Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Iyar 5761 - May 16, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Moshe Chaim, the Story of a Young Italian Jew

by U. Mor

Most of us know life in the larger Jewish communities of Israel or the United States. Even in England, South Africa or Australia the Jewish communities are composed of thousands of people.

In Italy, the Jews are a very small minority in a Catholic country. The Italian media is known as pro-Arab and antisemitic and for making Israel look very bad. The Italians are now undergoing a wave of Moslem immigration and conversion to Islam, and this is in the most Catholic country in the world and they are not altogether happy with this. Here is the story of Moshe Chaim Polco, a 19-year old Jewish youth from Genoa, who is very experienced with antisemitism. Unlike his Jewish friends, he reacted by strengthening his path to Judaism.

From our vantage points, we often do not sense what is going on among the nations of the world. Perhaps here, from the perspective of a young Italian Jew, we can learn a bit about Italian Jewish life today and come to appreciate the deep- seated antisemitism that persists as an eternal parasite.

It was staff of Media-Set-Italia-Uno that photographed the shocking lynching of Israeli soldiers that took place in Ram'alla some months ago. Those gruesome pictures circulated quickly and stunned the world. The picture of the Arab waving his bloodstained hands was published in the most respected newspapers in the world. But despite the international scoop, the Italian news agency was reprimanded by its directors in Rome, and the photographers were actually brought back to Italy, along with even the Italian competitive news staff (not before its reporter was wounded by a stone thrown by a Palestinian).

These events are not mentioned for naught. Consider the fact that the Italian media is invariably extremely pro-Arab. In interviews that the scoop-finding journalist gave, he admitted that the gory pictures were taken without permission from Palestinian publicity people, and their publication throughout the world was much to the dismay of the Palestinian Authority. His acknowledgment revealed the usual arrangement that prevails between the Palestinians and the Italian media: the latter photograph only what the Palestinians allow. The photos of the lynch deviated from the norm because of a reporter who decided, for the sake of objectivity, to give the press a fair glance at reality for once (unfortunately under such tragic circumstances).

Incidentally, as a result of this revelation, many media consumers in the world began questioning whether the Palestinian Authority had made similar arrangements with other agencies (and directors) from other countries.

But this cooperation is not in conformance with other aspects of Italy's socio-political situation. A huge wave of Moslem immigration has been flowing into Italy in recent years, and Islam is spreading there in a way that is frightening, at least to the Italian right.

Most surprising is that many of the Italian media's directors and senior journalists are Jewish. Until a few months ago, the Dela Serra Courier of Milan, was edited by a Jew. That is the biggest newspaper in the country. The second largest newspaper, La Stampa of Torino, employs a known pro-Arab slanderer by the name of Igor Man, but one of the senior journalists, Fiama Nirenstein, is Jewish. In electronic media, until a few months ago the director of Channel One in Italy was a Jew named Gad Lerner. The director of Channel Two is also a Jew named Maimon.

Even though Jews work in the media, it is of significance that many of them, like a large portion of Italian Jews, feel more Italian than Jewish. We felt this ourselves when we visited the community of Genoa not long ago. We participated in a certain occasion organized by community members. The "hachnosas orchim" was chilling. Those people also related that way to other Jewish guests who visited the kehilla -- no warmth, no common denominator, no Jewish solidarity.

Everyone Against the Jews

No matter which side wins the upcoming elections, the result will be anti- Jewish or anti-Israeli policy. The right is fascist, the left communist. The left may not be antisemitic but is anti-Israeli, and obviously it is easy to move from anti-Israeli to antisemitic. "We have to be afraid of this too," says Moshe Chaim Polco, age 19, of Genoa.

The Opposition leader in Italy, head of the largest rightist faction "A Strong Italy," Silvio Berloscuni, has not spoken out against Jews, nor can it be deduced anywhere from his platform that he is antisemitic. But extreme rightist leaders with whom he works do this for him, such as Bosi, leader of the "Northern League" party. Bosi, who serves as head of a party whose very basis is racism, is a self- proclaimed antisemite. "He would like all the Arabs in Italy (around half a million) to be expelled. He hates all foreigners, including Jews," says Moshe Chaim Polco. "Now he does not speak against the Jews because elections are coming up, but until less than a year ago he said it outright. It's funny how people change faces very fast."

Take the party of Pini for example -- "National Unity" -- with which Alexandra, the granddaughter of Moussolini is affiliated. This party has waged a war against Islamization of Italy. "National Unity" gets 20 percent in polls, and up until 20 years ago Pini would salute with an upturned hand (the Nazi salute). In fact today, close to elections, even Pini is careful not to speak out against foreigners, but again, there are people around him who do the work for him: Bipi, the cardinal of Bologna ("Italy needs to close all its borders to any non-Catholic who wants to acquire Italian citizenship. We have to gradually expel non-Catholic citizens, so that Italy will be pure in its Catholic heritage.").

Pini is quite careful, for example, about respecting Austrians, who are considered his "political colleagues." "Of course, he did not change his views, only his words," says Moshe Chaim. Nowadays, the rightist leaders are more "cultured." Racial slurs against the Jews can be found in the stadiums, where extremist right racist groups, neo-Nazi groups, and fascist groups gather.

"The truth is," says Moshe Chaim Polco, "all politicians are bad to the Jews." Actually, none of the leaders of the right are really antisemitic, says Moshe Chaim cynically, only the voting citizen.

Whom will the Jews vote for? In Moshe Chaim's opinion, the Jews will vote for Berloscuni, "because in the last elections the Jews voted for the Left and they are fed up with the joke they have played on us. They want our vote, but they never want to help." But Moshe Chaim is not sure about this either, "because there is no collective opinion amongst the Jews regarding elections."

Judaism is Like a Fleeting Shadow

I met Moshe Chaim Polco in Genoa. He is an Italian Jew whose experience with antisemitism pushed him to strengthen his Judaism. Moshe's father is an Italian Jew and his mother was an Israeli (she passed away). Moshe and Rachel, his 17-year- old sister, speak fluent Hebrew. He is studying computer engineering. In the future, he hopes to make aliya and to study Torah. Despite the difficulties he and his sister have, he tries to remain optimistic, although cynical comments creep into his words from time to time.

When Moshe was in 11th grade, the religion teacher (In Italy they study Christianity in school) told the 12th grade students that in the school there is a Jew named Moshe. It is a large school, with 1200 students, and it is not that everyone knows each other. Later, on their holiday, a group of 12th grade students met Moshe in the street, spat at him and told him that he should go back to his country. "I'm Italian," he smiles sadly. This was the first time that he experienced blatant antisemitism. Moshe told his non-Jewish friends about the incident, and they approached those students and asked that the incident be the first and last time.

"They learn a little Tanach and, along with everything else, a little Judaism. When the teacher was talking, from what I understand, he mentioned that there is a Jew in the school, and that was me -- because there are no other Jews in the school besides me."

That group of students stopped bothering him, and for about a month and a half the incident was forgotten, if only because it was one incident among many: many times before this he had experienced animosity, but it was only on a low flame. Even on the first day of school, three years previously, after the ten o'clock break he found his desk full of pictures of swastikas. The teacher helped him erase them. "This kind of nonsense always happened to me, foolish, disturbed kids, who don't know what to do," he defines these activities. Sometimes he thinks to himself about why this happens to him, and that he has to find some reason, because it has happened.

A month and a half after that episode, on a Friday, Moshe Chaim came to school and saw all of his friends standing around his desk and trying to get him out of the classroom. They did not want him to see and be insulted. But he saw the swastikas drawn on the desk and the big letters: "Jew, you'll burn," and in smaller letters words like "Miser to the gas," and "wood to the fire."

"These are words they would write some years ago about Jews. These sentences are common in Italy, words that you find in the stadium, on walls of houses, in abundance. This is not something that someone invented and kept to himself," explains Moshe Chaim. "I was shocked! After a few minutes the teacher came in, and her words upset me even more. This teacher is very Catholic, and probably deep down she always wanted to ask me, `Why don't you become Christian?' Now she found the opportunity. She turned to me and said, `Maybe the problem is not with these children, but with you, that you don't want to be like everyone else. Here everyone is Catholic, so you should be Catholic. When you are in Israel, everyone is Jewish there and you should be Jewish. Maybe it's because you go to the synagogue, you don't write on the Sabbath. You should start to write on the Sabbath, eat meat with the others!'

"Not to write on Shabbos -- maybe in Israel this seems normal, but here it is incomprehensible. They have no concept of what Shabbos is to a Jew. What do the students see? They see that I am different. Everyone writes, but I don't write! There are days that I don't go to school, and I don't have to bring a note from my parents because it's a Jewish holiday. When they don't go to school, they must bring a note from their parents. They always see the different things, the privileges, so to speak. Because I am different, they think that I have it coming to me, that eventually someone will not understand me."

Everyone Heard This? How Did They React?

"Yes, she said it in front of everyone. Here in Italy, they don't relate to teachers or to what they say with respect, but here her words brought serious responses from teachers and students. Other teachers backed her up and said that I am different."

When it became clear who the students who "decorated" Moshe Chaim's desk were, they also discovered that they were the same group who had attacked him a month and a half before. Now the issue came before the principal: whether to take any steps against them or not. In the end it was decided to do nothing.

Italy is a bureaucratic country; they have forms for every occasion. So if we're dealing with a school, at every parent/teacher meeting, there is also a protocol. In the protocol of the parents' meeting it was written that they had deliberated about the problem of Moshe Chaim Polco, and it was also written why they had not done anything about it: The school does not take any responsibility for the action, since these things happened to a boy who is "different."

"They actually used the word divreso-different," emphasizes Moshe Chaim. "My teacher gave me the protocol to read. That got to me, and I stopped going to school. I decided that I wanted to transfer to the Jewish school in Milan. I published a letter in the school newspaper, describing my situation and the plots against me. As a result, some students organized a meeting with all the students in which they decided that if the principal does not take action against the guilty parties, there would be a student strike: they would sit outside of the classrooms.

"After half an hour, the principal made an announcement: what had happened was not nice, and whoever did it will be punished. That put an end to the strike before it even started, but those students never did get punished. I continued attending the school, because my class persuaded me to come back."

But in the End, Did You Change Schools?

"Yes. All the teachers said that because of me the school had earned a bad reputation, since the incident was written up in Italian newspapers. In Italy, if something bad happens, who is guilty? Not the one who committed the offense but the victim, the one who caused the bad reputation.

"They did not expel me from school, but they made my life unbearable. The teacher of Italian started scheduling tests only on Shabbos. I had a hard time with him, because Italian law says that I am permitted not to write on Shabbos, but it does not say that it is forbidden for the teacher to give exams on Shabbos! I finally protested and was granted the possibility of completing the year without losing out, despite the tests. When I finished, I said, `That's it, enough, I'm fed up.' Along with me the school administration removed another six students from my class who had been disgusted by the episode. In the class only 12 students remained. I felt good that others also expressed solidarity and said, `Enough, this is intolerable.'"

"Ebreo" -- 1. Jew; 2. A Curse

The square above Genoa's shul is named after the city's rov who was killed in the Holocaust, Rav Riccardo Pacifici, Hy"d. Rav Pacifici was deported along with about 300 other Jews in November of 1943. Under the plaque bearing the name of the square and after whom it is named, a swastika was sprayed. Moshe Chaim Polco erased it.

Around four years ago, Moshe Chaim's grandfather's tombstone, located in the Jewish cemetery in Acquiterma in the Piamonte district, was desecrated, together with other tombstones. Additional grave desecration took place around a year and a half ago in Rome's Jewish cemetery.

Genovese Jews are not bothered by these episodes at all. Recently a meeting of the G8 took place in the city (a club of the eight most developed countries in the world, Italy being a member). Even as the city was being spruced up for that prestigious meeting, the front of the bakery that sells bread to the city's Jews was sprayed with a swastika. For two weeks, in the Piazza Della Victoria, the city's main plaza, there was a bazaar, under the political auspices of the TriColor party, one of the many names of the party of Pini the extreme rightist. The Italians went shopping in the bazaar, even though one of the booths sold militant merchandise, such as uniforms and weapons.

In the wake of the new intifada in Israel, the Genovese local newspaper Courierra Mercantila (which is sold together with La Stampa), published an antisemitic letter, reminiscent of the Dark Ages. The rav of the kehilla, Rav Yosef Mamiliano, sent both newspapers a letter in response, in which he wrote that not every letter that reaches the editorial board has to be published.

A constant guard, 24 hours a day, by the police and Carabiniari (the national militia) is stationed around the shul, which recently underwent general renovations. But this is not the reason for the patrol. Rav Mamiliano says, "Because of the situation in Israel, the police offered it to the kehilla, even though there had been no threats or anything like that. This patrol is paid for by the State."

The Jewish community of the Italian regiona of Liguria, whose capital is Genoa, has 400 Jews listed. Besides 60 of these who live in La Spezia, all the others are residents of greater Genoa.

In four years, a governmental museum will open in the synagogue, documenting Judaism in Genoa.

In Genoa, there are some very wealthy Jews who are a presence in the local economy. For example, a large dairy in Liguria belongs to two Jewish Genovese families. The director of the Genovese branch of one of the largest banks is Jewish. But does all of this affect antisemitism? In Moshe Chaim's opinion, this has no effect, because no one knows that these people are Jewish. "The greatest influence on antisemitism in Italy is its Catholicism," he says. On the Internet in Italy there is a site that lists all the Jews in Italy and their details, under the title: "Know the enemy."

Every time there is a special situation in Israel, Jews abroad also suffer. "It is very easy to pick out a Jewish- Italian last name," says Moshe Chaim. Several years ago some Jewish families, including his, were forced to remove their names from the phone book because of antisemitic harassment. In the official Italian dictionary, they still list antisemitic definitions of words like "rabino": (1. Rabbi, 2. Thief) and "Ebreo": (1. Jew, 2. Curse).

In Italy you come across many works of Israeli artists, but they present a distorted image of religious and chareidi Jews in Israel. An Israeli author and an American Jewish author, who write anti-religious literature, are well known in Italy. Israeli anti-religious plays attract Italian audiences en masse. This "art" reinforces the non-Jews' antisemitism and also anti- religiosity amongst Italian Jews. Considering the high assimilation rate in Italy, it is not clear whether these "works of art" do not even increase antisemitism amongst these "Jews."

For their part, most Jews prefer to conceal and ignore antisemitic experiences, claims Moshe Chaim. Maybe in order not to attract fire, maybe to "bury" the phenomenon hoping it will go away or at least leave them alone. Moshe Chaim says that four years ago he came to the synagogue on Rosh Hashana and found its door black and he smelled a bad stench of fire. Later he heard that at night a Molotov cocktail had been thrown at the door. "But they never wrote about it in the newspaper. They did not and will not try to advertise this at all, out of fear that doing so would only increase antisemitism. Jews here are scared that the more we talk about Jews, the worse it is; the less we talk, the sooner the Italians will forget about it. They think that this will solve the problem. But they are not solving it, because people are antisemitic in any case."

Moshe Chaim is a fiery 19-year-old, as we mentioned. His words express his opinions only, and of course he did not consult someone great in Torah or an authority. We have to understand his approach as a reaction of a young Jew upset about many aggravating experiences he has had, in a western country that seems Democratic. "The truth is that to solve this problem, instead of hiding ourselves, we should get stronger and show who we are. But this is difficult, because first of all we have a war against assimilation. We need to fight ourselves, and only after this to show who we are. Besides the fact that we are so small in Italy, even without considering the assimilation problem, and all the more so with it. So it is difficult anyway. But even so, it is not right to hide things all the time. Big things do not happen every day, but something [an antisemitic incident] occurs every day to somebody in everyday life."

Moshe Chaim's Jewish Diary

The year he entered high school, Moshe Chaim's life changed. In elementary school, the teachers called him Moshe and the students were the same students he had studied with since first grade. Everything flowed smoothly: "I did all kinds of things because I'm Jewish, even though I didn't realize it. But this did not go against anyone or have any repercussions. Even if I knew that I was Jewish, I wouldn't have felt that a Jew is something different. Besides my Jewish name, my Judaism did not define me at all. I was invited to friends' parties, and I would bring birthday presents. It was a normal life, just like everyone else.

"Of course, I had all kinds of laws that the others did not have, but I explained to myself that all parents have different methods of child rearing. I have this kind of education, and they have a different one. Here in Italy there are many different approaches to raising children, and my parents' approach was not so different from others. For example, there are rules here about when to eat and how to eat. I have friends who always had to eat lunch at 12 and dinner at 7, and it was forbidden to be late by even one minute. So I did not think: I'm Jewish, and other people are not Jewish."

But when he got to high school, and was nicknamed "Jew" from the first day, everything changed. The name Moshe Chaim was almost a middle name because his first name was "Jew." They would not say: "Invite Moshe," but "Invite the Jew." "Whether I wanted it or not, I was a Jew. I couldn't change myself. Actually, this caused me to strengthen my Judaism. I started asking what a Jew is, and I understood that it is not only I who keeps Shabbos, but there are a lot of other people who keep Shabbos. I began to understand all kinds of things that were not even questions before.

"I had my bar mitzvah without learning with a rabbi. I learned my parsha at home by myself. I learned the trop from a cassette. Not that I did not know what Avrohom Ovinu is or what Torah is. My mother taught me Torah every week, but I did not see myself as part of a greater whole, but as a small unit."

He began writing a diary at that time, because he did not have anyone to talk to. "Some of my good friends from elementary school moved to a different city, and my Jewish friends had made aliya. We had been three families, and every Shabbos we would walk to them or they to us. I lost other friends, because the year that you go up to high school is for many Jewish families the year they decide to leave. That way it's not traumatic, because in any case they're switching schools."

What Was the Theme of the Diary?

"The first question was: why am I a Jew? This was formulated after some time. I did not know at all why I was Jewish, and I asked whether it was a privilege to be Jewish, because here everyone says that a Jew is not good. Other questions: Do I have a right to not write on Shabbos, while other people don't? Do I have a right to tell people that I don't eat that? I had to understand why me-yes, and others-no. I began compiling all kinds of questions, and finally reached the conclusion that I am a Jew, and I will remain a Jew, and if they hate me and don't want me to be Jewish, that's something in every person here. Everyone here is antisemitic deep down. This is a collective feeling that people here have, and since everyone has the same outlook, they feel that it is correct. If only one person were antisemitic everyone would say to him: That's not right. But here, everyone speaks badly about the Jews, and no one tells him he is wrong.

"There are so few Jews. It's almost a matter of mazal to meet one, not to mention actually knowing a Jew. The large communities meet amongst themselves, and the small communities don't feel Judaism so much. So the non-Jews don't have contact with Jews, and what's left is only stories."

How do the Jews Live Inside and Outside?

"They act according to the slogan [that Mendelssohn, the founder of the Reform movement originated]: `A Jew at home and a man outside.' The Jews are scared to publicize their Judaism. Many Jews keep kosher only at home. Outside they may be careful not to eat pig, but they'll eat any other meat. Or at home they keep Shabbos, they don't turn on lights, but outside of the house they do. They make up reasons and have them ready at hand for the non- Jews about why they keep what they do.

"For example, why they don't eat pig--because it's not healthy to eat. Anything that they don't manage to explain to the non-Jews, they don't keep. This is very confusing for young people. Recent generations are assimilating at a high rate. Italian Judaism was religious until 150 years ago. Nowadays we see a religious grandfather, the son of so-and- so, and his grandchild is not at all religious. The common attitude is that we have to be `worldly people.' `European.' Shabbos and davening are ancient! They want to be modern.

"But after all is said and done, Jews are actually missing religion. Because the Jew can say that he wants to be modern, not to be observant, but the non-Jews will always remind him that he is Jewish. So we see a kind of paradox: When something happens, whether in Italy or Israel, more people come to the beis knesses, and Jews come back to Judaism."

In University, How do People who Know You are Jewish Relate to You?

"I have not spoken with a lot of students about my Judaism. In the meantime there are no problems. I asked them not to give exams on the chagim, and I hope that when this is relevant, my request will be accepted. But it is impossible to know. Two months ago, I asked a fellow student to copy his notes. He agreed and I took them. When I wanted to give back his notebook, he was not in the classroom and I had to go. Later on he came to class, saw that I wasn't there, and left me a message on my cell phone that I should return his notebook immediately. I got back to him saying that he should give me his address, and I will come to him. But I did not say anything about his notebook; just about my coming. So he left another message saying: I don't care about you, I want my notebook right away. If you don't give it back, you will regret it. The point in this story is that he turned me into a thief. I am a Jew, so I am a thief.

"He told other students that the "Jewish thief" stole his notebook. If he wanted to say that about me, that I'm a thief, he could have said, "Moshe stole my notebook." But this is not the point, as I said, but the fact that he has a heritage of Jewish hatred at home [so he just saw me as part of a type of Jew].

"In Italy there is also a culture of Holocaust denial. Many people believe that the Holocaust was an illusion that the Americans created, in order to serve as a pretext to fight with Germany! And even if there actually was a Holocaust, the Jews deserved it, because they were thieves and so on. This is what that student surely had heard from his parents. And now, that boy, who grew up on the lap of this culture and met a Jew for the first time in his life at age 19, immediately found truth in his parents words."

Is Moshe Chaim Your Only Name?

"The name Moshe Chaim is very burdensome for me in Italy. I don't have a goyishe name. But I am proud of it. I have always had problems because of this name. It's an unusual name -- that's already a problem in Italy because right off, you're not Italian. One professor would not believe that I'm Italian when he saw the name on the roster. I pulled out my passport and showed him that I am Italian.

"Once I went to a hospital and when they saw the name Moshe Chaim, they told us that the hospital does not treat non- Italian citizens. My father took out his identity card and they still said, "No, you are not Italian." If it had been something worse, I could have died. Fortunately, it was just an allergy. He called the police and they finally took me in, but it is strange that this happened in a progressive, modern, European country."

How Does the Catholic Church Relate to Jews Today?

"The higher up the ladder you go, the more diplomatic they are. Lower down they show their true colors. The more respectable ones are more careful, more sophisticated, but the ones who are doing all the work are very antisemitic. The Cardinal of Bologna said that Italy should close all the borders to any non-Catholic who wants to become a citizen. Non-Catholic citizens should be expelled slowly, so that Italy will be pure in its Catholic heritage. He did not say "Jews," but it is very clear who he meant. And this is what the greatest of them says. What do the little ones say? Antisemitism is a very common "subject" in the non-Jews' religious studies.

"I used to go to a swimming pool, and several people stopped coming because a Jew swam there. I asked one of them why he doesn't come anymore, and he told me that their priest told them that the Jews want the whole world to be Jewish, and so the non-Jews should be careful to stay away from them and not to speak with them. You never know what a Jew will say. So they were careful, because I could make them evil Jews, too. I was very insulted."

If Italian Jews Suffer So Much Blatant Antisemitism, Why Don't They Emigrate, to Israel for Example?

"This does not seem like a solution to them. It is like admitting defeat and that's difficult. But they must bring Jewish education back to Italy. I see in France and other countries that the Jews hide themselves less; they are more Jewish. Here this would not especially help against antisemitism, in my opinion, because when the media has an opportunity to mention Jews, it is antisemitic and anti- Israel. In other countries, it's not so much that way. Many people think that the Jews have no place in the Italian national structure. The most antisemitic places are the churches. This is entrenched in their roots."


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.