole. Which can be dangerous. Antisemitism lurks in every corner and will take advantage of the tiniest misconcenption or misunderstanding about Jews. Let’s just say that Israeli politics do not represent the Jews as a people. And let’s add that not only Jews, but even Isarelis can be against Israeli politics. On the other hand, let’s also make clear that condemning Israeli politics or military operations does’nt make one an antisemite. All this may sound self-evident (actually, in my experience, it doesn’t) but, as the Roman used to say, repetita iuvant, which can roughly be translated as “repetition is useful.”

You might be wondering why on Earth I am discussing Gaza, Israeli politics and antisemitism from Rome. Good question. If you ask my family and friends, they’ll answer “Because she’s obsessed with everything that’s Jewish.” They might have a point. Only that it’s not an obsession, but a profound cultural interest. I admit I love Judaism. I should be nominated Jew ad honorem (since we are using Latin…). I don’t think it’s possible and, besides, it might sound disrespectful towards Jews and Judaism, which it is not intended to be: quite the contrary. I sometimes think I’m the reincarnation of an American Rabbi. But this is another story which I will tell you someday. Maybe.

Let’s go back to Gaza, Israeli politics, and Jews. Did you know the the Jewish community of Rome is the most ancient in Europe? Jews have been here since the 1st century AD. They didn’t have problems, at the beginning of their residence, and were even allowed to keep their religion and rites. Judaism was a religio licita (allowed religion). Difficulties started when Jews in Judaea and Palestine rebelled against the Romans, first with Pompey and then with Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Jews were taken to Rome as slaves and also condemned to the mines in Sardinia. Bad, bad situation. Later on, they were often mistaken for Christians. Suetonius tells us that the emperor Claudius  expelled them from Rome because  they were the cause of continuous disorders instigated by a certain Cresto. Cresto and Christ should have sounded quite similar to Latin-speaking Romans. That was the beginning of all the problems Christians created for Jews in history. The Church accused the whole Jewish people of having murdered Jesus, they penned them up in ghettoes, converted them forcibly and so on and so forth. I don’t need to tell you more about their tragic story.

We have a ghetto in Rome. It was established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV and was finally open in 1870, when the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome and put and end to the temporal power of the Church. It was high time. The ghetto area remained nonetheless the center of Jewish life. A new, magnificent synagogue was built and many of the Roman Jews kept their homes in the ancient neighbourhood. Which was unfortunate, because the Nazis found it easy to round them up when they raided the ghetto on October 16, 1943. 1023 people were deported to Auschwitz and only 16 survived.

The Community is still here and particular to Rome with their Italian rite. I was lucky enough to know them closely when I was doing research on the ghetto and the history of the Roman Jews for my BA dissertation in history of religion. I had an extraordinary tutor: Ariel Toaff, the son of Rome’s Chief Rabbi and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at Bar Ilan University. Many years later he published a very controversial book entitled Pasque di sangue (which can be roughly translated as Blood Pesachs), where he maintained that that, between 1100 and 1500, fundamentalist Ashkenazi  Jews in Europe actually made human sacrifices and that the  blood of the victims was used in the rituals of Pesach. Notwithstanding historical evidence, the book was a scandal and his author was  exposed as a self-hating Jew, offering good material to antisemites. The book was withdrawn from the market and “corrected.” Toaff, however, who was condemned even by his own father, continued to defend his work as an historian, claiming that what he wrote had been distorted and used by the media. In a later pamphlet, Virtual Judaism (Ebraismo virtuale, Rizzoli, 2008) he wrote that Jews, like everybody else, can be good or evil and that it is wrong for Jews themselves to be always portrayed as “invertebrate victims and innocent martyrs” while they are “people of flesh and blood who, among thousands of contradictions, heroism and cowardice, were able to survive and to leave their indelible mark in history.” “Nowadays,” – he further wrote – “it appears that the heirs of that people, especially those in the Diaspora, have decide to invent another Judaism, with an aura of sanctity from its origins. A flawless Judaism, but with lots of fears. […] Before the new reality of the State of Israel, towards which they feel, more or less consciously, guilty for having left it to itself without facing the uncomfortable and risky alternative of Zionism realized, the Diaspora Jews, the inventors of this new and fashionable virtual Judaism, have chosen a totally non-critical and flat behavior. Any choice by Israeli policy makers becomes their own choice, automatically and enthusiastically, and all Israeli parties, interchangeably, become their own parties […] When Israel is concerned, diaspora Judaism is by now behaving like a soccer fan, forever defending their team and players even when they blatantly break the rules.”

Well, judge for yourselves. I’m sure you sense which side I’m taking. I admit it’s a long way from Medieval and Renaissance Jews to Gaza and Rome, but my line of thought is now clearer. Thanks, Ariel Toaff.

One question: as the possible reincarnation of an American Rabbi and a would-be Jew nominated ad honorem, am I also a self-hating Jew?


Anna Maria Cossiga was born in Sassari, Sardinia, and moved to Rome when she was 7. She has lived in NYC and London and currently teaches cultural anthropology in Rome. For more writing on frankmatter by the same author, click here.

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2014 by in essay, italian.


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