VENICE AND THE GHETTO – GNIGNATI “A Place of Life and Solidarity, Even in Front of Oppression”

gnignatiBy Paolo Gnignati*

We are here today, in this theatre that is a symbol of Venice, just a few meters from San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, the center of power of the Republic, 500 years to a day from the establishment by the Venetian Republic of the Ghetto of Venice as a place of mandated residence for the Jews on 29 March 1516.

We are well aware that the date marks an anniversary that is not a joyous one, either from a Jewish or civil point of view, yet it can not be let go unnoticed because it offers an extraordinary opportunity to look both back to the past and forward to the future.

It is obvious that we are not happy to remember the condition of separation and discrimination in which the Jews as a minority were forced to suffer in the Ghetto, and even less do we intend to celebrate the fact that from the 16th century onward in Italy the word ghetto was used first by Popes and gradually by others, to identify the place where the Jews were segregated.

The word has come to indicate not only the Venetian gated precinct where it had been coined, but gradually took on the universal meaning of place segregation and discrimination that it has today, an image synonymous with exclusion and minority.

As Venetian Jews we are certainly not proud that the world is indebted to us for this word.
On the contrary, by marking this anniversary we intend first of all to emphasize the capacity and steadfastness of a group that, in spite of adverse conditions and against all reasonable expectations, succeeded in making the Ghetto a place where Jewish Tradition could grow and become a cultural crossroads where Jews of different backgrounds and geographical origin built splendid synagogues, had the earliest printed edition of the Talmud published and, even more importantly, learned to indomitably maintain their own strong and independent identity over the centuries, fostering cultural exchanges and influencing the surrounding society.

A dialogue marked by ups and downs, considering that in San Marco in the same years the Talmud was repeatedly burned in public, yet the exchanges never stopped despite difficulties and threats.

The splendid monumental heritage of the 5 synagogues, of which the Community is the custodian, is the most obvious immediate evidence of how the Jewish and Venetian tradition have interacted to create a truly unique result that has no equal.

But what is perhaps even more important is that the Ghetto, characterized by a strong cosmopolitanism, was a center in which for centuries Jews regulated their relations, both religious and civic, in the name of Halacha, a center irradiating to the whole of Europe the Jewish Tradition founded on values such as the supreme respect of life, self-limitation, solidarity towards the weakest, which from different Jewish and non-Jewish sources, have gradually evolved to become that horizon that today we can say is the basis of our life in society and our identity as Italians and Europeans.

In a Europe in which everyone, be it Italians or Germans, the British or the French, constitute a minority, the Jews, who have always been used to being one, feel right at home in spite of a worrying and persistent trend of anti-Semitism of different sorts.

For Venetian Jews, the presence in this room, in addition to the Community, of the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the President of the World Jewish Congress, on the one hand, and the Mayor of Venice, the leading members of the Veneto Region, and representatives of the Republic and the Council of Europe is the expression of the plurality of affiliations in which we all recognize ourselves, and which complements our identity and give the scope of the complexity and richness of the stimuli that we accept as our own.

The ability to strike a balance between the different backgrounds and thus know how to manage a society that must necessarily be able to be welcoming, free and at the same time capable of being true to the principles that have painstakingly emerged over the centuries, often at the cost of so many Jewish lives, but which have been trampled upon and crushed even in a relatively recent past, is the challenge that, though fully aware of our limited strength and size, we also intend to embrace as citizens.

Just because we can not forget the tragic discrimination suffered even after the gates of the Ghetto were taken down in 1900, which cost millions of lives, and the deportation of 246 members of the Jewish community of Venice, including Chief Rabbi Adolfo Ottolenghi, and the then President of the Community Giuseppe Jona, we feel particularly committed not only to keeping our Tradition alive, but also to focusing on the problem of the minorities that are now approaching our society and need to be integrated into it.

In this perspective, the image of the Ghetto, always cosmopolitan and liberated, is reversed and becomes an icon of the possibility of redemption, freedom, and overcoming the limit, and therefore a symbol of universal and very topical themes.

For this reason, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Ghetto does not mean highlighting a culmination from which one can only look backward, it means building a bridge to a future in which the Ghetto of Venice will continue to be a center of Jewish life and identity and a place of dialogue, diversity and richness of production and cultural exchange.

This is the goal of the many different initiatives promoted by the “500 years of the Ghetto of Venice” Committee that will take place throughout the year. In addition to an Exhibition on the Jews, Venice, and Europe, the museum will undergo major refurbishment over the coming months, an important stepping stone toward the qualification of the cultural offer that the Community will be able to contribute as an active part of the City.

Allow me finally to thank, in addition to the Authorities and guests who with their presence have honoured and given importance to this evening, all of those who have inspired and supported the “500 years of the Ghetto of Venice” Committee, the people and associations who are brilliantly carrying on the various initiatives related to the 500-year anniversary and, last but certainly not least, the Teatro la Fenice, which immediately expressed its readiness to host this evening’s event.

*Paolo Gnignati is the President of the Jewish Community of Venice.