September 1, 1938, was the day that the first of Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws were announced.
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The introduction of regulations and policies that led to the expulsion of Jews from almost every sector of Italian public life marked a dramatic and radical turnabout by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government. As recently as February of that same year, the Italian Foreign Office had declared that “a specific Jewish problem does not exist in Italy” and that “the Fascist Government has no intention whatsoever of taking political, economic or moral measures against Jews.”
These sentiments were consonant with statements made over the years by Mussolini, whose party was even open to Jews as members until 1938.
By July of 1938, however, the regime began laying the ground for the practical measures that followed.
First, on July 1, the government prohibited publication of translated books written by foreign Jews in other languages. A little later, a government-appointed committee of academics released a study meant to prove that the country’s 70,000 Jews were racially different from Italians and other Aryans. The study’s authors declared – as a prescriptive, not a confession – that “It is time that the Italians frankly proclaimed themselves to be racists.”
On August 31, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported how in recent days, the Italian press had been full of articles claiming that the country’s Jews were disproportionately represented in its economic, educational and public life.
On September 1, the other shoe dropped. The first measure announced was that all Jews who had settled in Italy or its colonies (other than Ethiopia) since 1919 were now subject to expulsion. That immediately affected some 15,000 people, one-third of whom were refugees from Germany and Austria, at a time, of course, when it was becoming increasingly difficult for stateless persons to find a country that would take them in.
Not only that, but because currency exportation laws prohibited them from taking more than the equivalent of $130 out of the country, these Jews would have to leave penniless.
The following day, all Jewish students and teachers were expelled from Italian schools and universities, effective October 16, 1938. The only exception to be made was for locally born Jewish university students, who were to be permitted to finish their studies.
The state did offer to bear the cost of the extra Jewish schools that would need to be established to accommodate those who had been removed from their regular study frameworks. Of course, any textbooks with Jewish authors, or that were deemed to have been “influenced by a Jewish trend of thought,” were also banned from Italian schools.
The decree of November 10 prohibited the employment of Jews in most nearly every imaginable economic sector, leading to the immediate unemployment of some 15,000 people, and it prohibited Jews from owning businesses or real estate beyond a certain size. And because Jews had already been prohibited from selling property, the government now expropriated an estimated 70 percent of Jewish-owned property, recompensing their owners with non-transferable, low-interest government bonds.
There is little sense that the Duce was responding to significant public anti-Jewish sentiment in suddenly introducing these laws. Rather, Mussolini seemed to be acceding to demands from Nazi Germany, though he denied this, and even though Italy would not formally become an Axis power until 1939. Removing Jews from Italy’s economic life was also meant to partly solve a serious unemployment problem, opening up public-sector jobs, for example, to out-of-work party members.
The arrest and deportation of Italy’s Jews, including those in territories occupied by Italian forces, had to wait until after September 1943, when Germany occupied the northern part of the country. Thanks to the refusal of large parts of the Italian population, and of Italian security officials to cooperate with the Germans, the final number of Jews who were murdered in Italy was approximately 7,000, with more than 40,000 surviving the war.