Are Italian Jews 'Too Cozy' With the Catholic Church?

Italy's conservative Jewish community accuses progressive Jews of being too Catholic-friendly.

Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano
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The Jewish community Synagogue in Rome.
The Jewish community Synagogue in Rome.Credit: Reuters
Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano

MILAN – These are troubled times for Italy’s tiny, millennia-old Jewish community. Currently, there are about 35,000 Jews registered in the Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (UCEI), the national umbrella organization of the local communities. Most of the Jews are concentrated in the country’s two major cities: Rome, which alone counts for about 40 percent of UCEI members, and Milan, with 20 percent.

Although it is possible that the number of Jews in the country, whose presence dates back to the 2nd century B.C.E., is higher, and there are other Jewish organizations in addition to the union, such as those operating in the framework of the Chabad-Lubavitch and Reform movements – UCEI is the only Jewish entity formally recognized by the government, and by far the most representative.

At present, there’s a tough political struggle going on within the national organization, where, among others, the subject of the relationship with Catholic institutions is being heatedly debated. In short, some of the more conservative members are accusing the more liberal side of being too “cozy” with the Church, although some progressives maintain that such charges are a pretext for a power struggle.

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Specifically, last month seven members of the governing council of the UCEI, all of them from Rome and belonging to the conservative faction, resigned in what appears to be a rift with the union's centrist president, Renzo Gattegna, also from Rome. Among the council members who resigned are the charismatic president of that city's Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, and Elvira Di Cave – a physician who, on a popular Jewish online forum, described her resignation as a reaction to excessive coverage by UCEI’s newspaper Pagine Ebraiche of Catholic news: “I’ve been reading with outrage the work of Pagine Ebraiche chief editor Guido Vitale … because of the attention he dedicates, at our expenses, to the Osservatore Romano [the Vatican's official newspaper],” Di Cave wrote.

At about the same time, Shalom, the official magazine of Rome’s Jewish community, which has traditionally been supportive of the conservative faction, published an editorial accusing Gattegna, the UCEI president, of “not being passionate [enough] in his defense of Israel,” and of wasting money promoting a communications strategy perceived as being too close to the Vatican. Like Di Cave, Shalom's editor, Giacomo Kahn, who signed the article, was also upset by what he sees as Pagine Ebraiche’s frequent quoting of the Catholic press.

Deep roots and diversity

UCEI president Renzo Gattegna. Photo courtesy.
Pope Francis I waves from the steps of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome, March 14, 2013.
UCEI president Renzo Gattegna (R).
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UCEI president Renzo Gattegna. Photo courtesy.
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Pope Francis I waves from the steps of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome, March 14, 2013. Credit: Reuters
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UCEI president Renzo Gattegna (R).Credit: Reuters
Italian Jewry divided over relations with Catholic Church

Why is a Jewish newspaper that quotes Catholic sources such a big deal in Italy? In truth, the conflict within the UCEI has much deeper roots. It represents a tiny but extremely diverse community, consisting of both secular and religious people, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, assimilated and more communally oriented Jews, families who can trace their presence in the country back several centuries, newcomers from Israel, and second-generation immigrants from North Africa and the Levant. These various members have coexisted peacefully for decades, but in recent years internal differences have become harder to manage.

The most palpable source of tension is the disagreement among those who see the Jewish community in general as an “open” institution, inclusive of assimilated Jews and keen on dialogue with the non-Jewish world, and those who see it as a more closely knitted unit, held together by a strong commitment to Israel and to Jewish life. The former group is often referred as “the left” and the latter as “the right,” although those terms often do not coincide with the broader political beliefs of those involved.

In the last UCEI elections, in 2012, those two groups tried to put their differences aside forming a unitary electoral list headed by Gattegna, who at the time was perceived as a unifying, centrist figure. Challenged only by an all-women list called Binah (understanding), the Gattegna's slate won the elections. But since then, conservatives within the union have grown dissatisfied with the power-sharing arrangement. Now, some of them are accusing the centrists and progressives, among other things, of being too friendly toward Catholics.

Gattegna didn’t respond to Haaretz’s requests for a comment on this issue. However, Pacifici, from Rome, said he doesn’t see good relations with the Vatican as a source of divisiveness. “Of course, every one has a different idea," he explained, "but it’s not unusual, you know. For every two Jews there are three opinions.”

Pacifici said that the criticism aimed at Pagine Ebraiche is motivated by issues of professionalism, and added that he’s a strong supporter of dialogue with the Catholic Church: “It’s crucial, if we want to spread the values we share,” he said.

Moreover, he saw the fact that the pope chose to travel to Israel with a rabbi and a Muslim leader as a positive development. “I hope it will bring a breath of freedom to the Middle East, and that Francis will be braver than his predecessor in denouncing the treatment of Christians by Muslim extremists,” Pacifici said.

But others believe there is indeed a growing trend among more conservative Jews to be critical of the perceived closeness to the Catholic Church among liberals – and that is the tip of the iceberg of the struggle between “inclusive” and “exclusive” Italian Judaism.

“Unfortunately, there are some people that have come to see their Jewish identity as an ‘us vs. them’ issue, and that’s affecting the relationship with the Catholic Church,” said Gad Lerner, a well-known Italian intellectual and a vocal supporter of an inclusive community.

“In some Jewish circles there’s a growing distrust of outsiders,” added Lerner. “And since we’re an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the seat of the Vatican, it’s pretty obvious who the ‘others’ are.”

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