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Italy’s Jewish Community Mourns Victims of Terrorist Attack

October 12, 1982
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Italy’s stunned and angered Jewish community mourned the victims of Saturday’s terrorist attack on worshippers outside of Rome’s main synagogue today as a police dragnet sought the perpetrators who killed a two-year-old child and wounded 37 other persons, many of them critically.

The synagogue, where thousands of Jews gathered for a prayer vigil last night, remained under heavy guard and security was tightened around synagogues and other Jewish institutions in Italy. Messages of condolence and condemnation poured in from all over the world, including statements from the Vatican and the top Italian leadership.

But Italy’s Jews would not be mollified. They blamed the outrage directly on the audience granted by Pope John Paul 11 last month to Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

They also denounced President Sandro Pertini and Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo who received Arafat and the harsh criticism of Israel by the Italian media following the massacre of Palestinians in west Beirut. Many Jews saw this as an ill-disguised campaign of anti-Semitism which created a climate for violence against Jews. Statements by Israel’s two chief rabbis and by the Cabinet in Jerusalem seemed to confirm that view.


The terrorists struck at noon, Rome time, Saturday, hurling hand grenades and firing machine guns into a crowd of some 500 people attending Sabbath and Simchat Torah services at the main synagogue, on historical landmark in the old Roman ghetto.

Among the 50 children in the crowd, two-year-old Stefano Tache was killed instantly and his sister was seriously wounded. Eyewitnesses described the terrorists as five to seven men of “Mediterranean” type. Descriptions such as “dark skinned” and “swarthy” were given.

Police set up road-blocks throughout the city. According to unconfirmed reports Saturday, three suspects — two men and a woman — were arrested for questioning. But the search continued.


Italy’s Premier Giovanni Spadolini and several ministers rushed to the scene of the attack. By then, most of the victims had been taken to nearby hospitals. But blood still spotted the sidewalk outside the synagogue which was littered with prayer books, prayer shawls, eye glasses and other personal belongings of the victims.

Pertini and Spadolini expressed shock and anger over the attack and sent messages of sympathy to the Jewish community and Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. They promised the police would do all in their power to track down and arrest the killers. The Pope sent a telegram to the Papal Vicar of Rome asking him to relay to the Chief Rabbi, the leaders of the Jewish community, the victims and their families his “firm condemnation for this criminal act, all the more serious because it took place in the house of worship of the Jewish community.”


But the messages of sympathy were met with stoney anger by the 15,000 Jews of Rome who have pulled invisible shutters around them and preferred to remain isolated in their grief. “Words serve little purpose and the facts of the utmost gravity are unfortunately what they are,” Rabbi Toaff declared yesterday.

He accused the Interior Ministry of ignoring his pleas for more police protection for Jewish institutions, especially after the September 30 attack on the Jewish community center in Milan. Both Pertini and Spadolini had warned after that incident against allowing anger over the Beirut massacre to lead to acts of anti-Semitism. But Toaff said his requests for more protections were treated as “inopportune” by the Italian authorities.

The Jewish community politely but firmly turned down a visit by Pertini after the tragedy and a government offer to hold an official funeral for the dead child. No Italian authorities were represented at the burial rites.


The self-imposed isolation of Rome’s Jews from the rest of the city was a form of bitter reproach for what they perceived to be the use of actions by the Israeli government in Lebanon — which most Jews fully supported — as an excuse for anti-Semitic onslaughts. Posters with messages of sympathy and solidarity from Rome’s City Hall were ripped down and almost as soon as they were put up near the synagogue.

This was a response to Rome’s Communist Mayor, Ugo Vetere, who led several pro-PLO, anti-Israel marches through Rome in recent weeks. Those demonstrations were seen as incitement not only against the government of Premier Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon but against Jews in general.

Similarly, Jews rejected messages of sympathy from Italian trade unions, several branches of which had demonstratively refused to service El Al planes at Rome’s airport and Israeli ships at Italian ports after the Beirut massacre.

They treated with contempt messages of sympathy from the PLO representative in Rome, Nemmer Hammad; a message from Arafat to Pertini expressing condolences to the Italian people and the families of the victims in the name of the PLO; and a message from the Rev. Hilarion Capucci, the Melchite archbishop who served a prison term in Israel for smuggling arms to Palestinian terrorists while he was serving as head of his church in Jerusalem a decade ago.

But the most serious repercussions of the latest tragedy may be in the realm of relations between Jews and the Vatican. The audience the Pope granted Arafat September 14 was viewed as a legitimization of an international terrorist and arch-enemy of Israel by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Israeli government and Jews the world over had tried strenuously to prevent it, but to no avail.


The Israeli Cabinet made oblique references to it in a statement issued yesterday condemning the Rome synagogue attack. The statement deplored “encouragement (given terrorism) in words and deeds by (Italian) governmental and other circles.” Asked to identify those “circles,” Cabinet secretary Dan Meridor told reporters, “Take a look at Arafat’s itinerary these past few weeks.” He was clearly hinting at the PLO leader’s meetings with the Pope, President Pertini and other Italian statesmen.


Israel’s two Chief Rabbis, Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef, were more direct. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Goren, in a statement Saturday night, called the Rome synagogue attack “the result of incitement by the media, begun by the Pope’s granting an audience to the master-butcher, the head of the PLO … He (the Pope) welcomed him with a right royal arm.” According to Goren, the Papal audience was “intended to influence public opinion against the Jews.”

Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, charged that “The (Italian) leaders are responsible. The Pope gave a reception for the chief assassin and so did the President of the country.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement Saturday saying all Israelis shared the grief of the bereaved families. “The criminal act perpetrated by terrorists … demonstrates once again the base nature of those who plot against Jewish worshippers on their festivals. It is time for the enlightened world to unite against terror and no longer surrender to it,” the Foreign Ministry said.


There was a reaction to the Chief Rabbis condemnations yesterday from Terrence Cardinal Cooke, head of the Archdiocese of New York, who termed the attack on the Pope “absurd” and “slanderous.” Expressing “outrage” over the Rome attack, Cooke declared:

“We call upon religious leaders in our own community not to be engulfed by vengeful and absurd words of slanderous recrimination. Now is the time for words and works of peace not violence.” He exalted the Pope as “a solitary symbol of peace.”


In Rome, the recently formed Christian-Jewish Friendship Association sent telegrams to the Jewish community and the families of the victims offering cooperation for any eventuality. “With profound sadness and anger we participate in your indescribable pain for this massacre,” the message said.

“We wish to solicit the churches, the politicians, the press, the Interior Ministry, Town Hall and unions to give forth less rhetoric and instead examine their consciences: All of the aforementioned are responsible for having created a climate of resentment among citizens, permissiveness toward terrorism.”

The European branch of the World Jewish Congress made a similar declaration to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in Rome yesterday. “In solidarity with the Jewish community of Rome and with the families of the victims to whom it extends its heartfelt sympathies, the World Jewish Congress European Branch expresses its determination, together with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities to press instantly for immediate and effective measures by governments to combat international terrorism whose racist and clearly anti-Semitic nature threatens democratic society itself.

“It solemnly warns all general and religious authorities of the danger of appeasing terrorist action and of the risks inherent in giving any form of political recognition to those whose language is that of hatred and violence against Jews and other minority groups,” the WJC statement said.

In New York, United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar today expressed “shock and revulsion” at the attack in Rome. In the statement, issued by his spokesman, the Secretary General extended his sympathy to the families of the victims.


In New York, Maynard Wishner, president of the American Jewish Committee, sent a cable to the president of the Union of Jewish Communities of Italy, Otto Lenghi, expressing grief for the synagogue tragedy. “Let us hope, pray and work that the world draw from this tragedy the determination to seek an end at last to terrorism and to the anti-Semitism that feeds it,” Wishner said.

Hyman Bookbinder, the AJCommittee’s Washington representative, and Rabbi Joshua Haberman, president of the Washington, D.C. Board of Rabbis, signed a message hand delivered to the Italian Ambassador, Rinaldo Petrignani, yesterday. It said, in part:

“With due regard for the precious principle of withholding judgment about who is guilty of this heinous crime until the criminals are identified and apprehended, we feel compelled to express our conviction that contributing to this crime has been the hostile, intemperate reporting by the Italian media of recent Middle East developments — and the extra-ordinarily friendly hospitality extended recently to the acknowledged leader of anti-Jewish terrorism, PLO chairman Yasir Arafat.”

Nathan Perlmutter, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, also condemned the Rome attack as “an explosion of hate without a trace of humanity. But spare us expressions of sympathy from governments and religious leaders who only a few weeks ago applauded and comforted in this very same city (Rome) terrorism’s personification, Yasir Arafat. He would appreciate such hypocrisy: for Jews it is sore solace.”

Ivan Novick, president of the Zionist Organization of America, also denounced the Pope for receiving Arafat. “Those who capitulate to terrorism, be they spiritual leaders, officials of Italy or world powers, must assume their share of guilt for giving acceptability to terrorism in contradiction of all that is holy and humane,” Novick said.

Emanuel Muravchik, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, in a telegram to President Pertini, said Saturday’s act of terrorism came “on the heels of your own embrace of terrorism’s arch architect (Arafat), in addition to the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli actions of the Communist-dominated trade unions (that) helped create the climate, the climate which has brought Italy to this moment of deep sorrow.”

Shirley Leviton, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, deplored the attack and noted that since 1979 the Council has called “for the establishment of an international code of punishment for such crimes and sanctions on those countries which actively aid and abet terrorists.” Mrs. Leviton urged the U.S. “to lead such an effort.”


Yesterday, an estimated 1,000 Manhattan Jews interrupted their Simchat Torah holiday services to march on the Italian consulate and the PLO offices nearby. The worshippers began their march from the Lincoln Square Synagogue, whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, said the march was “to show our solidarity with the Jews of Italy and to show the world that the Torah and all that it stands for can and will stand up against the anti-Semitic murderous attacks against innocent Jews praying in their synagogues.”

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