A Museum of Italian Jewish History Tells a Very Local Story

Feb. 17 2020

In 2018, the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah opened in the city of Ferrara, whose Jewish history is known to Americans primarily because of the 1971 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on Giorgio Bassani’s novel of the same name. Created pursuant to an act of the Italian parliament, the museum was the result of a nearly eighteen-year discussion of where and how to create a memorial to the Holocaust. The result is as much about the history of Ferrara’s Jews as about their fate under fascism. Carlin Romano writes:

[T]he House of Este . . . ruled Ferrara from 1240 to 1598. Ercole d’Este (1431–1505) welcomed Sephardi Jews expelled from Iberia and left the city a remarkable array of palaces, gardens, and grand avenues, as well as medieval walls and a Jewish quarter, which became the ghetto in 1624 after the Vatican seized power from the House of Este.

One reason Ferrara got the nod from the founders of the museum is that it continues to have an active, if tiny, Jewish community, as well as a non-Jewish population that largely appreciates [the Jewish] presence. Massimo Torrefranco, the Roman-born vice-president of the Jewish community, . . . offers a tour of the [community’s headquarters] at Via Giuseppe Mazzini 95. Originally housing two synagogues (German and Italian), it’s the oldest Jewish communal building in Italy still in use. Damaged in the 2012 Emilia region earthquake, it is currently open only to members of the community.

In 1861, when most of the Italian peninsula’s individual states came together to form the Kingdom of Italy, Ferrara had a Jewish population of about 3,000 in a city of 33,000. . . . [T]he community numbers only 80 today.

On the first floor [of the museum, the exhibit] The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew narrates a groundbreaking perspective that squares with much contemporary academic scholarship: namely, that Jewish involvement in the Renaissance, largely omitted from standard histories, must be rediscovered and studied. “There is no Italian Renaissance without Judaism,” declares Giulio Busi, co-curator of the exhibition, from a monitor at the entrance to the installation, “and we would not be able to imagine Italian Judaism without the Renaissance.”

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Read more at Moment

More about: Holocaust, Italian Jewry, Jewish museums, Renaissance

Europe-Israel Relations Have Been Transformed

On Monday, Israel and the EU held their first “association council” meeting since 2012, resuming what was once an annual event, equivalent to the meetings Brussels conducts with many other countries. Although the summit didn’t produce any major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, writes Shany Mor, it is a sign of a dramatic change that has occurred over the past decade. The very fact that the discussion focused on energy, counterterrorism, military technology, and the situation in Ukraine—rather than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—is evidence of this change:

Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last association council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations.

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012. [Moreover], Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement [between Israel and the EU’s precursor] was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg. Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal, and Sweden.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Abraham Accords, Europe and Israel, European Union, Israeli gas