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Italians Look to Jewish History to Promote Tolerance in Society

June 24, 1997
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The leader of Italy’s Jewish community and the mayor of Venice urged this week that the Jewish experience be used to help combat increasing racism and intolerance in Italy.

The president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Tullia Zevi, and Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari spoke Sunday at the opening ceremony of the canal city’s second International Festival of Jewish Culture.

The weeklong festival includes concerts, performances, exhibitions and lectures as well as guided tours of Venice’s 600-year-old Jewish cemetery and the historic ghetto that is the heart of Jewish life in the city.

The festival, said Zevi, “comes at a moment of profound change in which there is the tendency to dehumanize the `other’ and thus render him an object.”

Zevi is considered an important moral voice in Italy. She was named recently to a high-level government commission formed to investigate charges that Italian peacekeeping soldiers in Somalia committed human rights abuses against local civilians.

She said that the Jews’ history as a scorned and discriminated people makes it especially important for Jews to help combat discrimination against other minorities.

“Today in Europe Jews are no longer the metaphorical outsiders,” she said.

Jews have a duty to help smooth out the difficulties in today’s Europe, she added.

“If Europe does not learn to be multi-ethnic,” she warned, “it could lead to tribalstyle conflicts among extremists.”

Cacciari stressed that the festival was an important way to teach non-Jews about a different heritage.

“We need activities that help broaden culture,” he said. “We need them to counter activities in our region that act in the opposite way and which should not be underestimated.”

He referred to recent actions by northern Italian separatists, including an incident in Verona in which teen-agers distributed leaflets outside a school calling for teachers who came from southern Italy to be sent away.

“There is growing intolerance to the other in Italy,” he said. “We have to point out everyone’s responsibility — in politics, in education — to combat this.”

Fewer than 500 Jews live in Venice today, although local Jewish history has a centuries-long tradition and the city was once an important center of Jewish culture.

The historic ghetto is one of the largest and best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe.

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