Andrea Zanardo
The Zionist Rabbi your friends warned you about

My encounter with Ashkenormativity

I cannot talk about Ivan.

Ivan, z”l, served all 18 required months of naja (compulsory military service). He could skip it, but his father had insisted: “Military service is a citizen’s duty. Non fare il profugo, don’t play the refugee”. Although they were refugees.

Ivan has passed away, but I cannot say Kaddish for him because he was a Tripolino, a Jew from Tripoli. Talking about Ivan means talking about the pogroms in Libya in the 60s, and talking about those pogroms in North Africa means talking about antisemitism in the Arab world. And that kind of antisemitism is a subject not to be mentioned among politically progressive Jews.

Once in a sermon, I praised Israel for providing shelter to refugees like Ivan’s family. Then someone wrote to me that I was an a**hole. I found it meaningful: it’s a body part that must remain hidden. I was asked, and still, I am asked, to hide an important part of my Jewish identity.  

Someone else wrote: “If you are so upset with Leftist Jews, why don’t you sort your anger with your wife”. Because, you know, never miss the chance to mention sex if you are talking to an Italian man.

“The dark skin of Italians and their home country’s proximity to Africa made many suspects that the immigration service was allowing into the country a new population of N***-“black-eyed, swarthy, and wicked,’ according to an 1881 New York Times article. The Times was es­pecially concerned that Italians wielded a primitive sexual power. There were “hundreds of romantic young women in this City whose imagi­nations have been fired, by the newcomers, since “the romantic nature craves something Southern, Latin, and intense.’  [T.  Russell, A Renegade history of the United States, 2010. p. 181].

In some old Italian synagogues, there are still the casselle per le offerte dating back to the 19th Century. The money collected that way was sent to yeshivas in the Holy Land. Before moving to London, generations of Montefiores and Disraelis had put their coins into those tzedaka boxes with the name of Hebron engraved over them. 

But in London today, I cannot talk about that part of Italian Jewish history. Because if I mention the 18th-century Jewish community of Hebron, I may invalidate the theory that the contemporary Jewish presence in that city is based on historical fiction, which may weaken the Palestinians’ demand to “end the Occupation”. On Twitter, they call me racist, Islamophobe or worse.

Someone threatened to march on the synagogue where a racist rabbi conspires against Jeremy Corbyn. Of those who called me these names, no one has condemned the violent threat. If you belong to the pro-peace camp, violence against an Italian rabbi is not your problem. After all, Italians are used to violence, innit?

“I hate to ask you this but are you… armed?”
“You mean carrying a gun?”
It was so absurd that she laughed. “Mother says you – you might have a knife.”
“You’re Italian”.
[John Fante, Brotherhood of Grape, Chapt 12]

I cannot talk about Stefano.

I cannot talk about Stefano Taché, two years old, murdered by a Palestinian command in October 1982 when the synagogue was packed with children for the traditional blessing of Shemini Atzeret. During the previous months, synagogues and Jewish institutions had been vandalized throughout Italy. It was “because of the war in Lebanon”, as the media repeatedly stated. Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat had been welcomed in Italy and the Vatican as if he was a Head of State. After the attack on Shemini Atzeret, the Rome Jews rejected the condolences. A man who had lost 16 relatives in the Holocaust led a demonstration against the largest Communist Party in Europe and its pro-Arab foreign policy. Never before have Jews rebelled against the Communists.

In the Rome City Council, the Socialist Bruno Zevi gave voice to the Jewish community.

“We will not allow anyone to demand us to condemn the State of Israel. We belong to the same people, communities scattered throughout the world, starting with the oldest, that of Rome, and the community of those who returned to the land of their ancestors”.

But I cannot talk about this page of history. Because every time I talk about the Palestinians, I must remember that they are the weakest of the weak, abandoned by everyone. Even if a group of terrorists that managed to murder a child in the centre of Rome and seriously wound tens of worshippers, then escape free, does not look precisely weak to me. Nor were they isolated: there are plenty of revelations about how the Government did not intervene to protect the Italian Jews from the Palestinian terrorists.

When I dare to speak publicly about that page of history, someone goes on Twitter to demand that I am fired, someone else posts funny jokes about unorganized Italians in time of COVID, and others share memes about Rabbis and pizzas. Someone else posts pearls of sociological wisdom such as “It’s not a stereotype, it’s a simple fact. All Italians are gangsters (…) . Every. Single. One. Including you. Especially you”.

All these people who harassed, cheered, mocked (and demanded that I be fired) are in touch with each other. They gladly interact, talk about “the Revolution”, advocate for a Zionism-free Judaism, and argue that British Universities are the safest place for the Jews.  They are present in each others’ contacts list on Twitter and elsewhere. But, of course, it’s only a coincidence. And, of course, it’s a coincidence that none of them condemned the violent threats I have been targeted with.

In this Country, those who tweet anti-Arab racism must resign from Jewish public life. But if you tweet anti-Italian stuff, you keep your place. Tikkun Olam, on behalf of the Palestinians, implies using racist stereotypes on social media. People say Kaddish for Gaza. And then cancel those who want to say Kaddish for Stefano. This is how things work in the UK, and I am a foreigner, so I cannot complain. 

“It’s clear to everyone that we want to f***. So let’s do it. When and where?”. Nice tweets I have received.  Never miss the chance to mention sex if you are talking to an Italian man.

I cannot talk about my history. I have to hide my identity as an Italian Jew. If I do not, some Leftist militant will use social media to punish me – because of Ashkenormativity.

Ashkenormativity doesn’t only mean latkes on Chanukah or cheesecake on Shavuot. There is also a political Ashkenormaitivity. Ignoring that more than half of the Israeli Jewish population descends from immigrants from the Middle East or North Africa. Stereotyping Sephardi as tribal folks and Italian Jews as gangsters, never really at home with “Jewish values”. Demanding the cancellation of entire pages of history. Disparaging as “racist”, the experience that non-European Jews had with antisemitism, for example, in North Africa. We ought not to mention antisemitism in Muslim communities.

All of this is Ashkenormativity.

Politically progressive Jews don’t like to talk about the pogroms that brought the Sephardi civilization to an end in Northern Africa and forced my friends’ families to move away from Libya.  They want to imagine the whole Muslim world as it was the scenario of an a-historic peaceful coexistence. Let’s eliminate the Jewish State -that’s the implication- and antisemitism will disappear from the Arab world. Or, in a lighter version: let’s end “the support to the Occupation”, and interfaith relations between Jews and Muslims will blossom le’olam. 

This is Ashkenormativity because it ignores the lived experience of Sephardi, Mizrachi and Italian Jews. It ignores Ivan, and it kills Stefano another time.

“Progressive streams of Judaism, in particular, should look to find a means to better incorporate Progressive Jews of Sephardi, Mizrahi and Yemenite heritage” [Board of Deputies, Commission on Racial Inclusivity, Report, April 2021 – italics mine].

Tell me about that. I cannot even talk about a tzedaka box. And if I do, they will call me gangster – another time.

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