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Nobel Prize Winner Looks Back 50 Years After Italian Manifesto

Fifty years ago, on July 14, 1938, a group of fascist scientists published a racist manifesto that became the official rationale for anti-Semitism in Italy.

It marked a major step by Benito Mussolini to align fascist Italy with Nazi Germany. The manifesto was an Italian version of the Nuremberg Laws.

It affirmed the existence of biologically superior and inferior races. The Italians, so went this myth, were pure Aryans. Jews, therefore, were not part of the Italian race and, by definition, inferior.

At the time, there were about 50,000 Jews in Italy, almost completely assimilated. Their contributions to the nation, especially in scientific fields, were far out of proportion to their numbers.

Within months after the manifesto was published, the regime promulgated race laws. They were forbidden to intermarry with Italians. They were forbidden to practice many professions, to serve in the armed forces or to hold public office.

Jews were limited in the amount of property and other holdings they could own. They were forbidden to go to vacation resorts, employ Aryans, own radios, publish books or even have their names listed in the telephone directory.

Beginning in December 1938, a long list of scientists and university professors were dismissed from their jobs because they were Jews.

This grim anniversary occurs at a time when the Jewish community has warned of a possible new wave of anti-Semitism in Italy. This time, Jews are being made scapegoats for widespread displeasure with the way Israel is dealing with the Palestinian uprising.

The events in the Middle East, however, may be no more than a pretext for those who harbor anti-Semitic prejudices to publicly indulge them.

What caused the explosion of anti-Semitism in Italy in the late 1930s?

The highly respected newspaper La Repubblica explored the subject in a four-page supplement this week, containing articles and essays on its many facets.

‘ARYAN DIGNITY’

In a brief introduction, La Repubblica suggested that “Italians believed that Mussolini had to bow to pressure brought to bear by the Nazis, or that he wanted to claim an Aryan dignity for our people so that the Germans would not consider us inferior.”

Unleashing a violent campaign against the Jews may well have been motivated by a deep inferiority complex. But there was no single turning point.

The manifesto of July 14, 1938, “was consistent with all that had gone on before. The seeds were already there,” the newspaper said.

It published a long interview with Emilio Segre, who was forced to leave his teaching post at the University of Palermo in 1938 because he was Jewish.

Segre, who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1959, was in the United States in the summer of 1938. He simply did not return home. Now, at age 83, he still lives in California and is active at the university in Berkeley.

“It was one of the most shameful moments in the history of our country,” he told La Repubblica. “People don’t remember, maybe they don’t want to remember. The young people don’t know anything about it. It’s up to us to tell them, to put them on their guard so that such infamy does not happen again,” Segre said.

The fascist race laws not only affected the personal lives of Jews, Segre said, but they led to “a hemorrhaging of Italian culture which slowed down the progress of our country.”

BRAIN DRAIN

In other words, there was a brain drain. “Mussolini could not have done a more stupid thing,” Segre said. “He cut off a leg of Italian science which at that time was flourishing.”

Segre cited as an example the field of higher mathematics. When the race laws were passed, 30 percent of Italian scholars in that discipline were Jews.

“They were swept away overnight,” Segre said. “If we think of physics, the great (particle) accelerators today are found in three places: Geneva, Chicago and California. If what happened had not happened, there may also have been one in Italy,” he said.

Segre noted that Italy was at first a refuge for Jewish scholars and scientists fleeing Hitler’s Germany and there were close links between Jews and non-Jews in the intellectual community.

“My first wife, a German linguist, fled Germany in 1933 and immediately found work in Italy, “he said.

“The forced exodus of scholars from Germany was much more serious, certainly, than the forced exodus from Italy.

“The Nazis so shattered Germany’s culture and science that it was set back by at least 50 years,” Segre said.

Why did Mussolini resort to anti-Semitism? According to Segre, “he wanted to do the least damage– to get rid of a few thousand Jews didn’t seem to him so serious.

“With the manifesto and the race laws, Mussolini succeeded in doing what he wanted, that is, to ally himself with Nazi Germany.”

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