With a daughter and five grandchildren who live in Paris (long story, blame National Service for sending her to teach Zionism in Toulouse and doing nothing to protect her from handsome, charming, Orthodox Parisian men) I don’t get to Italy very often.
So it was with some surprise and, I must admit, delight that I accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker at Turin’s 2014 Salone Internazionale del Libro, the largest book fair in Europe outside of Frankfurt.
The invitation was issued by the founder of the fair himself, Italian bookseller Angelo Pezzana, a well-known human rights activist and perhaps Israel’s most devoted friend in Italy. Naturally, I assumed he must be Jewish, because who else would have the incentive and courage to stand up to the growing ugliness of anti-Semitism in Europe, which only this week took a bloody toll in Belgium’s Jewish Museum.
Italy, while not the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, has certainly earned its place on the list. Anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Semitic episodes almost doubled in Italy in 2012. Only this past January a black swastika was found on a memorial plaque in Turin, while in February in Fiuggi, someone spray-painted the statements:“Anne Frank is a liar” and “the Holocaust is a fraud,” along with swastikas. Elections held in February 2013 saw Beppe Grillo’s anti-Israel Five Star Movement party receive 25 percent of the vote, making it the largest party in Italy. Grillo’s facebook page is full of hate-filled rhetoric, including calling Jews “God’s cursed people,” and “Zyklon B for you, peace and justice in Palestine.”
Pezzana is no stranger to the viciousness of Israel’s detractors. In fact, in 1988, following a week of demonstrations, his Luxembourg bookshop was firebombed. Undeterred, Pezzana continued his pro-Israel activism, including his website, informazionecorretta.com, a daily newsletter monitoring the Italian media’s prejudiced reporting about Israel and the Middle East. He is also a prolific author and journalist.
While he no longer owns the bookstore he founded, he arranged for me to speak there to readers of the Italian editions of my books. In a small room covered with photos of Amos Oz, David Grossman and other Israeli writers, he translated my words to the crowd that had gathered, one of them a teacher who had traveled with her students from the other side of Italy.
The fair itself was a revelation. Three times the size of Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, it was packed with thousands of people, and dozens of events. As we walked to the auditorium, I was astounded to see a line that stretched back several blocks. “What are they waiting for?” I asked him.
He smiled. “For our event.”
Heavily publicized in local papers, I had the honor to share the stage with Fiamma Nirenstein, perhaps the most famous and outspoken critic of Italian anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Israelism.
Fiamma, born to a father in the Jewish Brigades and a mother who was an anti-Nazi partisan and journalist, began her youth as an avid supporter of left-wing parties.
Sent by her parents to Kibbutz Neot Mordechai for a vacation just before the outbreak of the ’67 war, the experience, and the vicious way she was attacked by her leftist friends when she returned, eventually led her to rethink her political outlook, a process she recounts in her brilliant essay: “How I became an Unconscious Fascist.”
A well-known journalist, TV and radio personality, as well as a prolific author, she became a member of the Italian parliament in 2008, and did much to investigate anti-Semitism in Italy.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg of her amazing pro-Israel activities.
Joined by Professor Elana Loewenthal, we spent an hour talking to a standing- room-only crowd of Italians about literature, Israel and the unique qualities of the Jewish people that should make them role models, instead of pariahs, in Europe.
Afterwards, we returned to Angelo Pezzana’s Jewish bookstand, decorated proudly with the flags of the Jewish state he loves so much and has done so much to support.
Busy with running the fair, he arranged for me to be driven back to my hotel on Friday afternoon so that I could prepare for Shabbat. I turned to my driver, another active member of the Italian Israel Friendship Association, and said: “I can’t believe I found such warm Jewish supporters of Israeli in a place like Turin!” She turned to me, startled.
“Oh, Angelo isn’t Jewish, he’s a Catholic.
And neither am I.”
I was stunned. Later, at a lovely Shabbat dinner hosted by Prof. Raffaello Levi and his beautiful wife, Silvie, in an apartment building on the same street as that of the late Primo Levi, whom both Raffaello and Angelo knew well, I asked Mr. Pezzana about this.
“I became interested in Jews as a young boy when I read about the Inquisition.
The injustice stunned me. I sent a letter to my bishop telling him to take me off of his rolls. I didn’t want to be a Catholic. I’m still waiting to hear from him,” he chuckled.
In the ’60s, Italy was a Catholic country which forbade divorce and abortion, and made it impossible for homosexuals like himself to live openly.
As a bookseller, involved in the world of new ideas, the freedom of thought and expression, he bridled against this, turning his struggle political with the founding of the Fuori party, and later joining the Radical Party, which wanted to overturn the influence of the Catholic Church. As a journalist in the 1980s, he was stunned by the anti-Israel prejudice of the press. His party was the first to offer Israel a hand of friendship.
Fiamma Nirenstein now lives in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. Angelo Pezzana tells me he is coming to spend July in his little apartment on the capital’s Ben-Yehuda Street. I look forward very much to seeing them both again soon, and to revisiting an Italy where our Italian friends’ brave battle to conquer the forces of evil has finally been victorious.