Inextinguishable fires

May Christians, Jews and Muslims unite now in tolerance.

How ironic that arsonists, likely Jewish ones, attacked a mosque during the period beteen Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The Yom Kippur liturgy that we read this past Shabbat recounts the brutal butchery that the Romans, occupying the Holy Land, inflicted on our spiritual leaders 2000 years ago. Hadrian’s legions burnt Torah scrolls, in order to stamp out faith in the One God.
“The pages are set alight, but the letters take flight [to the Heavens,]” reports the Talmud, seeking to reassure the Faithful that the Torah lives on in spirit, even when the scrolls themselves are consumed. A millennium later, this time on Rosh Hashana, Roman Inquisitors burnt the Talmud itself at the Campo de’ Fiori, in the heart of Rome. When you burn the books of The People of the Book, you will soon burn The People.
And so it was.
Last month, as this year’s holiday season approached, the letters of these Talmudic words, in Hebrew and Italian, were unveiled by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, and Rome’s Dino Gasperini, responsible for Culture in the Eternal City’s Historic Centre, on a stone plaque at the same location, commemorating that sacrilege.
In 1553, Cardinal Carafa, who had reorganized the Roman Inquisition, the Church body which persecuted any disbelief in Catholic Church doctrine in the Papal States, ordered the burning of the Talmud to take place on Rosh Hashana. Two years later he was elected Pope Paul IV, and immediately issued a decree to force Jews in Rome to live in a ghetto, to be locked in at night, and to wear distinctive yellow head gear. Jews were forcibly baptised, including babies, throughout the Papal States. Shortly afterwards, 24 Marranos were hung and burned at the stake, many of them escapees from the Portuguese Inquisition.
WHY DID Carafa do these things? He was a particularly rigid opponent of those who did not follow his own view of Catholic Church doctrine.
He even imprisoned other Cardinals! An insight into his character is seen in the fact that he cut off Michelangelo’s pension, as punishment for the lack of clothing on his immortal Sistine Chapel paintings! Carafa was so hated by the people of Rome that they decapitated a statue of him in the Campidoglio after his death. His anti-Jewish pronouncements are totally at variance with those of Pope Benedict and his predecessor John Paul II, both of whom are loved for extending the hand of friendship to Jews and other non-Catholics. The 1553 burnings were the result of a particularly intolerant papacy, insecure after Protestant criticism.
Today Campo de’ Fiori, (“field of flowers,”) is a popular meeting place for youngsters, most of whom have been oblivious until now of its past as a center of book-burnings. However it is wellknown as a place of execution. For Christian philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600 was stripped naked and burned here, also by the Inquisition. Today Ettore Ferrari’s statue of him stands here, defiantly facing the Vatican. Today it shares the company of the Chief Rabbi’s commemorative plaque. Both are united now as symbols of the suffering of martyrs of Conscience, and of man’s inhumanity to Man.
TO BE sure, anti-Jewish fire attacks have not been limited to the high holidays. In occupied Warsaw, on Easter 1943, Czeslaw Milosz, later a Polish Nobel literature laureate, wrote a poem called Campo de’ Fiori. It contemplates “Cobbles spattered with wine, And the wreckage of flowers” on the spot where they burnt Giordano Bruno. “Before the flames had died, The taverns were full again.” Milosz compares the piazza to one with a carousel in 1943 Warsaw, where a cheerful carnival tune drowns the gunfire from the nearby Ghetto. The wind carries kites high into the heavens; riders on the carousel catch petals in the air, and the carefree crowd laughs, oblivious to the Ghetto on fire. “Those dying here, lonely, are forgotten by the World, until, when all is legend and many years have passed, on a great Campo de’ Fiori, Rage is kindled...” At the Talmud-burning commemoration, a man who had escaped Berlin in 1938 bore witness to the Nazis’ more recent burnings of Jewish books.
He, however, had tears in his eyes, not anger.
Nothing is forgotten by the “The People of Memory,” as the British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, calls Jews.
Today’s mosque arsonists, and those who destroyed synagogues when Israel withdrew from Gaza, are as malevolent as the other pyromaniacs.
May Christians, Jews and Muslims unite now in tolerance.
The writer is a British-based European and International lawyer, and a campaigner for interfaith understanding.