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Italy’s Jewish community is the oldest with a continuous history in Europe. During the 2nd century B.C.E. Jewish farmers and traders lived in Rome, Naples, Venice, and other cities. For several hundred years they shared the rights that Rome liberally granted to members of conquered nations. When Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century, these privileges were revoked. Restrictions were relaxed, however, after the fall of Rome. By the 9th century Jews were playing an important part in the commercial life of Italy. In addition to trade, they worked in all the handicrafts and professions; it was only later that Jews were forced into the field of money-lending. During the early Middle Ages, Jewish prosperity and freedom permitted the establishment of great academies at Bari and Otranto, where Italian Jewish grammarians, Talmudists, philosophers, physicians, and poets became famous.

Although many of the decrees which plagued other medieval Jewries had their origin in Rome, Italian Jews were long spared their enforcement. Not until the 13th century did Pope Innocent III succeed in implementing discriminatory measures. Yet even these measures, and the popular outbreaks that became frequent in the following centuries, did not succeed in crippling the economic and cultural life of Jews. Italy was then organized in independent city-states; Rome did not have the power to enforce its decrees in the powerful commercial centers where Jewish merchants contributed to the wealth of the community. In addition, the Renaissance spirit of tolerance had already been born. Papal Rome found room for a thriving center of Jewish culture. Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome (ca. 1270-1330) dedicated Hebrew verses to his friend Dante; scholars such as Pico della Mirandola studied Hebrew with Jewish colleagues in the faculties of medicine, law, and philosophy at the great Italian universities. Between 1230 and 1550, poets, scholars and philosophers writing in Hebrew, Latin, and Italian created a “golden age” of Jewish learning paralleled only in Muslim Spain.

By the mid-16th century, this renaissance began to fade. Italy, torn by civil strife, fell prey to French and Spanish invaders. The Spanish Jews who had swelled the Italian community after their exile from Spain in 1492 were overtaken by the Inquisition, which accompanied the Spanish invaders to Italy. Rome, threatened by the Reformation in the north, adopted the fanatical tactics of the Spanish Inquisition to stamp out heresy at home. The expulsion of the Jewish community from Genoa was the first sign of the change. Soon after, Pope Julius III (1550-1555) ordered the Talmud burned in the streets of Rome and nearly succeeded in expelling the Jews from the Eternal City. His successor confined the Jews of the Papal States to ghettos. As part of a campaign to convert the Jews to Catholicism, the entire community was forced to attend special church sermons.

Many Jews fled from Rome; those who remained suffered from discrimination. The leadership of Italian Jewry then fell to the communities of Venice, Ferrara, and Mantua. A printing press was founded at Mantua, where a new edition of the Talmud appeared in 1590. Also published were popular and scholarly works by writers such as Azariah dei Rossi of Ferrara. Within several decades, however, Spanish and Austrian invaders decimated the communities of Ferrara and Mantua as well, leaving Jews of Venice to bear the burden of Jewish culture. For a century and a half Venetian Jewry produced a line of distinguished scholars and poets. The last and greatest of these was Moses Haim Luzzato, KabbaIist, linguist, scholar and poet. Leghorn (Livorno), where the Jews had some autonomy until the 19th century, remained a center of Kabbalistic learning.

Napoleon’s conquest of Italy in 1797 was the start of the emancipation of Italian Jewry. As in France, he convened a “Sanhedrin” to organize the affairs of the Jewish community and granted full civil rights to Jews. Napoleon’s defeat and the strong reaction that followed led to a revival of the Inquisition. The national movement, which sought the liberation of Italy from foreign rule and the unification of its many states, soon provided a rallying point for Jewish hopes. Espousing the cause of civil rights for all, it drew many young Jews to its ranks. With the final unification of all Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II in 1870, Jews were again granted full citizenship.

The Jews of Italy were grateful for their freedom. Having fought valiantly for independence, they remained ardent patriots and threw themselves vigorously into public life. Within a short time they were finding important positions in government, politics, and society. The urge to take full advantage of their newly acquired rights was so strong that large sections of Italian Jewry began to lose touch with the Jewish community. Intermarriage became common, especially among the upper classes, and the number of conversions was great. Though closely organized communities remained, and scholars maintained the “enlightened” tradition of Jewish scholarship established by Samuel David Luzzato earlier in the century, the threat of assimilation was serious.

But the period of unrestricted freedom was short-lived. The Italian Fascist movement was founded in 1919, and in 1923, Benito Mussolini came to power. At first Mussolini fought the antisemitic elements in his party, which was supported by many influential Jews.

In the hope that the ties of Italian Jews with other Mediterranean and Balkan Jewish communities would be aid his plan for imperialist expansion, he encouraged Zionism and helped German-Jewish refugees settle in Italy. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mussolini took a stand against Nazi antisemitism. By 1936, however, Mussolini found himself in need of German aid for his Abyssinian war and began to adopt the racist Nazi doctrines. By the outbreak of World War II, Jews had been banned from the army, government service, professions, and many branches of trade. Jewish schools, which Mussolini had encouraged and subsidized, were closed. All large-scale Jewish businesses were confiscated, and Jews were forbidden to hold land of any value. Toward the end of the war, when the Italian defense system had broken down and German troops moved into the country, Hitler proposed the deportation and destruction of Italy’s Jewry. Official antisemitism had never struck deep roots among the people, however, and the Italian Jews found protection among their neighbors. The Allied forces invaded and the war was over before Hitler’s plan could be executed.

With the overthrow of Mussolini, Jewish rights were restored. After the war, Italy was the temporary home of more than 35,000 refugees, all but 1,500 of whom left for Israel and other countries. Because of its location, Italy was for a while the chief sailing point for “illegal” immigrants on their way to Israel.

Today, there are close to 30,000 Jews living in Italy, a little below the prewar total. They live under the law of 1930 which requires that all Jews affiliate with the official Jewish community to which they pay taxes. Rome has the largest concentration with 13,000; Milan follows with 8,000. The rest of the Jewish population is scattered in 21 other cities, only six of which have communities of more than 1,000. This dispersion again raises the problem of assimilation, a problem which community leaders tried to solve by means of an intensive educational program. The educational system now includes Jewish day schools in eight cities, a rabbinical seminary in Rome
, and special courses for Hebrew teachers. In Rome, a vocational training school is maintained by ORT. A monthly magazine is published by the community. There is an active Zionist organization, and close ties are maintained with Israel.

In recent years, Italy has been almost completely free of antisemitic activities, and Jews have again achieved prominence in national life. Alberto Moravia, Paolo Milano, Carlo Levi, and Primo Levi are leading literary figures. Jews are prominent in the professions and several branches of the economy.

Italy has served as an important transition place for the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel during the last two decades.

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