Andrea Zanardo
The Zionist Rabbi your friends warned you about

Is there a duty to shelter our enemies’ children?

A congregant recently overheard a story somewhere and asked me whether we Jews have the duty to rescue and shelter the children of antisemites.

My immediate answer was: yes. And still is. Saving human lives is a supremely Jewish value. There’s not such a thing as original sin in Judaism. Babies don’t come to the world with the antisemitic gene. 

There is a much-quoted and misunderstood sentence by Yitzhak Shamir: “Poles suck antisemitism together with their mother’s milk”. But I think it referred to education and the danger of absorbing stereotypes from the older generations. Can anyone deny that this is precisely what has happened to the last generations of Polish citizens? Just look at what they vote for.

There’s not such a thing such a gene of antisemitism or racism. 

A story came then to my mind. It was told to me by some elderly Roma I met in Italy in the 90s, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. 

For centuries, the Roma community has prospered in that slice of land, where the Austrian Empire bordered with the Ottomans. They were then chased by the Nazis first, the Communists then and subsequently, in the 90s, by Serbian and Croatian nationalists, who share the same hate for the Roma.  

The Roma resisted as they have always done. Moving elsewhere, that is Italy. 

The story I have heard goes as follows: a Roma family passes by a Croatian village devastated by Serbian nationalists on its way to Italy. It can be the opposite, a Serbian village destroyed by Croatians. It does not make any difference; there were no innocents in that war. And let me repeat it, everybody hated the Roma. One young Romani girl, newly married, realised that there was a toddler under the debris, still alive and breathing. So she followed her instinct and rescued the baby, sheltering and even breastfeeding her. 

This act takes a lot of courage. I don’t know how many of my readers would allow their children to play along with a group of Romani/Travellers peers. But rest assured that in Italy, at that time (and even now), the answer is: none. In the land of Mamma mia!, maternal instinct does not cross the barriers between Roma and Gadjos (we, the non-Roma). The same was true for the Balkans, where Roma were tolerated at best and chased at worst even before the war. 

So the scenario we are talking about now is very similar to the scenario pictured above. We are talking about rescuing the children of our enemies. You may not share my cousin-like feelings towards the Roma, but no one can deny that at that time, they were victims of a rabid and virulent racist hate (they still are).

When the Roma family attempts to enter Italy via one of the many smugglers’ familiar routes, they have to go slower than usual. Unfortunately, it was easier for the border’s police to block them. In similar situations, smugglers (Roma and not) get by bribing the police because people wearing a uniform in Communist and post-Communist countries were easy to bribe. But we have a problem here: the child. 

How can you prove that that blond child is yours? 

And suppose you are a Roma. In such a case (like if you are a Jew), there’s a suspicion around you: the blood libel. Those old enough to remember the wars in the Balkans in the 90s probably remember also the numerous rumours of organ-harvesting, a modern version of the blood libel. 

The good deeds of rescuing a child turned into a curse. It led to the internment of a whole Roma family, including a young mother, into the prisons of some post-Yugoslavian countries, places not known for welcoming that specific ethnic minority. 

I don’t know whether this story is true. Perhaps elderly Roma made it up to educate the youngster about the dangers of trusting too much the Gadjos. But I saw Roma families travelling around Northern Italy in the 90s, escaping from massacres and pogroms. I have read of mothers raped in front of their children. Maybe some child was left alive.

And I remember the local newspapers flooded with urban legends about Roma trying to kidnap children and some reports about organ harvesting. None of this, it turned out, was true. 

I remember the soldiers of the United Nations being around, the not so effective humanitarian missions and countless reporters looking for stories to make the news, and children always making the news. In a similar scenario, how could the border police act differently?

Now let’s get back to the question I started with. 

Are we supposed to protect and shelter those who hate us? My answer is: certainly not the adults or the young adults, for what matters. We are not under obligation to shelter -for example- those thugs who last week have assaulted a group of Jewish teens in Oxford Street in London.

Indeed, we must shelter and protect children, regardless of where they come from, even if their parents are antisemites and aim to raise their children in the same hate.

Just be careful. Such an act is not going to change the world. Racists don’t change their minds because of your kindness toward children. They are most likely to see further evidence of how evil Jews, or Roma, or “Zionists” are. 

Moreover, the need to have a Country where Jews can carry on their daily life without being haunted by ancestral, rooted superstition, such as the blood libel, still persists. 

About the Author
Italian by birth, Israeli by choice, Rabbi of the largest synagogue in Sussex (UK). Uncompromising Zionist.
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