ernestonathan1-300x286 Ernesto Nathan (1848 – 1921), mayor of Rome
between 1907 and 1913


Enzo Sereni (1905-1944),
Zionist leader co-founder of kibbutz Givat Brenner


At the beginning of the 20th Jewish integration into Italian society appeared well on its way, as prime minister Luigi Luzzatti took office in 1910, one of the world’s first Jewish heads of government. Another Jew, Ernesto Nathan served as mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913.Italian Jews volunteered in large numbers in World War I, further strengthening their sense of loyalty to the Italian Kingdom.

As Mussolini came to power, some Jews initially adhered to the Fascist regime, while others were active in the anti-Fascist movements. Most Italian Jews were persuaded that Italy was immune to the modern racist anti-Semitism that was spreading throughout Germany and elsewhere in Europe; they saw Italy as a fortunate exception. As the Fascist government became dictatorial, it increased its control over the Jewish community (codified in 1930 by laws of reorganization of the Jewish community), and launched a policy of gradual elimination of Jews from important positions.


Luigi Luzzatto (1841-1927), Prime minister between 1910 and 1911


For the Jewish community, anti-Semitic articles published by major Catholic newspapers represented the first moment of crisis. During the Libyan War (1911-1912), members of the Italian Nationalist movement unleashed an anti-Semitic offensive. The conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 fueled racism against blacks in Italy. Diversity became analogous to inferiority, and the opposition between the “weak,” “inept,” and “uncivilized” blacks and the “white,” “noble,” and “strong” Italians was continuously reinforced. These positions became sanctioned by law: a decree in April of 1937 prohibited marriage between Italian citizens and African subjects. The preexisting Catholic anti-Judaism, new political anti-Semitism, and theories of colonial racism constituted elements that, fused together, fueled the campaign against Jews in the years of persecution.


Wedding of Allegra Laura Pia Coen and Arturo Forti, Tempio Maggiore, Roma 1910


In 1937, a systematic campaign was launched through the state-controlled press, reinforcing anti-Semitic accusations and stereotypes. The theoretical text Il Fascismo e i problemi della razza, written with direct pointers from Mussolini, was published in July. It affirmed that “human races do exist” and that “the Jews do not belong to the Italian race.” This was the explicit biological ground that the government intended to give the anti-Semitic legislation that was already being drafted.


The first measure aimed at all Jews was the census taken in August 1938, a detailed record of all their personal data. One essential part of the legislation was to arrive at a biological definition of “the Jew.” The assignment of a person to the “Jewish race” was established through a careful survey concerning their ancestry.


In September the “Racial Laws” removed Jewish students and teachers from schools and universities and arranged for the expulsion of many non-citizens. In November it became illegal for Jews to marry non-Jews, to own businesses, land or houses beyond stipulated limits, to have non-Jewish house servants, or to be State employees. Subsequently Jews were banned or at least restricted from practicing their professions. They were gradually expelled from social, economic, and cultural activities and precluded from much private employment as well. At the time those classified to be of the “Jewish race”, both Italian and foreign, were around 51,000.


Stock liquor, period poster, 1915, Trieste


For the large majority of Jews in Italy, the laws were a sudden blow. The Jewish community was committed first and foremost to helping children expelled from schools to continue their studies. In some cities they organized schools.


The promulgation and application of anti-Semitic legislation was accepted by the majority of Italians with indifference and acquiescence. Not even the Vatican took a position against these measures, confining itself to upholding the right of celebrating mixed marriages.


Modena, demolition of the ghetto, 1904-1905


As Italy entered the war in 1940, Jews gradually went underground, abandoning their homes, using false names, and searching for places of refuge. In the dark period from 1940 to 1945 (see under World War II), the fascists and later Nazi-fascists carried out systematic persecution of the Jews in Italy. According to historian Michele Sarfatti’s definition, the assault began as “persecution on Jewish rights” (1936- 1943) and escalated to a “persecution on Jewish lives” from September 1943 to August 1945.
On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated; Milan followed on April 25; Berlin surrendered on May 8. After seven years marked by discriminatory laws and deportations, the Jewish community in Italy had been reduced to half its size. Starting in 1944, the anti-Jewish laws were gradually rescinded as territories were liberated.
In the post-war era, Italian Jews contributed in numerous ways to the reconstruction of the country and the founding of a democratic republican state. Many were actively involved in the Zionist project that would eventually give rise to the State of Israel.