Recently a journalist friend of mine asked me a question about the number of Jews in Italy. He was editing an article in which the author was claiming that according to “official sources”, there are only 23,000 Jews in Italy. “This seems a little strange, are there that few Jews in Italy?”, asked my editor friend.
In truth the article’s author was not wrong at all – and yet, to some extent, he wasn’t “right” either. The “official source” he was quoting was the UCEI (Unione delle comunità ebraiche italiane), the umbrella organization representing Italian Jews and officially recognized by the Italian government. In 2009 UCEI issued a statement saying that its membership had recently declined “from about 35,000 to about 23,000.” So these are the official numbers. However, despite the fact that UCEI is by far Italy’s largest, most representative and most prestigious Jewish institution, the truth is that not all Jews are officially enrolled in it. Some people I know stopped being part of UCEI simply in order to avoid paying the dues – which is morally questionable behavior, but must be taken into account. Others are part of the Lubavitch community, or of a Reform congregation, both of which are not part of UCEI. So my “educated guess” is that there are at least a couple of thousands Jews – meaning people halachically Jewish, born from a Jewish mother – living in Italy who are not accounted for in UCEI’s official count.
Moreover if we broaden the definition of “Jewish” to that of the State of Israel’s Law of Return – i.e. someone with at least a Jewish grandparent, this number would be much higher. Given the extremely high rate of intermarriage I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that there are more “half-Jews” than Jews in Italy: most of them are eligible for aliyah and many live some sort of a Jewish life, celebrating at least Passover or Hanukkah. “In short, I responded to my editor friend, it’s hard to say exactly how many Jews are living in Italy.”
*Anna Momigliano is an Italian journalist currently based in Milan.