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Jewish-Vatican Relations: Today and Yesterday

27MAr6:00 pm8:00 pmJewish-Vatican Relations: Today and Yesterday6:00 pm - 8:00 pm(GMT+00:00)

Event Details

Interview with Rabbi Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni

CPL: The Jewish Community of Rome endured, negotiated and overcame centuries of direct contact with the Catholic Church. How  has this experience affected their perspective on Jewish-Christian dialogue?

RDS: Before the arrival of the first Christian missionaries – who, by the way, were also Jewish –  Jews had already lived in Rome for two centuries. They’ve remained in the city ever since. This is  a unique occurrence in the history of the Jewish Diaspora, especially vis-à-vis  their relationship with the Christian world. Because of its position on the frontlines – as it were, and considering those two thousand years of close proximity, Roman Jewry can be seen as a laboratory for everything that is problematic as well as all that is positive in Catholic-Jewish relations.

CPL: Two Popes have now visited the Temple (Great Synagogue) of Rome. How do the two visits differ?

RDS: The first was a momentous historical event. The second, in principle, the second reaffirmed the choice and direction of the first. But there were conspicuous differences both in atmosphere and theological position  – on both sides. There was less warmth in the second visit but we also dispensed with such theological ambiguities as the notion of “elder brothers”.

CPL: The visit of Benedict XVI to the Roman synagogue was preceded by those to Auschwitz,  synagogues in Cologne and Yad Vashem and the Park East Synagogue in New York. At the same time the Pope reintroduced a controversial prayer of the Tridentine liturgy, expressed an ambiguous judgement on the Holocaust denier Richard Williamson and is now seeking to obtain a  Jewish blessing for the beatification of Pius XII without offering access to historical records.  How does the Chief Rabbi of Rome interpret these seemingly contrasting messages?

RDS: I should begin by saying that the visit to Auschwitz and the Pope’s speech on that occasion cannot be considered as a truly positive and friendly step forward. For example, he defined the Nazis as  “a ring of criminals [who] rose to power […] with the result that [the German] people were used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power”. As for the inconsistencies and complex questions that arise from such contradictory gestures, one could say that they highlight the many difficulties in this ongoing dialogue and its many unresolved issues.

CPL: The Archives of Pius XII remain sealed to historians. Yet fragments of a puzzle begin to emerge from secondary sources. We know that the Allies intercepted the order of deportation of the Jews of Rome about three weeks before October 16th and that the rector of the German Church in Rome, Alois Hudal, expressed his concerns to Berlin that any action against the Jews of Rome could have caused a reaction by Pius XII. Susan Zuccotti has documented that most of the help offered by convents around Rome in the wake of the round-up of October 16th was never approved by the Pope. New research also indicates that both the work of Père Marie Benoit to help the Jews in the South of France and the Delasem operation to transfer Jewish children from Italy to Palestine were officially discouraged by the Vatican. What does the Jewish Community of Rome expect from the Vatican on these issues?

RDS: We want historical truth, not propaganda, unsubstantiated evidence, over-simplification and excuses. Nor do we want rushed beatifications.

CPL: On the morning of Sukkot of October 16th, 1943, 1,300 Roman Jews – including women, children and the elderly – were rounded up by the SS under Herbert Kappler. In the following months that number almost doubled, thanks to the collaboration of Italian informers. How many Jews were living in Rome in October 1943? How many found refuge in Vatican City, and how many in convents?

RDS: There were probably ten to twelve thousand Jews in Rome at that time. Many had already left the city  but many had also come there, in the mistaken belief they would find greater protection. Between three and four thousand Jews found hospitality in Catholic institutions but it’s difficult to make an exact assessment since many were constantly moving from one place to another.

CPL: The then Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zoller, took refuge in the Vatican and after the war converted to Catholicism, taking the name of Eugenio Zolli. What role did conversion play in Italy between the Racial Laws and the end of the War?

RDS: First of all, at the time of the round-up Zoller had already taken the name of Italo Zolli. Eugenio Maria, in honor of Pacelli was merely the final variant. He did not, incidentally, escape to Vatican City but was, in fact, hidden in the home of anti-fascists.

With the promulgation of the Racial Laws in 1938 there was a wave of conversions that has not yet been studied in detail. Probably six or seven thousand Italian Jews converted. Converts with backdated baptisms were able to escape the harshness of the anti-Jewish measures. A large proportion of these conversions were those among mixed couples whose children had been previously raised Jewish. In addition many people who had taken refuge in convents converted. This often happened because of isolation, because of pressure and in some cases out of gratitude. After the war the phenomenon was rather limited. The conversion of Zolli was a shock and caused a spur of reaffirmation of identity. But some conversions, though more sporadic, did continue after the war under consistent pressure from the Church.

CPL: Historians have noted that in 1943 Italian Jewish leaders failed to gauge the imminent danger and protect the community accordingly.

RDS: It’s easy to judge in hindsight. But prior to the Racial Laws these leaders had been civil servants; they worked in government and so – to a certain extent – they still trusted it. While it’s true that they didn’t raise the alarm as they should have, it’s important to consider that people at that time were generally reluctant to respond to alarms. The failure to understand and manage the crisis was pervasive. One of the few who did grasp the magnitude of the danger was Zolli; but no one listened to him and so he chose to save himself and abandon his community. After the liberation he was punished for that. Still, it’s not impossible that guilt also played a part in how Zolli was judged. Certainly he saw what was coming. 

CPL: There is also an open issue concerning Jewish children who were baptized while hiding in Catholic institutions.

RDS: There has been no progress on this matter. These children were baptized and the Vatican has elected not to disclose their identities.

CPL: In 1943, the Badoglio government called for the abrogation of the Racial Laws. Referring to the process in a letter to Cardinal Maglione, Father Tacchi Venturi, historical liaison of the Vatican to the Italian government, stated that “this law certainly has some clauses that should be abolished, but clearly contains others that according [the] principles [of the Catholic Church], have merit and should be confirmed”. What transpired from this statement and what changed after Vatican II?

RDS: This is a little known event, which was suppressed by the post-war mythology of the “good people”. The Church denies having ever supported anti-semitic views; but in reality it supported – or at the very least did not oppose – the Racial Laws issued in various countries, a position completely consistent with centuries of Catholic policy. The only element of the Laws that the Church did object to was the clause on mixed marriages which was regarded as a damage to the Church. With the Second Vatican Council a new era dawned in which Jews are no longer despised.

CPL: Nostra Aetate remains ambiguous on the doctrine of the substitution of the Covenant and thus on the claim of the absolute universality of the Catholic Church. It withdraws the accusation of deicide but inscribes Judaism in the Christian epic. Starting with Jules Isaac after the war and most recently with Rav Jonathan Sacks, many Jewish intellectuals seem to accept this vision of a Judeo-Christian continuity. Where do you stand on this?

RDS: I am not sure that we can attribute to Jules Isaac and Rav Sacks an acceptance of this vision. In Nostra Aetate the Church defines itself as the “New Israel” instead of the “True Israel”. If one thing is “true,” then the other must be “false”; if one is “new” then the  other must be “old” and it remains to be seen whether this matter has ever really been resolved. This issue remains and the prevailing tendency – one  supported by Pope Benedict  – is that of supersessionism. On the other hand, there is uncertainty too among Jews on how to define Christianity and include it in the interpretation of the divine design for humanity. Clearly it is by no means certain that Christians like or appreciate what Jewish teachers wrote or will write on Christianity. In fact it is likely that they will find it as unacceptable as we find their notion of supersessionism.

This issue is problematic on two levels. One is strictly theological, and here there is a chance of at least smoothing out the rough edges – on both sides. But that’s a job for theologians, and one that requires time, competence and good will. Each party must work it out independently –  it is not a political negotiation. The second concerns the actual relationship and this requires the most urgent attention lest theological coolness turn to hostility. The Good Friday prayer should not become the manifesto of a new campaign to convert the Jews; and the peace with the Lefevrians should not reinstate the accusation of deicide. Difficulties in the Jewish understanding of the Christian religion should not lead to hostility toward the Church in the State of Israel.


Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni has been the Chief Rabbi of Rome since 2001. Rabbi Di Segni is a practicing physician and the Head of the Department of Radiology at the San Giovanni Hospital in Rome. He is vice president of the Orthodox Conference of European Rabbis and of the Italian National Council for Bioethics. He is has published many articles and books focusing on aspects and issue of contemporary and historical Judaism. Rabbi Di Segni is considered an authority on Jewish-Christian relations, interfaith matters and Jewish culture. He has lectured extensively in Italy and abroad.

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