Israeli-Italian relations represent a history of friendship and cooperation
Final event in the Global Israel series held at the Italian Embassy
Anna Donohue | 12/15/16 2:17pm
| Updated 12/15/16 2:17pm
Anna Donohue / American Word Magazine
The final event in the Global Israel series, sponsored by the AU Center for Israel Studies, was a discussion on Italian-Israeli relations hosted at the Italian Embassy on Tuesday night. Around 100 people attended, including AU students and older-aged people, hailing from different countries, as is to be expected at an event at any Washington embassy. Everyone was gathered in a large room with rows and rows of seats facing the stage.
Professor Michael Brenner, AU’s Director of the Center for Israel Studies, explained the Global Israel series has featured events at different embassies, with a focus on Israeli-European relations this semester.
Luca Franchetti Pardo, Deputy Head of Mission at the Italian Embassy in Washington, began the discussion by giving the audience a broad overview of the relations between Italy and Israel.
“The relations between Italy and the Jewish world are something is long, long-rooted and not as well-known,” Pardo began. “The Jewish community in Italy is one of the most peculiar, and may be the most ancient-rooted community in the Mediterranean world.”
Pardo explained that when Egypt was conquered by the Roman Empire, the Jewish slaves in Egypt were brought to Rome and almost immediately were set free by the Jewish population in Rome. This was the first trace of how deep-rooted the relationship between Italy and Israel would become. Pardo also noted that in the ancient Italian city-states, Jews were protected by the Italian people. The goodwill between the Italian and Jewish communities set the stage for when Italy would recognize Israel as an official state in 1949.
In the twentieth century, the relationship between Italians and Jews reached a critical point with the rise of the fascism spearheaded by Mussolini during World War II. Since Mussolini was allied with Hitler, Jews in Italy were hunted down and arrested, especially in German-occupied northern Italy.
“After World War II, Italy became one of the pivotal points for the so-called Aliyah Bet, which was a project to bring back the persons who were displaced or were returning from the camps and could not find a place because as you certainly know, whether in Germany or eastern Europe, these places were occupied by other people and anti-Semitic sentiments were still strong. In Italy, anti-Semitic sentiments were not strong,” Pardo explained.
Because of Italy’s willingness to help Jews seeking a place to go after the war, about 25,000 Jews are estimated to have crossed through Italy to reach Palestine. This greatly strengthened the relations between Italy and the Jewish people. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Italy continued to have good relations with Israel; Italy was becoming more industrial and needed oil to keep up with its progress, so an ally in the Middle East was crucial.
To give the viewpoint of the other side, Reuven Azar, Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, spoke on the similar interests the two nations share.
“The current relations between Israel and Italy are so good that they stand in contrast to a pretty dark history,” Azar said.
He explained that when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, the Jewish people clashed with the Egyptian ideology of polytheism, but the concept of monotheism was growing in the Roman Empire which made it easier for the Jews to assimilate in Italy. Azar also noted that Italian and Israeli cultures are fairly similar because they are both Mediterranean countries and so they both have common interests in the region such as dealing with immigration and counterterrorism.
“Italy is always standing by us in the European Union, and I think the Italian people are sympathetic to the Israeli people,” Azar said.
Alessandro Cattaneo, Senior Counselor of Political Affairs at the Italian Embassy in Washington, spoke next on the influence of Jewish culture on Italian culture.
“The influence of Jewish culture on Roman and Latin culture is even deeper than we have historically recognized,” Cattaneo said.
“The melancholy story of the Jewish people left without a homeland was a source of historic inspiration, whereas for Zionist thinker, beginning with Herzl, the example for how Italians were able to overcome their many social and political and economic weaknesses and problems in order to give reality to their national aim and national inspiration was also a source of great strength and confidence,” he explained.
Cattaneo concluded by saying that relations between Italy and Israel have reached a turning point in the last 15 years, and Italy believes that Israel needs to be included in decisions regarding the Mediterranean. Additionally, the Italian and Israeli governments collaborate on scientific projects so the economies of both nations benefit from their technological advancements.
Pardo, Azar, Cattaneo and Brenner then took questions from the audience, moderated by Professor Dan Arbell, an Israel Studies Scholar in Residence at AU. One audience member’s question asked about the term “ghetto,” which was an area in Venice where the Jewish community was forced to live. The term is now considered to be offensive to Jewish people, yet the neighborhood in Venice has not been renamed. Pardo answered that while the term is offensive, it is also a very old one and will probably not be changed anytime soon.
Another question from an audience member asked if Israel and Italy were coordinating on their policies regarding acceptance of Syrian refugees, since both countries have fairly different policies at the moment. Azar replied that relations between Israel and Syria are not amiable which has made the issue difficult, but that Israel has been treating patients in military field programs and has also been giving food and supplies to refugees. The only problem is that Israel does not have the physical space to give refugees a place to stay. Italy, on the other hand, has more migrants than refugees, which means that there are more Syrian people in Italy who have been displaced and do not plan on returning to Syria. This also puts a strain on Italy’s resources as the country struggles to provide supplies and accommodations for these people.
Israeli and Italian relations today prove that not all relationships between European and Middle Eastern countries are unfriendly or negative. The history of relations between Italy and the Jewish community indicates that while the world has gone through dramatic changes, there are some bonds that have managed to withstand time and have emerged to be even stronger. The fact that both countries work together to maintain each other’s interests and strengthen each other’s economies, despite the fact that Italy is much older than Israel, is extremely impressive. After hearing about negative relations and conflicts between countries, it’s uplifting to know that not all international interactions are bad ones.