Letter from Rome

Letter from Rome

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Rome
March 28, 2005

In a way, it all began for me in this magnificent city thirty years ago to the month, so please indulge me as I take a walk down memory lane.

It was here that I started working in the Jewish world. Initially, I thought it might be the equivalent of a Peace Corps experience—two or three years devoted to helping Jews overseas before moving on to a different career track. It's now been three decades and, if ever there was another possible career track, I've long since forgotten what it was. Smitten by the experience I had in Rome, I have just kept going.

All of this was anything but predictable. I grew up in a proudly Jewish home, but full of content it wasn't. It's somehow assumed these days that a Jewish civil servant probably had a different upbringing than most other American Jews—day school, Jewish summer camp, religious training, ritual observance, Hebrew study, year in Israel, etc. In my case, it was none of the above.

I've written elsewhere about what were, for me, the earthshaking events of the early 1970s—shortly after I graduated from college—that prompted me to think more about my identity, particularly the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Soviet Jewry movement. Indeed, it was the latter that led me to seize the opportunity to participate in an official U.S.-Soviet teachers' exchange in 1974, one of the early fruits of détente. Apart from giving me an unusual look from the ground up at a country largely off-limits to foreigners, this program afforded me the chance to meet a number of Soviet Jews eager to emigrate and, in many cases, forbidden from doing so.

During the time I was in Moscow and Leningrad, the Jews I met gave me an immersion course in courage, identity, yearning, and determination. I was also given an education in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. In addition, I came face-to-face with the power of Communist oppression and the suffocation of any vestige of intellectual or physical freedom. And I came to realize just how lucky I was that my maternal grandparents, with two small children in tow, had succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union in 1929, after experiencing twelve years of Leninist and Stalinist rule, though it would be another twelve years before they arrived in the U.S.

Nearly three months after arriving in the USSR, I was forced to leave by Soviet authorities. They weren't thrilled by my repeated efforts to look behind the facade of the Potemkin village they had so diligently constructed for the benefit of foreign visitors.

By December 1974, I was out of that nightmarish country, having lost fifteen pounds from an already thin frame and admittedly shaken by the rough nature of my expulsion. But I was also on fire. I was determined to do something. I owed it to the people I had met in the schools where I taught, in the synagogues I frequented, and in the homes I visited.

After brief stays in Norway and England, I traveled to Rome. I knew that Soviet Jews able to get out went first to Vienna and then, if they were headed for countries other than Israel, to Rome for processing. I quite literally knocked on the door of HIAS—the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—at their offices in Viale Regina Margherita and told the first person I met that I was a Russian-speaking American Jew who had just spent time in the USSR and was eager to assist Jews who managed to get out. To make a long story short, I was given a job as a caseworker. That job began exactly thirty years ago this month.

I was in heaven.

The work was anything but easy, but that was just fine with me. The days were long, the pressure unrelenting, and the work all the more taxing because it was almost exclusively in Russian. These Soviet Jews were, in a real sense, living betwixt and between—in a state of suspended animation—as they waited for months in a strange and wondrous land until their visas came through and they could depart to start a new life. In some cases, past criminal records or Communist Party membership made obtaining a visa, especially for the United States, difficult if not impossible. And while a few other countries, particularly Australia and Canada and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, were theoretically open, the selection process was generally far more rigid and prolonged than for the U.S.

While waiting in Rome, the refugees were entirely dependent for their support on Jewish agencies. They were unable to work legally, unfamiliar with the local language, and uneasy about their children's loss of education. Tensions often ran high, as many would not passively accept that their fate rested entirely in the hands of others—just months or years after they had taken fate into their own hands by challenging the Soviet system in seeking to leave—and as the caseworkers, too few in number, sought to cope with an inherently difficult situation.

There were lots of surprises along the way.

For the refugees, a big surprise was the strength of the Italian Communist Party. In the mid-1970s, the PCI, as it was called, was at the peak of its power. Party offices, newspapers, posters, and flags emblazoned with the hammer and sickle were everywhere. The party, under the leadership of Enrico Berlinguer, referred to itself as Eurocommunist, implying a less doctrinaire ideology than what could be found behind the Iron Curtain or, for that matter, in the French Communist Party, which, headed by Georges Marchais, was patterned along Stalinist lines. Even so, Soviet Jews had little good to say about anything remotely connected to Communism, and could not believe that some Italians—beneficiaries of democracy, civil liberties, and a market economy—might actually be willing to chuck it all in pursuit of a Marxist utopia.

And to remind themselves of just how bad things were in the USSR, the Soviet Jews would tell jokes—the same jokes they had heard back home, only in Italy they could be told without fear of reprisal.

A couple of examples:

The Moscow Evening News advertised a contest for the best political joke. First prize was ten years in prison; second prize, five years; third prize, three years; and there were six honorable mentions of one year each.

Who were the first Communists in history?
Adam and Eve. They walked around naked, had one apple between them, and thought they lived in paradise.

What's meant by an exchange of opinions in the Soviet Communist Party?
It's when I come to a party meeting with my own opinion, and I leave with the party's.

What's the difference between Catholicism and Communism?
In Catholicism, there's life after death. In Communism, there's posthumous rehabilitation.

Italy, at the time, also had its neo-fascists—the Movimento Sociale Italiano, or MSI, led by Giorgio Almirante. They were essentially the ideological heirs of Benito Mussolini. Though fewer in number than the Communists (and Trotskyites, anarchists, and others on the extreme left), they were no less vocal or visible. Again, for Soviet Jews coming from a country that had been invaded by the Nazis and lost millions of its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, the notion that such a party could operate openly and attract support was difficult to swallow.

And there were other surprises.

For me, perhaps the biggest—and the most unexpected—was the fierce battle over the country of destination for emigrating Soviet Jews. It was waged among Israel, the United States, and American Jewish organizations, and also involved the Dutch and Austrian governments (Holland represented Israeli diplomatic interests in Moscow, while Austria was the first country of arrival for exiting Soviet Jews). This is a much longer story. Suffice it to say that Israel wanted desperately to ensure that all Jews able to leave the USSR would resettle in the Jewish state. Israel saw this influx as a once-in-a-lifetime way to advance nation-building. It also argued that, since Jews were officially leaving the USSR with exit visas for Israel, any large-scale defections to other countries could endanger the Soviet rationale for letting Jews go.

I'd been rather naive. I simply assumed that all of us involved in any aspect of the Soviet Jewry effort were playing on the same team, trying to assist Jews in need in whatever ways we could. I wasn't at all prepared for the knock-down-drag-out battles, during which Israeli officials assailed the motives of agencies like HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and tried to get the American government to restrict entry of those Soviet Jews who wanted to live there but had left the USSR with visas for Israel.

I learned a great deal in this period, and not only about the Soviet Union or the complex politics of the Soviet Jewry movement.

I met a group of people in Rome, mostly but by no means exclusively Jews, who worked tirelessly to assist the refugees. They were unsung heroes, their names barely remembered today, but their devotion made all the difference in the lives of those helped.

And I must say a word about the Italian people, who showed exceptional kindness and sensitivity to the thousands of Soviet Jews living, at any given moment, in transit in the Rome region, and about the Italian government, which went out of its way to ease their traumatic journey and ensure their safety.

I saw the astonishing degree to which the Jewish world went to assist the refugees every step of the way—from the moment they first set foot in the West until they were able to stand on their own two feet in their new homes.

I became acutely conscious of the threat posed by an amalgam of Arab and European left-wing terrorists who had in their crosshairs Israeli and Jewish targets across Europe (and other targets, as well).

Two years before I began working, terrorists were arrested in Austria following a foiled attack against an Austrian transit center for Soviet Jews. A few weeks later, three more terrorists were arrested while crossing the Italian border into Austria, again with the aim of attacking a transit center housing Soviet Jews. Later that year, terrorists boarded a train crossing Czechoslovakia en route to Vienna and carrying Soviet Jews, in an effort to force the Austrian government to shut down transit facilities for the refugees.

And the list goes on and on, including: attacks on Jewish and American offices in Rome in 1976, which fortunately caused no casualties; in 1981, a bomb detonated outside a gathering place for Soviet Jews in Ostia, near Rome, which injured four people; bombs at the HIAS offices in Rome in June 1982; an attack on the main Rome synagogue four months later, which killed a child and wounded nearly forty others; and an attack, in 1985, at the El Al counter at Rome's Fiumicino Airport, which killed sixteen people and injured dozens.

I had my first exposure to the coming Jewish demographic crisis. Intermarriage, which had been rare in my slice of the Jewish world, was rampant in the HIAS office in Rome, with the notable exception of the Libyan Jews employed there. Interestingly, almost all the Jewish employees had themselves been refugees, mostly from Central and East Europe, who came to Italy after the war. Only a few of the children of the intermarried considered themselves Jewish. Moreover, both among this group and the Soviet Jews, the number of children per family was strikingly low.

Coming from an Ashkenazi milieu in New York, I knew virtually nothing about Jews from Arab countries. In Rome, I encountered a small community of Jews from Libya. For several decades in the twentieth century, Libya had been an Italian colony. When these Jews were compelled to leave, many went to Israel; others resettled in Rome or Milan. I came to know this community well. In fact, I married into it.

I learned about their rich history, fierce pride in being Jewish, strong attachment to Israel and Zionism, distinctive religious traditions, and their expulsion from ancestral lands where they predated by centuries the Arab conquest. I realized that while I had heard an unending stream of commentary about Palestinian refugees, I had barely known that the Arab-Israeli conflict produced two sets of refugees, but that the world seemed entirely uninterested in the fate of Jews from Arab countries. Perhaps it was because these refugees—rather than being turned into political pawns like the Palestinians, and encouraged to languish endlessly in refugee camps as wards of the international community—had quickly rebuilt their lives.

I also had known nothing about the distinctiveness of the Roman Jewish community, which is described as the oldest continuous Jewish presence in Europe, dating back to the second century B.C.E. Thousands more Jews were brought to Rome as slaves after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Some of the scenes of the Roman victory over the Jews are to be found on the Arch of Titus, near the Coliseum. By tradition, Jews to this day give the arch a wide berth.

How a tiny Jewish community (neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, by the way), today numbering no more than 15,000, managed to survive is a separate—and remarkable—story. And, of course, we're talking about a community that didn't always have it easy, far from it, whether during the reign of certain popes or in the Second World War. Remember that "ghetto" is an Italian word, first used in Venice in 1516. In Rome, the ghetto, near the Tiber River, was established in 1555. A conquering Napoleon rescinded the ghetto laws in 1809, but with papal rule reestablished by 1814, the ghetto was not truly dismantled until 1870. In an historical twist, today it's considered a trendy residential area for Romans.

And there were other, less weighty things I discovered during my years in Italy.

For instance, I learned that a red traffic light can be an opinion, not a command. As an example, when I had to go to Naples with a Soviet Jewish family, we took a taxi from the train station to the American Consulate. The driver went through every red light. Finally, he came to a screeching halt at an intersection though the light was green. When I asked in my halting Italian why he went through the red lights but stopped for the green light, he turned to look at me as if this were the dumbest question he'd ever been asked, before replying: "How do you expect me to go through the intersection on the green light when all the cars from the other direction are going through on the red light?"

I learned that ALITALIA stands for "Always late in take-off, always late in arrival."

I learned that FIAT stands for "Failure in automotive technology," even though I consider the original Fiat 500—the Cinquecento—the most adorable car ever designed.

I learned that what passed for Italian food in New York was anything but. And I discovered not only the perfect pizza in Rome, but also a way of making ice cream—"gelato," as it's called—that should put others to shame.

I learned the limitations of my Italian. Shortly after I arrived and needing a place to live, I was told to walk the streets of residential neighborhoods and look for signs with the word "Affitasi," meaning "for rent." Finding one such sign attached to the entrance of a lovely building, I rang the bell of the portiere (i.e., the super). In my primitive Italian, I tried to ask if I could see the apartment for rent. She said no. I persisted, so she gave in and took me to the underground garage, pointed to a parking spot, and told me that's what was being advertised.

I learned not to take some things too seriously. When I finally rented a place to live, I looked for a laundry and dry cleaner. Finding one down the block, I entered. When the owner, wanting to give me a receipt for the items I'd brought in, asked my name, he was baffled by the response. The letter "h" doesn't exist in Italian and, in any case, few surnames end in a consonant, so "Harris" wasn't going to fly with this fellow, no matter what I said. Instead, with that wonderful Italian flair, he announced that henceforth I would be known to him as Signor X, and indeed I was.

In the last thirty years, Italy has changed dramatically from a country that exported its citizens to one with a rapidly growing immigrant population, including an estimated one million Muslims, as well as many Asians and East Europeans, who make up for the negative population growth—due to low birthrates—among Italians themselves. I doubt the name Harris would be considered exotic today.

I learned that if you want to increase your self-esteem, spend time in Rome. Titles are ubiquitous. Dress nicely, and the chances are pretty good that in the course of a day you'll be referred to as "Dottore" or "Professore."

I learned—and this was disorienting for me at first, coming from a world of, let's call it, "résumé conversationalists"—that Italians can sit and talk for hours, even days, without ever once referring to alma mater or place of work. Once you get used to it, it can be quite refreshing, if not downright healthy.

And I learned that there's a method to the madness. Though it may seem otherwise, there are rules of the road, and Italians, I found, are superb drivers. Despite claims of inefficiency, periodic strikes, and the tug of "La Dolce Vita," the country works remarkably well. What's more, Italians have an infectious charm that can take the edge off otherwise trying situations.

During a visit to Rome earlier this month with an American Jewish Committee delegation, at a time when Italy is governed by a markedly pro-U.S. and pro-Israel right-of-center coalition led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, I reminded myself how far Italy had traveled in the last thirty years.

Italy today is one of the leading industrialized nations in the world. Its political system is more stable now than at any time in its postwar history. As a founding member of the European Union—the original treaty of the first six member countries was signed in Rome in 1957—it can be justifiably proud of the dramatic way in which European integration has evolved. It is increasingly multicultural in its outlook. And Italian troops are serving with distinction around the world in a variety of peacekeeping operations, including the fourth largest contingent of foreign forces in Iraq, though opinion polls reveal overwhelming public opposition to the Iraq deployment.

As a related aside, in these thirty years, the Vatican, which our delegation also visited for meetings, has taken a giant step forward in its attitude toward Jews and Israel. Building on the adoption of Nostra Aetate by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which ended the deicide charge against the Jewish people and whose fortieth anniversary we celebrate this year, Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to pay an official visit to both a synagogue (the main synagogue in Rome) and to Israel, including the Western Wall. Moreover, under his leadership, diplomatic ties between the Holy See and Israel have been established and anti-Semitism has been vigorously fought.

And I reminded myself how far I had traveled, thanks to that fateful decision to seek a job in Rome in 1975.

I embarked on an immensely fulfilling professional career. I came to appreciate more fully the enriching connective tissue linking Jews across time and space. I began a three-decades-long love affair with Italy. And, speaking of love, I fell in love with my future wife. Luckily, much of her family lives in Rome, meaning we always have a ready-made excuse to spend time in this endlessly captivating city.

They call Rome the eternal city. I understand why.

Date: 3/28/2005
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