It is a great honor for me, personally, to be here in Venice today as the representative of the Jewish communities around the world. I want to thank the Italian government, the city of Venice, and the Jewish community for your gracious welcome and for marking this very important event.
Most of all, I want to thank you for remembering.
It is not an easy thing to recall events from our past, events that we have done that were wrong.
They embarrass us. That is natural for all human beings. But to recall an error in a very public way, I believe, shows great courage and strength. And that is something that Jews have always seen and admired in the Italian people, your courage, and your strength. For that, we thank you.
But as we gather here tonight, we must be honest as well, the 500th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish ghetto is a complicated affair. On the one hand, the creation of this ghetto was a terrible act, it was the first decree to physically separate an entire community based only on their religion. At its height, 5,000 people were confined to a very small, congested space – the size of about 2-and-a-half city blocks. The gates were closed at night and guarded. The people were locked in.
This was, in many ways, like a prison. An entire people, who committed no crime, were placed in prison. And yet, there is also an important story of resilience here in Venice. In spite of this hurtful decree, the Jewish community still flourished within the walls and the locked gates of this ghetto.
Five of the most beautiful synagogues in all of Europe were built here almost immediately, many of Europe’s most important books were published in the ghetto, and commerce flourished.
I have always found it fascinating that when Jews are singled out and placed in intolerable situations, what are the first things they do? They build synagogues. They study. They write books. They compose music and plays, and create art. They create, they create, they create.
There is something else that must be pointed out: the Jews in the Ghetto came from all over Italy, they came from Spain, and other parts of Europe. Their only common language was Hebrew. But they all lived together in peace and helped each other. That is a story that should be remembered, especially today.
Think about this for a moment. They confined to live in a small space. Life must have been very difficult. I don’t think any of us standing here can really understand what that was like. I certainly can’t. Imagine not being able to travel freely. Jewish children were not able to roam like other children. But the amazing thing is that the people who lived here could still write about the places they could not see.
They used their imaginations. Artists and musicians created lively works, again, mostly from what was inside their heads. I find this astounding. In spite of the hardships, by the time a Jewish boy was 13, he already had a significant education in Torah and Talmud when a great percentage of the world’s population were illiterate. Doctors confined in this tiny space, found ways to heal the sick. Then, as now, the prime motivation of Jews was education and charity, not on bitterness.
Because of who they were, Jews thrived in the Venice ghetto, in spite of the effort to isolate them. And even though this was done to separate the two faiths, Jews and Christians continued to work together: Because Jews were not allowed to publish books within the ghetto, they worked with Christian printers on the outside. Jewish physicians, musicians and artists found ways to collaborate with the world outside. Jews and Christians developed commercial and architectural projects together. Life continued in spite of the Ghetto.
It is very important to remember all of this because of what is happening on this continent today. 500 years after the ghetto, and well into the 21st century, we see a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe once again. A Jewish boy wearing a yarmulke cannot walk safely down the streets of London, or Paris, or Berlin. Jews have been murdered only because they are Jews. Some have even suggested that Jews should leave Europe altogether. But here is the important point:
If every Jew left Europe tomorrow, this might be sad for Jews, but it would be a tragedy for Europe. That’s because for over 1,000 years, Jews have added to every positive aspect of European culture, Jews were a vital part of Europe’s arts and literature, Jews created commerce and jobs, Jews cured diseases and made life better for all people – Jews, Christians, Muslims everyone. And for all this, they were often rewarded with prejudice, and exclusion, they were vilified, isolated, and in too many cases, they were killed.
Jews have always been tiny in numbers. There are only 15 million Jews today in a world of over 1-billion Christians and more than a Billion Muslims. But the Jewish impact on all things positive is huge. You see this in Israel today.
Israel is a tiny country, just 6 million Jews, with no great natural resources. Yet in spite of all of all of its challenges, Israel today produces almost as much technology as the United States or China. Think about that for a minute. Six Million Jews producing nearly as much cutting edge technology as the United States with more than 300 million people, and China with well over one billion! The entire world benefits from Israel’s advances in water use, agriculture, science and medicine.
Yet Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, the only country where women, gay people and all religions live together, Israel is, perhaps, the most vilified country on earth, in the U.N., in the media, and in Universities. This is not just illogical, it is insane and it is hypocritical, especially in universities.
In a place where the free flow of ideas is essential to learning, there are academic boycotts against scholars who happen to be from Israel. Some may call this anti-Israel, I call it anti-Semitism. But just like the attempts to wall Jews in ghettos 500 years ago, to segregate them from the rest of population failed, Jews then, and now, have shown enormous resilience. Jews never give up for 5,000 years, we haven’t disappeared and that’s a very good thing not just for us but for the entire world.
We must be honest. Yes, there was anti-Semitism here in Italy, but it was never as brutal as in other European countries. Jews were isolated by severe decrees, but they were never exiled and murdered by the thousands as they were in other lands.
Today, in Italy – where there was once anti-Semitism- the Italian government, the heads of parties and the institutions all actively fight anti-Semitism. And we appreciate this so much. Italy has been very helpful and more engaged with the World Jewish Congress and with the State of Israel. Since I assumed the presidency of the World Jewish Congress in 2007, our relationship with the Italian government and the Vatican has only grown stronger and more positive. The ministers and political leaders here today prove that and I thank you for your attendance.
I have been very encouraged in every meeting I have had with Pope Francis. Just last year, Pope Francis took the world lead in his bold defense of the Jewish State when he told us in a private meeting: “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.” The Pope went on to tell us: “There may be political disagreements between governments on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.” I completely agree with the Pope.
In my mind, Pope Francis demonstrated the definition of moral courage, especially when too many people are silent about the attacks on Jews throughout Europe and the Middle East. Standing here, we feel the echoes of the past. There were once 5,000 Jews who lived the Ghetto. Today there are only 500 in all of Venice. But you can still feel the presence of the past. When you stand in the Ghetto, you feel all the souls that came through that small place. You appreciate the difficulties of their lives and you admire their courage and their contributions. That hasn’t changed.
Today there are only 28,000 Jews in all of Italy, but their contribution is enormous. People like Primo Levi, Elio Toaff, Rita Levi Montalcini, Giorgio Bassani and many, many more have helped make Italy the great country that it is. Jews and Italians are intertwined. We saw this in the Ghetto 500 years ago, just as we see it today.
On behalf of the World Jewish Congress, I want to thank you, the Italian people for commemorating this part of your past with honesty, dignity and integrity.
I thank you, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, and the Italian government for remembering, remembering the 500th year anniversary of the ghetto. As I have stated, I see this is an act of courage. It takes a very great people, a very honest people, to look squarely at the past as you have today.
We, the Jewish people, appreciate and greatly respect that honesty. Today, I believe Italy has shown the entire world that when you face the past with complete honesty, you actually create a much better future for your children, for your country, and for all people. We admire you. We respect you. And we look forward to a close positive and successful future together.
*Ronald Lauder is the president of the World Jewish Congress.