During his inaugural speech before a joint session of the Italian parliament last Tuesday, the newly appointed Italian president Sergio Mattarella remembered two-year-old Jewish boy Stefano Gaj Tachè, who was killed in a terrorist attack in front of The Great Synagogue in Rome in 1982.
“He was our child, an Italian child,” Mattarella said, addressing the menace of international terrorism, which, he underlined, must be fought “with firmness, intelligence and wisdom.” “This battle cannot set aside security. The state must guarantee its citizens the right to a life without fear,” he added.
Mattarella’s words deeply touched Italian Jews.
The attack he referred to occurred on October 9, 1982, when the synagogue was packed for the festival of Shemini Atzeret. Five Palestinian terrorists opened fire and threw hand grenades at the crowd, killing the boy and injuring 37 people, many of them seriously.
At first glance, the Italian president’s remark could have sounded obvious.
Why would there be the need to highlight that Italian Jews are Italian, citizens as every Italian citizen is, no matter what, if any, religion they profess? And yet, the events seem to have proven that, in too many cases, this undeniable truth is not necessarily shared by public opinions in many countries.
Amid the feelings of shock, fear and anger that stemmed from the attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, many Jews all over Europe asked themselves why the deep level of empathy and solidarity displayed toward the magazine’s staff was not also offered by the public when the Jewish school in Toulouse was targeted two years before, in an attack in which four people were killed, three of whom were children.
Even after the bloody aggression against the kosher supermarket two days later, the question remains open: would the same three million people have joined the march of solidarity on streets all over France if terrorists had only assaulted Jewish targets? One could argue that the reason for the too frequent lack or lower level of empathy must be found in explicit or latent anti-Semitism. Although this is probably true in many cases, often there is also an issue of narrative and lack of knowledge.
When the headlines announce that Jews have been targeted, the average Italian, French, or British citizen may believe, even in good faith or without realizing it, that that is something which does not affect him, that could never happen to him or his children, because they are not Jewish.
By thinking this, he forgets or does not understand that Jews are his fellow citizens, and that a threat to them is a threat to the whole society in the same way a threat to journalists is a threat to the whole society.
Denouncing the murder of a people because of their religion is obviously extremely important. However, the risk of reading the word “Jews” instead of “people” has proven to be tangible.
Therefore, the necessity of reasserting the fact that Jews are part of the country and are fellow citizens the same as everyone else seems to be more compelling than ever, and not only for the sake of the Jewish communities but also the societies they are part of.
In this sense, President Mattarella’s words, delivered on such a crucial occasion, and listened to by millions of people, sent a very strong message.
The attack against the Great Synagogue in Rome still represents an open wound in the life of the Italian Jewish community and for the country.
Four out of five of the killers were never identified, while the fifth managed to reach Libya and was never extradited or punished.
Even more troubling, in 2008, according to an article in Ynet by Menahem Gantz, former Italian president Francesco Cossiga revealed that in those years, Italian authorities had struck a deal with Palestinian terrorist groups, so that they could use Italy as a logistical base as long as they agreed not to attack Italian targets. He furthered revealed that this deal did not include organizations or people that were connected to or supported Zionism or the State of Israel, and therefore did not protect Italian Jews.
Up until today, Stefano Gaj Taché’s name has not been included in the list of Italian terror victims that are commemorated every year during the Memorial Day established in 2007.
President Mattarella has started his tenure showing awareness and sensitivity.
His first act after his appointment last Saturday was a visit to the Memorial of Ardeatine Caves, a site in the Rome area where the Nazis in 1944 executed 335 people, including 75 Jews.
“The alliance between nations and people succeeded in defeating the Nazis, racists, anti-Semitic and totalitarian hatred which this site painfully symbolizes. The very same unity in Europe and in the world will enable us to defeat those who want to drag us into a new season of terror,” he said on the occasion.
On Tuesday, after his inaugural speech, Mattarella also met with the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna.
“Today, the wound [of the Rome terror attacks] cannot be healed, but Mattarella’s words echo the will to not leave Italian Jews alone,” noted a column on the main Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
The message Mattarella sent should be heard and made relevant not only for Italian Jews, but for Jews all over Europe, and the world, especially in these difficult times.
But, ultimately, as the Italian president noted, it is not only about Jews, it is about the future of all societies and people who believe in democracy and freedom.
In order to have better tools against fanaticism, everyone should be prepared to cry out not only “Je suis Charlie” but also “Je suis Juif.”
The author is an Italian journalist. She is currently attending the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.@RossTercatin