The three weeks since the machinegun and grenade attack on the main synagogue here which took the life of a two-year-old child and wounded 33 men, women and children has witnessed a tremendous outpouring of sorrow and sympathy for the Jewish community.
It comes from all levels of the Catholic Church hierarchy; from lay leaders and humble parishioners; from non-Catholic Christians and from Italians in all walks of life. But coupled with the deeply felt shock and grief is a sense of confusion.
It is visible in the reactions of people who are unable to explain the magnitude of anger and bitterness expressed by Italian Jewry in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, not only for the perpetrators — who have still not been identified or apprehended — but against the Pope, the Vatican, the highest government officials and the media.
BACKGROUND OF INITIAL SHOCK
When the bloodshed and terror ended, Rome’s 15,000 Jews withdrew literally into themselves. They chose to mourn alone, rejecting the offerings of condolence as they did official tributes of flowers.
In their initial shock, they saw the murderous attack outside the landmark synagogue as a direct result of a climate created by events that preceded it; the audience granted by Pope John Paul II to Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat; the warm reception Arafat received from President Sandro Pertini and Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo; the endless drumbeat of criticism of Israel by much of the Italian news media for its war in Lebanon, particularly after the massacre of Palestinians in west Beirut by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies.
EFFORT AT RECONCILIATION
Many Italians are puzzled by this linkage and Jews too are wondering, in retrospect, whether the cause-and-effect juxtaposition of events is as clear cut as initially it appeared to be. Meanwhile, as both communities strive to unravel their feelings, a reconciliation has been taking place.
Two of the 33 wounded were Catholic. One was a youth studying for conversion to Judaism; the other was the fiancee of a Jewish young man who was attending the Sabbath and Simchat Torah services. Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff recalled seeing a Catholic woman bend to kiss the ground where the blood of the victims was spilled as ambulances were rushing the wounded to a nearby hospital.
That spontaneous gesture matched "the spirit with which so many Italians 40 years ago risked their own lives to save the lives of other Italians of Jewish faith," Toaff said referring to the Nazi era. He said it reaffirmed his faith in the Italian people.
There were many other manifestations of solidarity with Rome’s Jews. Wounded children in the hospitals received piles of letters from Catholic schools. One, from a grade school in Vallecrozia run by a Salasian nun, said: "Don’t think everyone wants to kill you, Twenty-two children love you." Another said: "I will pray that the PLO will repent."
The Waldensian and Methodist churches of Rome sent messages to the Jewish community saying they had "confessed their sin and recognized their share of responsibility because they had not worked hard enough for justice and peace." A delegation of Polish bishops and priests, themselves concentration camp survivors, visited the Jewish wounded at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital near the main synagogue.
The delegation came to Rome for the beatification of Maximilian. Kolbe who offered his life in exchange for a Polish father doomed to death by starvation at Auschwitz. Msgr. Kazimiev Majdariskij, Bishop of Stettin who was confined to Dochau from 1939-1945, recalled that the child slain by the terrorists in Rome, Stefano Tache, reminded him of the Jewish children in Dachau a generation ago.
In fact, it was just 39 years ago, on a Sabbath in October, that the grandparents of little Stefano, and his own parents, then children themselves, and his aunts, uncles and cousins, were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Of the two large families, only 15 survived.
There is a strong temptation to bitterness over this tragic irony. The two children who lived through Auschwitz to become Stefano’s parents, also lived to see one child murdered and another, Stefano’s sister, wounded in a senseless attack on Jews. But should the raye be directed at fellow-Italians?
ITALY NOT INFECTED BY ANTI-SEMITISM
In all of Europe, the modem Italian state has been among the least infected by anti-Semitism. The Italian people have not been and are not now anti-Semitic. With respect to racism, Mussolini was a reluctant partner of Hitler. While political pressures instigated the blustering but weak Italian dictator to promulgate his version of the Nuremburg laws during World War II, Italians by and large tried to help their Jewish neighbors.
Some Jews recalled, after the synagogue attack, that Italian soldiers gave haven to French Jews fleeing the Vichy regime which only too willingly collaborated in the Nazi deportations.
Today there are also political interests at work which, through alliances with extremist Arab groups and the more doctrinaire sections of the Communist-dominated Italian trade union federation, try to exploit anti-Semitism. But most of the Italian population has remained immune to these attempts.
SOME QUESTIONS ASKED
So Italians ask: Why do the Jews insist that the terrorist attack would not have occurred but for a carefully prepared climate of anti-Semitism? The terrorists almost certainly were Arabs, probably Palestinians, probably members of Abu Nidal’s fanatical Al Assifa which even the PLO claims to disown.
Italians were in no way involved, they say. Moreover, terrorism is one thing, a plague of the times which has caused death and destruction not only to Jews; anti-Semitism is something else, an ancient prejudice discredited by decent people.
So why were the Jews so quick to cast blame? their fellow Italians ask. Is criticism of the policies of Premier Menachem Begin and his Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to be equated with anti-Semitism and thereby be made exempt from all criticism? Many Jews the world over are among the severest critics of the Begin-Sharon government and they can hardly be accused of anti-Semitism, the Italians say.
The confusion perhaps stems from the belief that because Italian Jewry reacted as one in its grief and anger over the attack, they are a monolithic community. In fact, Italian Jews rarely speck with one voice but in many, often contradictory voices. When emotions run high, however there is a tendency to generalize. Long-time friends are mistaken for enemies. Thus the Pope and the President of Italy are accused, in the heat of the moment, of "causing" the terrorist assault because they received Arafat.
LOGIC AND REALITY
That logic does not hold water for long. Many, not only Jews, agreed that the Pope’s audience with the PLO leader was at the very least controversial and inopportune, a "political" mistake; but certainly not an anti-Semitic gesture or an endorsement of the PLO’s methods and goals.
Italian Jews, who in the aftermath of the attack believed otherwise, forgot some important facts. On September 12, when ‘Arafat’s visit was imminent, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities made specific demands of the government: "To condemn terrorism on all sides and firmly insist on the revision of the PLO charter during the coming encounters (with Arafat) … in the light of a negotiated solution of the Middle East conflict."
Contrary to the belief of some sections of Italian and world Jewry, that appeal did not fall on deaf ears, either in the government or the Vatican. On September 15, right after Arafat’s meeting with the Pope, the Vatican Press Office issued a statement saying that the Pope had expressed to Arafat "…His wish that a just and lasting solution to the Middle East conflict will soon be reached which, excluding recourse to arms and violence in every form, and above all to terrorism and reprisals, may lead to the recognition of the rights of all peoples and in particular of the Palestinian people, to a homeland, and of Israel to its security."
Later, the Press Office reiterated that "… When receiving Arafat, (the Pope) emphasized the necessity to exclude recourse to arms, to violence, to terrorism in order to reach peace in the Middle East." At a televised round-table discussion three days after the synagogue attack, Don Vigilio Levi of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, repeated that statement and said Arafat had "agreed."
GOVERNMENT RESPONDED TO JEWISH CONCERNS
The Italian government responded similarly to the Jewish concerns. Foreign Minister Colombo told the foreign affairs committee of the Italian Senate on September 22:
"… The problem that we consider central to a reciprocal recognition between the PLO and Israel was one of the cardinal points in the conversation between myself and Arafat, and, as a premise to this, the abolition of the reference to the destruction of the ‘Zionist entity’ contained in the national Palestinian charter which, in the interpretation given it, corresponds to the will of the PLO to destroy the State of Israel."
Premier Giovanni Spadolini, the only ranking government official who refused to meet with Arafat has also called for "a reciprocal; unequivocal and simultaneous recognition between the PLO and the State of Israel. " The meaning of those words is clear: the PLO cannot expect recognition as long as its aim is the destruction of Israel and it employs terrorism to achieve that aim.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.