Prof. Carlo Ginzburg Tal Cohen
Ginzburg: “Isolating Israel is totally unacceptable to me.” Photo by Tal Cohen
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Natalia Ginzburg, the historian’s mother. Photo by Getty Images

After two days packed with lectures and meetings in the Negev last week, Prof. Carlo Ginzburg chose to begin his morning in Tel Aviv with a visit to the Rogozin elementary school in the city's south. There the noted Italian historian met with a number of young people, including children of foreign workers who live in fear of expulsion.

"It moved me deeply," he says about the latter encounters. "I am full of enthusiasm for those who are working for those children."

Ginzburg, born in 1939, grew up as a persecuted Jewish boy in fascist Italy. During the war he hid with his mother, novelist Natalia Ginzburg, in a small village in the Abruzzi region south of Rome. His father, Leone, who was a noted intellectual between the two world wars and one of the leaders of the anti-fascist movement, was detained toward the end of the war in a Roman prison, where the Germans tortured him to death. The boy who grew up to become a historian says his research has focused extensively on the Church's persecution of those whom it suspected of being witches, and that that is connected to his personal history.

"My experience as a Jewish boy during the war aroused my interest in people accused of sorcery, definitely," he says today. But it was only when Ginzburg was invited to Japan, to mark the publication of one of his books in Japanese, he notes, "perhaps because of the distance," that he asked himself why that topic so attracted him.

When asked what memories he carries with him from his childhood in fascist Italy, it is clear the subject is not an easy one for him. He answers in detail, and some of the recollections, he says, he is talking about for the first time.

"I have very clear memories," he notes, describing a small village in southern Italy, Pizzoli, where he hid during most of the war years with his mother, brother and sister. When he returned there, many decades later, "I told the taxi driver, 'Stop here. This is the house.' It remained etched in my memory."

Ginzburg also remembers the German truck in which they traveled from the village to Rome and the German soldier who mentioned the name of a hotel in a heavy accent that today he tries to mimic precisely. "I also think of the violent scenes we saw in Rome," he says, and recalls the last days of the war when he was north of there, at the front lines between the Germans and the Allied forces, not far from Florence.

"We were standing together when a German soldier came over and said, 'All of them should have gone to Forli' - the city on the other side of the Apennine mountains. That meant we might not return. I remember putting on heavier shoes, anticipating the trek that awaited us. Then another German soldier came over and said, 'They are not going.'" Ginzburg and his family were saved.

Sixty-six years have passed since those days.

The minute he finishes, he almost apologizes for having delved into memories. "These are all anecdotes, they are not important," he asserts and insists on another one that he thinks most important of all: "The most important thing for me was that I had to change my name." During the war, he continues, his maternal grandmother "who was the only 'non-Jew' in the family," warned him not to reveal his family name, Ginzburg. "If asked for your name, say it is Carlo Tanzi."

This is the wartime memory that made the deepest impact on the young boy: an identity "that had to be blurred."

'Cheese and the Worms'

Ginzburg is considered one of the founders of "micro history," which deals less with attempts to describe all-encompassing phenomena and instead focuses on so-called pinpoint research. In the end, according to this approach, it is the details that shed significant light on an era in which certain events occurred. In 1976 he published his groundbreaking book "The Cheese and the Worms" (published in English in 1980 and in Hebrew five years ago ). It is the story of a 16th-century miller named Menocchio who was accused of heresy and was burned at the stake. Using the transcript of Menocchio's investigation by the Inquisition, Ginzburg created a masterpiece that focused on the question of how it was that an obscure miller gave expression to ideas that today we can still read with interest and even amazement. Most startling was Menocchio's description of the world as having been created "just as cheese is made out of milk - and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels." The cheese, the worms, but also the whole world.

When Ginzburg asked the pope, some 30 years ago, to have the Vatican open the records of the Inquisition to all, he considered himself a "historian of Jewish descent" and an atheist. In an interview earlier this month he continued to stick to the term "an atheist Jew." He sees no contradiction in this. In an interview with Corrierre della Sera several years ago, he said that during his frequent visits to the United States, where he taught for many years, he became "more and more aware of the Jewish element" in himself.

Ginzburg says that in high school in Rome he had a Jewish friend "who had a Magen David. I asked him for the Magen David and went around with it. It was a demonstration of self-identification," he asserts with hindsight.

He recalls that his mother told him that "my father had no affiliation with religion and no connection with the [Hebrew] language. The link with Italy was most important for him." And yet when I suggest that his father fit the definition of an assimilated Jew, Ginzburg rejects the idea: "Did Jews only visit our home? No. Were many of the visitors in my father's home Jewish? The answer is yes. There definitely was a certain sense of Jewishness."

When the word "identity" comes up - a word bandied about so much in Israel of 2010 - Ginzburg is horrified. "The etymology of the word 'identity' bothers me ... something that is always identical, always the same."

The idea that people seeking Israeli citizenship would be required to swear their allegiance to the state as some sort of a mechanism to preserve the state's "identity" seems to Ginzburg perverse. Beside the actual issue of the oath, Ginzburg warns of what he perceives as "a tension that could not last forever between [Israel as a] Jewish and a democratic state." He adds that "one can think of several elements that could lead to a clash [between the two]." Among those are "demographic elements" and the danger that "the real democracy would turn into something that only presents a facade of democracy."

Ginzburg believes that the Jewish project is in danger of hitting a dead end. "There is a real problem here of how to reconcile the Jewish state with democracy. It is a problem that has existed from day one, but it is becoming more and more difficult."

There are those who warn that fascism is spreading in the Israeli society. Do you subscribe to this talk?

"I cannot specifically address the Israeli case, I do not know the problem well enough," says Ginzburg, taking a deep breath. His own father refused to swear allegiance to fascist Italy, lost his university job because of it and was arrested.

"The term 'fascism' is used often, and sometimes in an absurd way. One can use the term in an analogical way, but only if we define, exactly, the elements of the historical fascism that are part of the analogy. Let us say that someone claims that 'a fascist regime exists in Italy.' That is illogical. Are there elements of fascism? Perhaps. Has power been seized by force? Definitely not. Only if someone can detail the elements of fascist-style behavior in present-day Italy would I be in a position to answer him."

Ginzburg recalls at length a scene from Federico Fellini's 1973 film "Amarcord," in which a young couple marries in front of Mussolini's image. "My mother says that Fellini understood an element of fascism. She did not say what that element was. I think that the element is the masses' infantilization, the transformation of public opinion into a single block, into an infantile discourse. All this is happening in present-day Italy. Even the opposition newspapers are caught in its web. It seems to me very grave and it will continue to be so for a while. The problems in Italian society are very severe. It is not the first time that Italy has opened the door to shameful phenomena."

'Which state is mine?'

This word, "shame," prompts an entire speech from Ginzburg. "We have a prime minister whom I prefer not to name. Why am I not ashamed for him but of him? It is odd. I thought about it and even wrote a short article about shame and the roots of the word. Which state is mine? The state in which I am ashamed. I realized this while I was in the United States. When I lived there, I realized that I was not ashamed of the United States."

The lectures Ginzburg delivers in the Senate Hall of Ben-Gurion University, in Be'er Sheva, are packed with hundreds of young students and veteran historians alike, all of whom have come to listen to someone who is a living monument of the second half of the 20th century. When the moderator of the event, Prof. Dror Zeevi, gives him the floor, it is clear that Ginzburg is excited. "It is a great honor to be here," he says.

Precisely as one who is considered part and parcel of Italy's radical left, Ginzburg did not think for even a minute of boycotting the Negev university. Even the question almost embarrasses him. "Of course, I am against a boycott. When a political power controls universities, one could support a boycott, but that is not the case in Israel." Yes, he says, in everything that has to do with the Israeli regime's actions, "I find a combination of colossal mistakes and unacceptable activities." But at the same time, he maintains, "the universities are pockets of resistance. Pockets of logic, of criticism and dialogue. Isolating Israel is totally unacceptable to me."