It was a calm October morning as the congregants of the Great Synagogue of Rome, clustered by families and groups of friends, walked through the grounds toward the exit. In a space of seconds, at 11:55, a two-year old child was dead, his brother, age four, gravely wounded, one of 37 children and adults injured. Hand grenades and machine guns handled by five Palestinian terrorists had taken their toll.
October 9, 1982. Both Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret, the Day of Solemn Assembly – in Israel also celebrated as Simhat Torah, the Rejoicing of the Law.
The next morning, on behalf of the executive of the Jewish Agency, I flew out to Rome, to visit the wounded, to express solidarity with the oldest Jewish community in Europe, dating back to Maccabean times a few hundred years before the Common Era.
That afternoon the beautifully detailed Tempio Maggiore di Roma was packed. The heads of the community spoke, I brought a message of Jewish solidarity from Israel and its people. It was the dynamic and powerful speech by the chief rabbi, Elio (Eliyahu) Toaff, which resonated throughout the hall.
Earlier, he had rejected the presence of representatives of the government, of the president, and of the pope at this pained gathering. He accused the press of igniting anti-Semitism, and this in a land noted for a long history of openness and ease between Christians and Jews.
Even under the Fascist aping of Nazi anti-Jewish acts – when Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini allied themselves into their Axis – and even in the turmoil of war and betrayal, Italians hid and helped Jews. Eighty percent of the Italian Jewish community survived the Second World War.
Now the evil winds were again blowing. Israel’s arch-enemy, the scruffy and wily head of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, had visited Italy triumphantly just a month before. The Italian president (Sandro Pertini, but who remembers him?) had not only received Arafat but had made a speech in full support of the PLO.
The unforgettable Pope John Paul II had given Arafat a private audience. Israel, engaged in a war against the PLO in Lebanon, was under constant and ugly attack in the Italian media, and possibly with encouragement of Libyan oil money, these attacks often coasted into anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Toaff was fearless. No American Jew would reject the presence of the US president or his representative at an American Jewish rally. Nor would a Jewish leader in the Diaspora turn down the visit of a personal representative of a reigning pope.
In Italy, though, the Jews do not see themselves “just” as Jews. They are Italian, and as some say, more so than the descendants of the barbarian hordes who were brought as captured slaves, or who invaded Rome centuries after Jerusalemites were already resident Romans.
Rabbi Toaff was not only an Italian but a former partisan, fighting the Nazi-Fascists in the hills where he had been helped to flee by both Italian Catholic priests and laymen.
Therefore: “No! You cannot come.”
Eliyahu Toaff, rabbi, doctor of jurisprudence, professor, head of the Rabbinical College of Rome, an uncompromising leader of his people, and a figure of great moral importance for Italy, died less than two weeks ago, just short of his 100th birthday. He was one of only two people mentioned in Pope John Paul’s will.
The two had broken new ground in Catholic-Jewish relations. The first visit of a pope to a synagogue took place in Rome in 1986.
Back to 1982. I was met at the airport in Rome by a friendly medical doctor from the Keren Hayesod Young Leadership. He was wearing a large revolver in an open holster. I was afraid that if he had to draw it, it might shoot him in the leg. He asked what I wanted to do first. We drove straight to the hospital across the Tiber from the Tempio Maggiore.
The synagogue is a tall, pillared building, a powerful statement that “we are here, we are part of ‘here’ and we are different.” In the city of round towering church domes, the green square-shaped dome topping the building constructed over a 110 years ago, makes that statement clear. It is on one of the Lungotevere streets (alongside the Tiber). Across a bridge on the Isola Tiberina (Island of the Tiber) is the hospital where the 37 wounded were being looked after.
We entered the hospital, one of many across the world established by the Catholic Order of Fatebenefratelli, (literally the Order of Brothers Who do Good), adorned with crucifixes. Silent nuns scurried swiftly through the rooms and corridors. I went from bed to bed of our wounded, and in a mixture of languages wished them a full and speedy recovery. Suddenly, all the sick men and women called me over to bless them.
I did so willingly.
Later I asked my escort why the non-Jewish sick wanted my blessing. He told me that in order to get into the hospital during non-visiting hours, I had to be a “rabbino.” Well, that was not too far from my unordained truth. At the entrance, the porter who admitted us had shouted down the corridor, “Un rabbino da Gerusalemme.” By the time we got to the first floor and began our rounds, the “rabbino had become ‘Il papa da Gerusalemme.”
Only years later was I able to see this as comic relief in that grim day. Just for a few minutes I was “the pope from Jerusalem.”
Reality returned as we met the congregants leaving the Simhat Torah prayers. As I greeted some of them, a passionate man called Pacifici showed me his prayer book. His wrist was bandaged.
“This was my father’s, Riccardo Pacifici, chief rabbi of Genoa. He was murdered in Auschwitz.
“Now it has my blood on it.”
Above all these powerful memories, I see Rabbi Elio Toaff’s figure looming over the Great Synagogue, strong enough to say “NO” to both Church and State.
Avraham Avi-hai was world chairman of United Israel Appeal-Keren Hayesod, and a member of the Jewish Agency- WZO executive from 1978 to 1990. His close connection to Italian Jewry and his studies in its history are reflected in his novel A Tale of Two Avrahams (Gefen Publishing).