A Major Test for Italian Jews

The 12th Quadrennial Congress of the Union of Italian Jewish Communites UIJC) ended on a strong note of unity and with a newly discovered capacity to “speak out” on the part of Italy’s 40,000 Jews.

That capacity; and the community’s new spirit of fraternal collaboration with the Vatican will be put its first major test in the weeks ahead by the UIJC’s unequivocal stand against the 1985 accord between the Education Ministry and the Catholic Episcopal Conference which introduced the teaching of the Catholic religion in the Italian school system at all grade levels.

That was one of the issues which dominated the three-day Congress last week. It is especially pertinent now. Next week a joint commission of four Jewish representatives and four members of Parliament will attempt a final draft revision of the UIJC’s concordat with the Italian State to replace the original 1930 version.

Tulia Zevi, a Jewish journalist and the first woman president of the UIJC, won re-election by a landslide at the Congress. In her opening speech she expressed ” serious concern” over the teaching of Catholicism in the public schools. She stressed that opposition to the new law stood on constitutional grounds and the principle of true religious equality.

FOCUS ON FOUR POINTS

The UIJC specified four points considered essential by Italian Jews and other non-Catholic minorities and non-believers. First, they insist that the classes in Catholicism be clearly defined as voluntary. Although the law specifies this, the UIJC has disclosed recent cases where non-Catholic children who did not sign up for religious instruction were ostracized and even coerced by some teachers.

The UIJC also wants these classes conducted after regular school hours. It wants them eliminated on the nursery and kindergarten level. Finally, it asks that Catholic ideology not permeate the subject matter of other courses, such as stories about Jesus in elementary readers.

Giuliano Amato, a member of Parliament who spoke at the Congress, said it is unlikely that all four points in the school issue can be attained. He noted that constitutionality cannot be closely questioned inasmuch as Catholics, who comprise 80 percent of the population, are guaranteed the right to receive religious instruction.

Amato advised the UIJC to go easy on some of their requests and concentrate on what can realistically be obtained. If the UIJC concedes on some points, they are likely to be pursued at a future time, in cooperation with other minority groups.

Zevi announced in this regard that the Rome Institute of Islamic Culture approached the UIJC suggesting a common effort to protect minority religions in the schools. But it was decided to work separately because the Islamic Institute plans to use the diplomatic channels of the Islamic nations’ embassies in Rome to press its points.

Apart from the school issue, the UIJC is making other requests in its revised agreement with the State. It is asking for perpetual burial grounds. According to Italian law, remains can be exhumed 99 years after death and re-buried elsewhere. The UIJC also wants Sabbath rest for all Jewish employes of the State and State-sponsored kosher slaughter.

The Congress ended with a series of resolutions. One affirmed the centrality of Israel to world Jewry. Another called for abandonment of plans by the Catholic Church in Poland to erect a Carmelite nunnery at the site of the Auschwitz death camp. The UIJC is also demanding that Italy continue to fight against international terrorism.

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