Italy’s Jews
The History of the Jews in Italy
by Cecil Roth.
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946. 575 pp. $3.00.


The long course of Italian-Jewish history, extending from pre-Christian times to our own day, comprises in a degree every facet of the evolution of Jewish life in Europe. Before undertaking this first comprehensive study of the subject, Cecil Roth had already made an impressive contribution to our knowledge of Jewish history in Italy. Every page of this large History shows his erudition, and the skill with which he traces regional variations over a period of two thousand years is of a very high order. He has marshaled a huge store of facts, and while the reader’s interest may flag at certain points, there are some chapters that merit special praise.

The best part of this book is undoubtedly Chapter V, “The Renaissance,” which is written with a genuine feeling for the conflicting currents in the sphere of Jewish-Christian relations. The first generation of the 16th century brought a foretaste of the Emancipation to the Jewish intellectuals and the few rich families. This development was, however, a phase of a humanist, individualistic upsurge, an avantgarde that lacked the social purpose which drove the Franciscan fanatics, who were a redoubtable force directed against the Jews. While some of the Jews found a liberal regime in Ferrara and enjoyed a degree of stability in Florence, the age of the ghetto and the Counter Reformation was at hand. By 1550 Italy was lost to European progress and for three centuries its Jewish communities struggled against endless vexations. Roth’s 90-page chapter on the ghettos unfolds the broad panorama of a struggle for social and cultural self-preservation, one of the best descriptive pieces in the Jewish historical literature known to this reviewer. The author has succeeded in bringing to life in all their lighter as well as their somber aspects the Jewries of the 16-18th centuries (in Rome until 1870). The relative security of the ghetto system and its advantages for the enforcement of social control within the group are somewhat difficult to appreciate in our time, but there were significant positive features in that context. On the other hand, the physical and spiritual conditions of the system as a whole deteriorated. Relentless exploitation by the Papacy and other regimes drove the communities into bankruptcy, and by the end of the 18th century the typical ghetto resident was an underprivileged wretch.

It would have been helpful if Dr. Roth had compared the deterioration of ghetto life with conditions on the outside. With the exception of Venice, the towns in question were under governments improvised by force, chance, or mishap. Highly reputed as the princes and dukes of Italy may have been in the eyes of contemporary Europe, their ability was cancelled by unbridled appetites and chronic intrigues. Political freedom and a sense of responsibility on the part of public officials were extremely rare. The ghettos were getting the worst of a bad situation, an experience not of course uncommon in Jewish history.



In view of the relative dearth of interesting material before the 13th century, the earlier chapters of this History suffer rather than benefit from Dr. Roth’s tendency to pile on detail. While the author has utilized the sources for the 10-13th centuries to good advantage, certain objections may be raised. There were important Jewish communities that weathered the successive invasions of Southern Italy until the 13th century, and these formed a cultural pocket, an outpost of the Palestinian center in an age dominated by the geonim in Babylonia. Dr. Roth’s account of the manner in which this sector of Italian-Jewish life was stifled, however, leaves room for improvement. Thus, he accepts the tale of a contemporary preacher in the north, according to whom pious Charles II of Naples (of the Angevin dynasty) decreed the conversion of the Jews as a punishment for a ritual murder. But the familiar motif implied here—popular hostility to the Jews and the monarch’s response thereto—cannot be squared with the contemporary documents in the royal archives. This lapse of toleration was not signalized by a decree nor officially attributed to any specific provocation. The distinctive factor in the situation was the Inquisition, which, running ahead of the king, devoted three or four years (1290-93) to the task of converting the Jews and driving out the recalcitrants. The pattern of rapid mass conversions and expulsions characterizing the Crusades period does not fit the special case of Southern Italy, where the broader economic activities of the Jews as compared with Northern Europe made for healthy relations with the surrounding population. The trend of the. power wielded by the Inquisition is further illustrated by the bloody extinction of the large Muslim colony of Lucera in 1300, a community of considerable value to the royal treasury. The fate of the Jews and Muslims constituted victories scored by the Inquisition, which were achieved by putting pressure on Charles II and without arousing any popular support.

The reader of Dr. Roth’s detailed sections on this region is, moreover, given no word of its steady economic deterioration as a result of the shifting of the centers of Mediterranean commerce and of exploitation by foreign rulers. Although this trend began at least four centuries before the final expulsion of the Jews in 1541, Dr. Roth is ready to attribute the woeful condition of Southern Italy largely to the latter event. This is an unfortunate instance of misreading the context of an event in Jewish history.



Similar thoughts are provoked occasionally by Dr. Roth’s views regarding more recent developments. He tells the interesting story of how the ghettos were galvanized into action by the fleeting taste of liberty brought to Italy by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s troops. The liberal patriotic movement, which culminated in a unified kingdom in 1870, swept the Jews into its ranks and opened a vista of a normal life in a progressive society. Remarking on the rapidity with which the newly enfranchised Jews were transformed into hundred per cent Italians, Dr. Roth says that, with a two-thousand-year record of residence, the Jew “was as much a native as any other component of the Italian people. There was in the vast mass of the people not even the arrière pensée of anti-Jewish feeling.” At this late date, however, the resort to the argument of “nativism” in order to explain liberal treatment of the Jews is open to obvious criticism. It would seem more relevant to place this process in relation to the outlook of Italian nationalism in its hour of triumph. Here was a victory over both the Papacy and the Metternich system. The defeated camps were both characterized in varying degree by an anti-Jewish policy, and no supporter of the nationalist movement could be excluded from the fruits and tasks of the new Italy because of his status in the rejected past. The very pace of the Jews’ assimilation shows their corresponding determination to thrust that past into complete oblivion. Thereafter the maintenance of communal life was to depend largely on the leadership of a few men brought in from less assimilated communities abroad.

Democratic capitalism endured a bare half-century in Italy, and the implications of its passing in 1922 could not be sensed by the Jewish group, so largely identified with the bourgeoisie. This delicate point is dismissed by Dr. Roth with the easy remark that the Jews were neither more nor less culpable in this acceptance of fascism than the population at large. But the point is that fascism was an ordeal for the mass of wage-earners and the peasantry, while for the middle classes and big business, the corporate state was a bulwark against socialism. Jewish participants in the opposition to fascism necessarily remained outside the official Jewish community, which for its part was, of course, compelled to be acquiescent.

This History will rank high among the many regional studies on which to a large extent every effort toward the interpretation of Jewish history must depend. Unfortunately, in view of the diverse development of the various political units embraced in the term Italy, it is impossible to discern any central trend in Italian-Jewish history. This diversity, moreover, magnifies the task of correlating the data bearing on the Jews with the relevant background. While Dr. Roth is cognizant of this aspect of his task, he tends to dispose of it rather hastily. Much as his achievement in producing this comprehensive book will be appreciated, its value for the interpretation of Jewish history is affected by that weakness.



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