VENICE, July 25, 2016 — On March 29, 1516, the Venetian Republic declared that, “The Jewish people must all live together in the Corte de Case, in the ghetto near San Girolamo.”
With this law came the birth of the first “ghetto,” a word most likely derived from “getto,” the Venetian term for “foundry.” This summer, the city of Venice is commemorating the 500th anniversary of this event. This ancient Jewish neighborhood is historically instructive.
An exhibit at the Doge’s Palace explores the history of the ghetto. The curator, Donatella Calabi, argues that viewing the Venetian ghetto through the prism of the Nazi-imposed ghettos of the Holocaust period, some four hundred years later, is misleading.
Instead, the exhibition shows how the ghetto was created at a time of crisis in the old Venetian Republic, when its governors became wary not just of Jews, but of all outsiders. In creating the ghetto, they were doing what they also did to non-native merchants including Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Persians and Germans.
The Turks particularly, says Ms. Calabi, were subject to rules “stricter perhaps than those imposed on the Jews.”
It is evidence of how much worse conditions for Jews became elsewhere that successive waves of refugees fled to the Venetian ghetto, particularly from Spain and Portugal, after Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism were expelled.
Jewish merchants and bankers became vital to the flow of ivory, spices, ebony, indigo and the commodities of Arabia, China and the Indies. Renaissance scholar Francesco Sangorino wrote that for Jews, Venice was “quasi una vera terra di promissione”, practically the promised land.
Despite the restrictions placed upon them, Jews were freer in Venice than in most parts of Europe at that time. The pragmatic Venetian Republic exploited the economic advantages of allowing Jews to settle there, charging the residents for rent, water, the cost of the compulsory night watchman and all services.
The gates to the ghetto were unlocked at dawn and locked at sunset. During the day there were no restrictions on movement throughout the city. Jews were not forced to convert and were free to practice their religion.
The ghetto became a place of study and scholarship and there was much interaction with Christians.
Catholics regularly attended concerts in the ghetto and Catholic architects and builders designed and created synagogues.
The intermingling of different Jewish traditions produced five synagogues, each with its own rites. The first complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud was published in Venice by a Christian, since Jews were not permitted to be printers.
Among the ghetto’s residents was Sara Copia Sullam (c.1592-1641), a poet and essayist whose literary salon was frequented equally by Jewish and Christian intellectuals.
Prof. Shaul Bassi of Ca’Foscari University of Venice, traces his own Jewish roots to 16th century Venice.
In his view, this summer’s commemoration of the ghetto’s 500th anniversary is not “by any means a celebration, but there’s no question that Jews were very happy to be there compared to the situation in Germany, or Spain, where they were expelled.”
In his book “The Ghetto of Venice,” Riccardo Calimani writes:
Although it taxed Jews heavily, the Venetian government demonstrated a certain benevolence, ordering the local authorities to protect the Jews and allow them to practice their religion. Indeed, it was this religious tolerance that attracted increasing numbers of German, Spanish and Levantine Jews to Venice from all directions, over a period of centuries.
Thanks to a singular network of human and family relationships, the wandering merchants put their international connections to good use in the very areas of influence essential to the survival of Venice. They had especially close ties with Rumania, the Balkan Peninsula, and the vast Ottoman Empire.
It is interesting to note that when Jews from Turkey got into trouble with Venetian authorities, they were defended by the Ottoman Empire in which they had rights of citizenship. The Moslem authorities in Constantinople were far more tolerant of religious differences than Christian authorities in Europe.
Venice resisted Rome’s efforts to persecute Jews. Pope Pius IV, for example, said it was forbidden for Catholics to call upon the services of Jewish doctors.
“Venice resisted such pressures,” writes Calimani:
In 1593, as a mark of official recognition, the Republic authorized Dr. David De Pomis to practice medicine among Christians. Another illustrious Jewish doctor, Giusseppe De Dattolis, the protagonist of an action for defamation against his son-in-law before the Holy Office, received special honors from the Senate for the spirit of great sacrifice with which he had served the city … De Pomis … the most famous Jewish doctor in Venice at the time, exemplified the climate of tolerance toward Jewish medicine. … Although they were separate and segregated, the Jews enjoyed codified rights and an often enviable autonomy.
In 1797, the French Army, commanded by Napoleon, conquered Venice, dissolved the Venetian Republic and ended the ghetto’s separation from the city.
Jews became citizens with equal rights and the Civil Guard entered the ghetto.
“Music filled the air and people were dancing,” notes Calimani. “The ghetto gates were carried to the midst of the square, hacked into pieces and burned. The reporter for the Gazetta Veneta Urbanna (July 12, 1797) wrote that it was a fine sight ‘to watch the hatchet bravely swing to splinter a base barbaric prejudice.'”
Many Venetian Jews became Italian patriots. A number of them—including Giuseppe Ancona, Enrico Uziel, Davide Cesarean Usiel and Alexandre Levi—joined Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Thousand in 1860.
Later, there was a question of whether a Jew should serve as a minister in the government since Jews were viewed by some as a separate nationality.
In 1873, Rabbi Marco Mortara of Mantua wrote that while Jews had been a nation in ancient times, they no longer nurtured such aspirations.
Now, Judaism constituted a religion and the nationality of Italian Jews was Italian.
The question of Jewish identity was raised again in 1938 with the rise of Mussolini and his alliance with Hitler. Under Mussolini, Jews were stripped of many rights, but their lives were not endangered.
But on July 25, 1943, the Fascist government fell and with the arrival of German troops, the situation took an abrupt turn for the worse.
On Sept. 16 of that year, Giuseppe Jona, the president of the Jewish community of Venice, committed suicide. The Nqzis began rounding up Jews, who were then sent to death camps in Germany.
On Dec. 5, over a hundred people were arrested in Venice. The decree ordering the roundup of Jews was published on Dec. 1.
The Italian police did nothing for several days, giving many Jews a chance to get away. Italians, though Italy and Germany were allies, had less interest in cooperating with Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies than most other countries occupied by Germany.
In fact, next to Denmark, Italy had the highest survival rate of any Nazi occupied country in Europe. Eighty per cent of Italian Jews survived World War II.
Part of this summer’s commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the ghetto will include the first performance of “The Merchant of Venice” in English in the old ghetto area.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will participate. This anniversary represents an interesting historical moment which we would do well to consider.
As the world once again faces religious intolerance and division, a consideration of this history would be useful.