Italian Jews Caught Between Fear and Desire to Help Refugees

Jews in Italy, many having been refugees themselves, feel a moral obligation to help the arriving migrants. But some are apprehensive that the influx will bring more anti-Semitism.

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An image showing the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni
Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni.Credit: AP

Last week the Italian magazine L’Espresso published an interview with the country’s most prominent rabbi, warning that the influx of Muslim refugees might increase anti-Semitism in the country and elsewhere in Europe: “I hope we won’t end up with a new Auschwitz,” said the chief rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni.

“Islam doesn’t make any distinction between Israel and Jews. That’s why dialogue is so difficult,” he said. “We’re talking about millions of migrants. It’s a massive migration that would change Europe for ever. Picture those millions of people 20 years from now: can you imagine a future of peaceful coexistence?”

Only a few days earlier, the Jewish youth group Hashomer Hatzair bought food and clothes to migrants camping at the central train station in Milan. The city’s Holocaust Memorial, located on the same underground platform from which local Jews were shipped to concentration camps during World War II, is an independent institution which counts several Jews in its board and has hosted over 3,000 homeless migrants since June. In Turin, the Jewish community has pledged an apartment to host asylum seekers and is currently remodelling it. Even in Genova, the small Jewish community has organized food and clothes drives for refugees.

Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of the Italian Jewish communities (UCEI), has described helping refugees as “a mitztvah,” a religious commandment. Indeed, the commitment of Italian Jews to help refugees has been noted by the New York Times and the Huffington Post.

To some, this apparent contradiction reflects mixed feelings toward migrants among European Jews, torn between the moral and historical obligation to help refugees, and the fear that an influx of immigrants from Muslim countries might increase anti-Jewish violence.

More than 710,000 migrants reached Europe in the first nine months of 2015, according to EU agency Frontex. A report by the National Association of Italian Municipalities states that approximately 121,500 of them came by boat to Italy, with Syrians as the largest group.

A Syrian refugee holds his feverish daughter, under a tent of a makeshift camp in northern Paris, on September 24, 2015.Credit: AFP

“There is some kind of emotional tension,” says Victor Magiar, a representative of UCEI in Rome, who himself came to Italy as a child refugee from Libya in 1967, when Jews were forced to leave the country. “On the one hand, [Jewish] people identify with the refugees, since many Jews have been refugees themselves, either during World War II or when Arab countries expelled them. On the other hand, some people are uncomfortable at the idea that many refugees are from Syria, because it’s a country that has fought many wars with Israel, although I think it’s more of a psychological issue than a real threat.”

Mixed messages have emerged from other European Jewish communities as well. In Germany, the president of the Central Council of Jews Josef Schuster welcomed the country’s decision to host 800,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. But he also warned they could pose a risk: “When one lives in a country in which one is told for 30 years that Israel is the number one archenemy and Jews from the outset are all bad, then one does not simply arrive in Germany and that is suddenly forgotten.”

In France, the situation between Muslims and Jews is considered particularly tense, especially since Jewish sites were targeted by Islamist extremists in Paris last January, and in Toulouse three years ago. Nevertheless, both Chief Rabbi Haim Korsa and the Council of French Jewish Institutions urged European leaders to address the refugee crisis “with humanity and compassion.”

“There has been a strong identification between the fate of refugees and Jewish story in the 20th century, both among Ashkenazi Jews but also Sephardis who arrived more recently from North Africa, and now form the majority of the French Jewish community”, says Benjamin Haddad, a Parisian Jew and research fellow at the Hudson Institute, an American think tank. “The experience of displacement and persecution obviously resonates with Jews and this has reinforced a sense of solidarity with refugees.”

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