by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
I love Italy. From Garibaldi to Mussolini to Berlusconi, its leaders have been puffed-up, plausible, self-important operatic heroes and womanizers, all song and show and little substance. Or else shady villains like Andreotti, in league with the Mafia, the Camorra, or the Ndraghetta, doing whatever it took to advance their private agenda. Italy is by most objective standards a disaster. By rights, it ought to be a failed state. No one pays taxes or obeys the law. Yet it seems to thrive economically. Its academic institutions are third rate, overcrowded, and incompetent, yet it produces great academics, writers, artists, and designers. Its judiciary is corrupt and its prosecutors usually end up assassinated and yet somehow there are those honest and idealistic few who simply persevere. It is riddled with clerics but then so it is with Marxists and Anarchists. And its bureaucracy makes Israel look positively competent.
Italy is heaven (after God has gone on vacation). Think of its sun, history, countryside, beaches, art, music, food and wine, Puccini, Rossini, and Verdi. There is a passion, a joi de vivre about Italy that you will not find in any other Mediterranean or European country.
Not only, but Italy under Berlusconi is probably the European state most positively inclined towards the Jews. Yes I know there a darker side but Italy was the first to step up to the plate and refuse to go along with the racist farce that the UN Committee of Human Rights put on in Geneva. At first I thought it was just Berlusconi liking to stick his third finger up at the world whenever he can. But I have just read a book Between Mussolini and Hitler by Daniel Carpi that shows that Italians (rather than Italy) played a very significant role in thwarting Nazi designs on their Jews.
It is not that Italians loved Jews particularly. After all the record of Papal anti-Semitism is not pleasant. The abduction of Edgar Mortara in the nineteenth century showed Catholic authority at its most venal. But to be fair the subsequent outcry in Italy was instrumental in creating a new secular state. No, Italian attitude towards Jews is based more on the fact that they were and are bloody-minded. When, in World War II, a more powerful ally tried to bully them into getting rid of their Jews, they found ingenious and typically Italian ways of responding obstructively while appearing polite, cooperative, and incompetent.
Of course, Mussolini was Hitler’s ally. Although he declared in an article printed in the New York Times on 25 June 1936, “Jews have had, presently have, and will continue to have the same treatment as any other Italian citizen, and there is no place in my mind for any form of racial or religious discrimination,” in typical Mussolini fashion he introduced anti-Jewish legislation in 1938. Some said he did so only to please his German allies, and it is true enforcement was notoriously Italian, lax, inconsistent, and halfhearted.
The Italians certainly suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the Germans. So that although they were allies, the Italians did not always do what the Germans required of them. This was so in the Balkans and particularly in Vichy France. In general the French were even more enthusiastic than the Germans in hunting down Jews and packing them off to their deaths.
The Italians had occupied a sector of France adjoining their territory. At first the French tried to put pressure on the Italians to hand over their Jews. That didn’t work. Then the Italians started to pressurize the French, in turn, to release Jews to their sector. At the same time they had to contend with pressure from the Germans to get tougher with their own Jews. And this is where the Italians did brilliantly in a series of maneuvers that stymied the Nazis. Of course in the end Mussolini was deposed. The Nazis marched in and took over northern Italy to stop the Allied advance; they were responsible for those Italian Jews who died in the Holocaust. But before that happened, the Italians took steps that were amazing, amusing, and typical.
They knew beyond doubt what the Germans were up to (of course, so did everyone else but they could not have cared less). “The German authorities do not conceal the aim they have set themselves. They confirm their willingness to exterminate the Jewish race completely and they justify this total extermination as humanitarian action because it would restore the European peoples to health,” wrote Dino Alfieri, the Italian Ambassador in Berlin to Rome in 1942.
So to keep their ally happy, the Italians reiterated their agreement with Nazi policy while instructing the army to protect Jews and indeed move them into the remote Alps out of the reach of the French and the Germans. When the Nazis realized this, the Italian government apologized and instructed the army to hand over responsibility for dealing with Jews to the police. The Nazis were delighted because they thought the Italian police were like the German police, tools of the SS.
Then they discovered the police were protecting the Jews. So the Italians reassured them by setting up the “Department of Race Police”. At its head was a man called Lospinoso, who claimed he knew nothing at all about the Jews and the Jewish problem and needed time to study the situation, formulate policies, and then report back to Rome. All the while, he was working with Jewish activists to get Jews out of harm’s way. But in the end, the Nazis deposed Mussolini, invaded and took control.
As I read Carpi’s book, in between my anger at the French and Germans, I was torn between gratitude and laughter for the seemingly bumbling incompetence of the Italians, their injured pride and need to preserve their dignity and Bella Figura. And I thought thank goodness for them.
That’s precisely why I love Italy–in the end, it is life that supersedes all else and to hell with laws and regulations as long as we can have a good time and live well. That, within a spiritual framework of course, is actually what the Torah means when it says, “Laws are there to help us live.” Without life what is the point of the law? Salute!