Italian Jewish Leader Ready to Step Down After 15 Years

For 15 years, Tullia Zevi has used her position as the leader of Italy’s Jewish community to speak out forcefully against anti- Semitism and other forms of discrimination, both at home and in the international arena.

In doing so, the elegant, silver-haired grandmother has become one of Italy’s most prominent and honored women, and one of the country’s most respected moral voices.

This month, Zevi is expected to step down from her post as president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities — Italy’s national Jewish representative body.

A trained musician and veteran journalist, Zevi has led the union since 1983, when she became the first woman ever elected to the position.

During her tenure, Zevi has raised the profile of Italy’s 35,000-member Jewish community as a symbol of pluralism and democracy, reminding Italians that Jews have lived in Italy for more 2,000 years and have maintained their identity and presence through persecution, pogrom and the Holocaust.

“Minorities are the first ones to sense danger,” she told an interviewer in 1995. “They are like a litmus test. Across the centuries, we have been the minority par excellence.

“We are evidence of Italian pluralism and the success of Italian democracy,” she said. “Just as we must never be isolated within this country, so must we fight not only for ourselves, but also for the rights of people, like new immigrants, who are the weakest part of society.”

When the union holds its quadrennial congress in Rome from June 21 to 23, Zevi is likely to step down as president and take up an honorary position that would free her from day-to-day leadership tasks but enable her to continue as a representative of Italian Jewry, particularly abroad.

“Fifteen years as president,” she said in an interview, “is a long time.”

A change in position, however, will not change Zevi’s stature as a moral force in Italy.

Through the years, she has been repeatedly recognized by both the Italian government and numerous organizations.

In 1993, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro conferred upon her one of Italy’s highest honors, the Knighthood of the Great Cross, in recognition for her uncompromising stand against bigotry.

Last year she was named by Italy’s prime minister to an unprecedented, high- level commission set up to probe allegations of human rights abuses by Italian soldiers.

Two weeks prior to this, she had received an award in Rome calling her “an ideal representative of the commitment devoted by Jews throughout the world to the peace process.”

And in November 1992 she was Italy’s candidate for the European Woman of the Year prize, awarded each year to a representative of an E.U. country “whose activities have contributed to human rights and solidarity among peoples.”

Zevi, born Tullia Calabi, spent her childhood and teen-age years in Milan until the anti-Semitic racial laws imposed by the Italian fascists in 1938 forced her family to flee, first to Geneva, then to Paris, then to the United States.

In the United States, she attended university and studied music, earning her living playing the harp at engagements ranging from synagogue concerts to the New York Symphony, directed by Leonard Bernstein, to the backup group of Frank Sinatra.

She returned to Italy in 1946, where she began work as a journalist and also became active in reconstructing Jewish community life after the devastations of the Nazis and fascists.

Zevi has written that she was motivated by having been “born into a tradition of Jews living on Italian soil since the era of ancient Rome, a tradition of 70 generations that Mussolini and Hitler had failed to destroy. My need was to bear witness that the tradition was still alive.”

Zevi reported for many years for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, the Religious News Service and the London Jewish Chronicle. One of her first assignments was covering the Nuremberg Trial. During the war, she worked for NBC in New York, in charge of special radio programs beamed to Italian anti-fascist Resistance fighters.

In recent years, she has served as vice president of the European Jewish Congress in charge of interfaith relations, and also as a member of the executive of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

In carrying out her journalistic work, and also in leading the Jewish community, she has said that she “tried and tries to seek the truth behind appearances, to identify the possibilities of convergence among apparently distant or hostile realities, to denounce injustice, to defend the rights of individuals and of the weakest and most helpless groups, to promote interreligious and interethnic dialogue, to fight against intolerance and prejudice.”

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