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Apologies for the Racial Laws of 1938 Are Not Enough; What We Need Is Action

To remedy their shameful complicity with Fascism of 80 years ago, Italian universities should create programs for the study of Italian Judaism.

La prima pagina del Corriere della Sera dell'11 novembre, 1938 First Page of Corriere della Sera, November 11, 1938

Italian society accepted with deafening silence the promulgation of the racial laws. It did not seem that this legislation that suddenly deprived Italian citizens of their most fundamental rights was a problem or an injustice even for Italian bishops and intellectuals.   

We are in the full midst of commemorations marking the eightieth, sad, anniversary of the promulgation of the racial laws, a series of legislative measures which effectively made Italians Jews second-class citizens. Preceded by the publication of the delirious Manifesto of Race in the summer of 1938, the most important laws were enacted beginning in September 1938. A myriad of other acts, bills, decrees, and explanatory circulars on the subject continued to be issued until 1943, and even afterwards in the Italian Social Republic. Among other things, Italian Jews were prohibited from attending schools and public universities, whether as students or as teachers; textbooks by Jewish authors had to be substituted, any mention of Jews and of Judaism in any textbook had to be erased. Furthermore, Jews were excluded from being journalists, notaries, and from practicing almost any other intellectual profession; they could not serve in the military, neither as soldiers nor as officers, they could not own land and buildings above a certain value, and they could not own businesses. Jews were moreover prohibited from marrying Catholics and could not employ ‘Aryans’.    

The Italian racial laws were as drastic and devastating as the German ones, contrary to what is commonly believed in Italy. Even the enforcement of the laws, with just a few exceptions, was carried out with rigor and without any flexibility, also because the theoretical premises of Italian anti-Semitic racism were the same pseudo-biological and pseudo-scientific ones of Nazi anti-Semitism. Italian society accepted the promulgation of the racial laws with deafening silence. The Catholic Church expressed reservation regarding the legislation dealing with marriage, which seemed to subtract the matter from the absolute authority regarding it that the Concordat had granted to the ecclesiastic authorities, but otherwise it did not seem that this legislation that suddenly deprived Italian citizens of their most fundamental rights was perceived as a problem or an injustice for Italian bishops and cardinals. A timid diplomatic complaint that was immediately silenced was the only reaction by the Holy See in opposing these laws. In the universities not one voice raised to denounce the fraud of the ‘biological’ foundation of Italian racism. The 10 signers of the Manifesto of Race kept their academic positions even after the fall of Fascism, while about 300 faculty members among professors, senior lecturers and independent lecturers were fired on the spot and right away replaced with ‘Aryan’ colleagues.

After Liberation Day, only 28 of the 96 Jewish full professors could return to work, and of those, many were reintegrated into the ranks of the universities they came from, but they could not return to their teaching positions that in the meantime had been given to others.

The University of Pisa (king Victor Emmanuel III signed the first anti-Semitic laws on his estate of San Rossore, near Pisa,) and its president recently sponsored a ceremony of public apologies on the part of academia for the firing and injustices inflicted by Italian universities upon their Jewish students, professors, and employees. The initiative has been certainly inspired by noble motives and by the sincere desire to remedy an enormous and criminal injustice, but it seems to me once again to be an Italian expedient to put its conscious at ease with minimal effort and even less consequences. Jewish ethics teaches, in fact, that the apologies and requests for pardon can only come from the guilty part and can only be offered to their victims, who are the only ones to have the right to decide if they will grant pardon or not. As 80 years have now passed, there are practically none of the perpetrators nor of the victims left, and the excuses sound therefore a bit empty. What the universities could do would be to institute professorships and departments solely dedicated to the study of Italian Judaism, a subject which is almost completely absent from Italian classrooms. The serious and in-depth studying of all aspects of the most ancient amongst the minority groups present on the peninsula would serve to have our youth reflect on the fact that minorities of any kind always represent an asset, an enrichment, and not an impoverishment, for the country. This, more than ‘ceremonies of apologies’, would be the more serious way to honor the memory of the Italian Jewish scholars and scientists that were amongst the first, and more numerous, victims of those infamous laws. 

Translated by Emmelina De Feo

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