Tobia Zevi : “The Jews in Italy have become a minority among minorities and must therefore think more deeply about the question of immigration and integration”.

A century after the death of Ernesto Nathan, Rome’s historic mayor (1907-1913), another Jewish politician had entered earlier this year the battle to lead the Italian capital: Tobia Zevi, who discussed with K. his political endeavors and the meaning of Jewish involvement in public life, in Italy as in Europe. Tobia Zevi was not elected, but on November 3rd he was designated by the new Mayor of Rome Roberto Gualtieri (PD) as Assessor for Patrimony and Housing Policies. An opportunity to read again his interview with Simone Disegni.

 

 

The creation of a public transport network, electrification and water management programs; the implementation of a town plan to regulate building development; the launch of secular public schools, to the chagrin of the Vatican; the inauguration of emblematic buildings such as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) or the Palazzaccio (today the seat of the Palace of Justice)… Many of the transformations that have shaped modern Rome were implemented under the direction of a mayor whose figure has remained firmly anchored in the memory of the city. His name: Ernesto Nathan, who led the Italian capital from 1907 to 1913. His curriculum vitae: born in London, secular, republican. And Jewish. Exactly one hundred years after his death, in April 1921, Ernesto Nathan could be succeeded at Rome’s City Hall by another mayor who also grew up in the Jewish tradition – which itself has a two-thousand-year relationship with the city. Such, at least, is the hope of Tobia Zevi, 37, a researcher and long-time political activist in the ranks of the Italian center-left and today a candidate to lead Rome.

Stamp with the portrait of Ernesto Nathan, mayor of Rome between 1907 and 1913[1].

Since last winter, on hundreds of election posters, Zevi has been beaming at the capital’s motorists and pedestrians. “Do not leave town. Let’s change Rome,” proclaim the advertisements. Tobia Zevi hammers it home to show how aware he is of the risk that the Italian capital is running today: the chronic distrust of citizens toward the public administration is matched only by the tangle of inextricable problems the city has to deal with. Among these are a faltering public transport system, recurrent failures in the collection and disposal of trash, streets that need to be repaved, a social fabric that could unravel with the exodus of companies from the city and the disappearance of tourists amid the pandemic.

In the midst of a highly uncertain electoral campaign – the third wave of the pandemic has pushed the government to postpone the vote to the fall, and the Democratic Party’s new secretary, Enrico Letta, has confirmed that the center-left candidate will be chosen through a primary – Zevi relates his political challenge, but reflects also on his understanding of Jewish participation in public life in Italy and throughout Europe.

Before entering the local and national political scene (until he became an advisor to Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in 2017-18), Zevi cut his teeth in the activist life of Jewish organizations: at the head of Ugei (the Union of Young Jews of Italy), then of the Hans Jonas cultural association, and by sitting on the board of directors of the Jewish Community of Rome. His commitment, at the frontier of two worlds, is in a way inscribed in his genes: his grandmother Tullia, a journalist married to the great architectural historian Bruno Zevi, was the first female leader of Italian Judaism. At the head of the Union of Communities (UCEI), it was she who, in 1987, signed the agreement guaranteeing fundamental rights to Italian Jews and organizing their relations with the State. For her grandson Tobia, the only chance for Europe to heal its wounds and recover its statute on the global stage lies indeed in tackling the issue of minority integration.

 

Tullia Zevi and Bettino Craxi signed the agreement of the Jewish communities with the Italian State in 1987.

 

Simone Disegni: Since last summer, you have decided to run for the job that many say is the most difficult in Italy. The challenge: to govern an “extra-large” metropolis (1,287 km2), which suffers from a deterioration of public services (transport, waste, roads), so much so that popular frustration has devoured, one after the other, election after election, the last three mayors of Rome, of any political affiliation. What led you to run for such high-risk position?

Tobia Zevi: There is no single answer. There are four parts to it.  The first – it sounds personal, psychoanalytical even – is that this is my life’s dream. I have always, in one way or another, harbored the desire to become mayor of my city, and so I am delighted today to take up this challenge.

The second is political and, if you like, cultural: today, cities play an increasingly central role, politically, economically and socially; above all by managing and, in a way, intervening in the heart of the conflicts that arise in society. Cities are the testing ground, the frontline of this battle. This is true for the economy, the environment, inequalities, innovation… That is why I think that being mayor of a big city is certainly a complicated thing, but also represents the most important challenge that a politician can face today. And unlike other political activities, it offers the unique reward of being able to experience the work you do, to measure its quality directly.

Third, it is a commonplace to say that Rome is ungovernable. There is a vast literature on its shortcomings, and some anecdotes stretch back centuries. James Joyce wryly said that Romans made their living by showing tourists their dead grandmother inside their house; an illustrious prime minister of the early twentieth century, Francesco Saverio Nitti, complained that Rome was the only city in the Mediterranean without a European quarter. I object, however, to the idea that it is ungovernable. Fifteen years ago – not five hundred years ago! – Rome was considered one of the most interesting capitals in the world, one of the most innovative and culturally stimulating. It was a place that worked, beyond the obvious universal elements that make it attractive, a city where a lot of culture, wealth, and innovation were produced; so people came to Rome, young people moved here, foreigners too. If this was possible 15 years ago, it is also possible today. But for this we need clear ideas and a public administration that works.

And that is why, this is my fourth reason, I did not “wait.” If I jumped into the fray without asking anyone’s permission, it is precisely because if we want to rebuild this city, we need to do a very deep, serious, tiring and difficult job. We need a lot of time, a large team and clear visions. This work should be done by the parties, by the ruling classes, with a methodology typical of good politics, that is to say: involve the people, reason, study, write, discuss, publish books, meet the neighborhoods and the different strata and categories of the population. This requires a great effort, but today we can say that the parties, the ruling classes, do not make this effort. They continue to ignore the problems and their urgency, even though it is obvious to the citizens of Rome. It is obvious that when the buses do not run or even burn, when the garbage piles up on the streets, when the public administration does not work, everything becomes a struggle – but it is also a struggle that concerns all the other Italians, because no matter what is commonly thought in Italy, there is no country in the developed world today that grows at the expense of its capital. That’s why I think that there is no more time to lose and, as no one else is doing this job, I have thrown myself into the race. And I must say that the feedback I have received so far is very positive.

SD: Politically, you grew up in the “nursery” of the Italian center-left, but also in that of Jewish institutions, starting with the presidency of the UGEI (the Union of Young Jews of Italy) from 2005 to 2007. To what extent and in what way has this training ground been useful to you? Do you believe that there is a link between your Jewish roots and your political commitment?

TZ: What I learned at UGEI was decisive. I remember that during the first Congress of my presidency, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, came to visit us and told us that, from experience, those who had been involved in Jewish youth organizations had always achieved important goals in life. I think that’s absolutely right: being small organizations, Jewish youth organizations actually allow you to be versatile, to try your hand at many things, and these qualities are very useful in politics. On the other hand, the Jewish world is, unfortunately, very quarrelsome in its institutions, so it is a good preparation: I often felt seasoned and well-trained thanks to the battles I had to fight in the UGEI and, later, in the Jewish Community Council of Rome. The debates in these institutions were more animated and more virulent than those I am dealing with today…

As for my Jewish background, I think there is at its core one fundamental element that plays a particularly meaningful role for public commitment: the attention that Judaism reserves – at all levels, from the deepest to the most superficial – to the value of the word. Judaism gives a great lesson in interpreting and attaching value to every single thing that is said. The word, the verb, is even, in a way, a sacred matter, whereas in politics – and especially in our era, dominated by social media – it very often tends to lose its value. We tend to say the first thing that comes to mind, for the sake of the moment or perhaps simply because we don’t have the time to go deeper or be more specific. If there is one thing I always try to do in my public engagement – I won’t succeed every time, because I too am obviously a victim of the speed of social networks – it is precisely to try not to say unnecessary words, or exaggerated words, or wrong words, because today, in our world, this attitude unfortunately does a lot of damage. We see it absolutely blatantly in the expressions of hate, but also in a certain loss of dignity of politics, of the ruling classes. People perceive that what is said has little value, basically no quality.

“Do not leave town. Let’s change Rome”: slogan of the campaign of Tobia Zevi.

SD: In 2021, in addition to the Roman elections, a vote is scheduled for the leadership renewal of Italian Jewry. Historically, the UCEI Congress has always been the time and place to “take the temperature” of Italian Jewry. As an attentive observer of this world, how do you think it is doing today? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

TZ: I haven’t been directly involved there now for many years, but I think that there are fairly consolidated trends. In my opinion, the strong point of Italian Judaism is its cultural and human richness, made up of different people, a multitude of skills, intelligence, small and large communities, varied histories. It has many resources that are precious in this globalized and increasingly complex world.

On the other hand, there is obviously a huge problem that has to do with its demographic survival: the figures speak to us, they show a community that risks, if not extinction, at least to dry up and to be substantially reduced to one or two communities in a few decades. I believe that we cannot do much about this, because it depends in part on general socio-economic conditions, which are totally beyond the control of Italian Judaism. What we could perhaps do, alongside these phenomena – this would not solve the core of the problem but would constitute a sort of response, and this is already partly underway – is to improve the capacity that the world today gives us to link the different communities more closely together. Does a polycentric structure like that of Italian Judaism still make sense today[2] ? I am not sure. Is it not rather a question today of being flexible and networking each time on this or that project? We must certainly try not to lose the values of the different, numerous Italian communities, but we must also be realistic in the face of the difficulty of envisaging a future for the small communities which today have only thirty or fifty members. We must then try to see how these thirty or fifty Jews can interact with those who live some ten kilometers away…

SD: So it’s time to rethink the organizational model?

TZ: But some of that is already happening! During the first phase of the pandemic, I remember a very interesting discussion among rabbis about whether or not it was possible to read and hear the Megillah on Zoom. The possibility of performing this mitzvah through this medium was eventually ruled out, but the fact remains that last year millions of Jews around the world heard the Megillah through this tool, people who had often never before had the opportunity to go to synagogue and attend a service, and this, thanks to technology. The same thing is happening, if I may draw a parallel, in the field of politics: I am impressed by the young people who are involved in my election campaign. They are numerous and enthusiastic and they work hard. Not only have I not yet had the opportunity to meet them, but they themselves have mostly never seen each other. This means that beyond meeting in the “real” world, the connections and activities are now entirely digital. This is a great opportunity, and it seems to me that Italian Judaism is already using it to some extent. But it is clear that it will also require a work of elaboration and cultural investment, because this novelty really changes everything. Just as it changes the way we interact and work, it will also change the way we live our Judaism.

SD: How do you judge the relationship between Italian Jews and Italian society today? Is there enough reciprocal knowledge and interest? Or could the two spheres still take steps toward each other?

TZ: I think there is a strong relationship between Italian Jews, institutions and society. While saying this, an element of concern remains when periodically opinion polls note a surprising level of ignorance and, very often, intolerance. Frankly, I don’t think we can blame anything on Jewish institutions, which do an excellent job, as do many institutions of the Republic. But on the whole, there is still a lot of educational work to be done and to be continually updated.

Secondly, and for the first time in their history, the Jews in Italy have become a minority among minorities, whereas before they were the minority par excellence. In this regard, I believe that there should be a greater effort to elaborate a position and involve the Jews in the great question of immigration and integration. On this point, it seems to me that the Jewish voice is sometimes too weak. I understand this timidity. First, immigration is a sensitive issue; second, Jews themselves are a sensitive issue; and third, a large part of immigration is composed of Muslims, and relations are particularly complex between Jews and Muslims. Nevertheless, I believe that a greater effort of cultural and political elaboration could be made by Jews regarding this great challenge of our times.

SD: Let’s broaden our gaze to include not only Italy but Europe, which, even if we stay within the framework of Jewish life, is like embarking on a journey in dozens of different directions, from a historical, political and cultural point of view. Is there, from your point of view, something that can be called “European Judaism”? And if so, what would define it?

TZ: I am not in a position to identify the characteristics of a “European Judaism” from a cultural point of view. I can, however, make a geopolitical argument: European Jewry today constitutes the third pole between the American and Israeli communities, the two largest in the world. These are the two majority communities: in Israel, for obvious reasons; in America, because the Jewish presence there is stable and very well established. European Judaism is thus the only one that retains a minority identity. Can this trait be useful to world Jewry? I believe so. Moreover, can this Jewish minority make an important contribution to the formation of European identity, a process which I believe is still underway? Here again, I believe so!

SD: However, we are talking about a minority that seems to be getting smaller and smaller. According to the most recent demographic study, there are only 1.3 million Jews left in Europe, whereas there were 10 million before the Shoah. Many of those who have stayed are wondering whether it would not be better to leave. One recalls the very recent murderous attacks in France against Jews; the debates in the United Kingdom in recent years about anti-Semitism in Labor and in some academic circles; in Germany, the security threats culminated in the failed Halle massacre; not to mention the excesses in Hungary and Poland, where anti-Semitism is almost explicitly exploited by government parties for electoral purposes. In your opinion, can Europe still be a place for Jews in the future, or should we resign ourselves to the fact that it will become a place where the Jewish presence will eventually become residual?

TZ: I remain optimistic. The history of European Jewry has seen the greatest tragedies and yet it continues: somehow it will survive this phase. One could say that your question, even more than that of the future of European Jews, directly questions the future of Europe. In today’s world, Europe must decide whether it has the ambition to be a global superpower that can stand united and compete with the United States, China and the other great powers. If this is its challenge, then it is clear that Europe needs an open, multi-ethnic, creative, forward-looking society; and therefore, it also needs the Jews, because the Jews are in a way an essential ingredient in all of this. “When the Jews leave, it is always a bad sign,” a Lebanese leader once told me about the flight of Jews from Lebanon, which preceded the civil war. If Europe succeeds in taking up this challenge, which is geopolitical, economic, cultural and ecological, then I am convinced that the future of the Jews in Europe is possible: I would even go further and say that the European Jewish community will have a fundamental role in the future of this Europe. If this were not the case, the scenario would no doubt be deplorable for the Jews, but also for the whole continent. The examples you have cited of what is happening in Eastern Europe are dangerous omens of this possible drift. We must try at all costs to avert it. However, it seems to me that this year of pandemic has succeeded in getting a message across: there is the idea of a different Europe.

SD: Is there anything in this framework that governments or European institutions could do to dispel the misunderstanding that there may be places in Europe where Jews do not feel “at home”?

TZ: I am not an expert on European policies on anti-Semitism, but I feel that the institutions are doing their duty. What is missing, in my opinion, is a European model of integration: today it is essentially ethnic integration; tomorrow it will be more and more a social and cultural integration of different worlds. On this point, we need a great deal of imagination and cultural work to be done. And in this sense, the Jews, as I said, could be useful, but they could at the same time benefit from it, because it is clear that when society becomes healthier, the Jews are all the better for it.


Simone Disegni

Notes

1 ”An important and just initiative of the Post Office: the printing of a stamp in honor of Ernesto Nathan, Mayor of Rome between 1907 and 1913. He lived in a different world from ours, but many of his principles and political-administrative choices are still relevant today: the protection of the public interest, the tenacity in improving services to the citizen, the demand for social equality and the focus on schools. He transformed Rome, he who was first a foreigner in Rome and who was a child of Europe, never completely at ease with the Italian language. Even today, he is a model to which anyone who wants to govern this city can and must be inspired. For me – in my own way – it represents a political and cultural beacon.” Tobia Zevi, on Facebook
2 Italian Jewish life is organized today around 21 communities, one in each city where there is a Jewish presence, from the largest with thousands of co-religionists (Rome and Milan) to the smallest where there are only a few families. These communities are united and represented by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI)

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