It is a pleasure and an honor for me to represent the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in this prestigious venue, generously offered to us by the Teatro La Fenice for an event which saw the collaboration of the Jewish Community and the Municipality of Venice which I sincerely thank in the persons of their president and the mayor: Paolo Gnignati and Luigi Brugnaro.
I also wish to thank all those who have contributed and supported this event, which has gradually grown in importance and has now achieved national and international scope and size with the presence of the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini and the president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder.
As I have already had the opportunity to say on other occasions, I immediately want to clear up any possible misconceptions and strongly reaffirm that the Jews have no nostalgia for the ghetto, the establishment of which must be remembered and studied, but not celebrated or paid tribute to.
The establishment of the ghetto of Venice and all the others that were created since then remains inextricably linked to periods of systematic harassment and segregation, the negation of the most fundamental rights and an age-old contempt taught and practiced against the civil, peaceful and defenseless Jewish communities.
It is essential that the oppressive and persecutory aspects of the ghetto should never be dismissed or underestimated, because they are the groundwork on which to base any further reflection and study in an objective and historically correct perspective.
This is the theme of the cultural project that will be developed over the next nine months and which has been prepared by the organizing committee.
The ghetto is an old theme, but one that unfortunately is still relevant today; it is not so much or only a physical space, a neighborhood with its streets, its squares and its boundaries, but conceptually it is the archetype of all forms of marginalization, exclusion, isolation, indifference, extreme and total rejection of any outgroup, of anyone perceived as different or allegedly so, often because of established prejudices.
A harsh form of isolation and marginalization in a ghetto without walls was also the one suffered by the Jews with the enactment of racist laws passed by the Fascist regime in 1938 with the unanimous consent of Parliament, which was soon after renamed Chamber of Fasci and Corporations.
It was a tragic example of a less visible, yet more painful ghetto whose confines were fixed by a discriminatory legal framework based on false and spurious racist theories.
To complete the analysis of all the negative aspects of the ghetto I find it necessary to remember some historical dates chronologically closer to us.
If in Venice the ghetto created in 1516 was abolished by Napoleon in 1797, in Rome the demolition of the ghetto gates was brought about by the unification of Italy in 1870.
So, those very same people who were born in the ghetto of Rome had the extreme misfortune of having to witness, in the nineteen forties, the construction of new ghettos that were conceived by the Nazis as a true open-air prisons, used both as places of extermination by starvation and disease, and as the anteroom to deportation to concentration camps scientifically designed for the Shoah, the physical annihilation of the entire Jewish people.
If we look back on those same years, forever etched in our memory is the heroic resistance of the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto, who deliberately chose to die fighting with their bare hands against the armored troops of the Nazi army in order to avoid or delay, even if only by a few days or a few hours, deportation and death in the gas chambers.
Of course this is another story, which has nothing in common with that of the Venetian ghetto.
Yet there may be a spiritual bond uniting the two different types of ghetto.
In fact, the first noteworthy element is the resilience of the Venetian Jews, a term different from resistance, one that describes the extraordinary ability to adapt to the difficult environment in which they were confined and their ingenuity in overcoming the obstacles and different challenges they faced.
They developed a proud resourcefulness that enabled them to write unforgettable and fundamental pages of European culture.
I want to emphasize the word “pride” because the Venetian Jews, despite having very often suffered abuses of power, have successfully withstood extreme hardship and have come through without ever being humiliated or defeated.
The historian Simon Schama, our special guest tonight, argues that without a careful study of what happened in Venice it is impossible to understand the next five centuries and the Jewish Renaissance.
The history, the vitality, the fortitude of the Venetian Jews are an incredible example of love of learning, art, culture and freedom still fuelled with passion and determination.
For all these reasons, although today this is not a celebration, we can speak of a value that is the exact opposite of the ghetto, that of Freedom.
A freedom enjoyed today in Italy, which has been hard-won and for which so much blood has been shed by all those who had the strength and courage to fight against the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships.
Those dictatorships have dragged Europe and the world into an abyss of violence, racism and crimes against humanity.
In Italy a new era began in 1948 with the entry into force of the Republican Constitution which provides for freedom and equality for all citizens and strongly protects the rights of all minorities.
The strengthening of these values and their transmission to the younger generations is the main objective of the event we are inaugurating today.
We Jews, as always in the past, want to contribute positively to the life and progress of the Italian society, of which we have been a founding element and of which, since time immemorial, we have been an integral part.
In this sense we are aware we can offer the example of a cultural and religious minority living in our country for over two millennia, one that has always embraced the commitment to uphold the laws of our country, reconciling our own ethical rules to the legal framework provided for by the State.
We believe we are one of the few examples of a successful integration of a minority that could be taken as a model in this period of strong waves of immigration.
We all often repeat the principle that diversity should be respected because it is a source of progress and because it represents a unique asset.
Our challenge is to ensure these statements do not remain mere empty words and unfulfilled declarations of principle, and to this end we will all work together to break down all sorts of unfair barrier and achieve the right balance between rights and duties, between security and freedom.
That is why we feel reassured and honoured to be spending this evening together with so many representatives of the Italian and international institutions and numerous members of civil society.
*Renzo Gattegna is the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.