Internal exile

May 24, 1996

Paul Bompard reports on a project to find Italy's lost Jews. As professor of demographics at Rome's La Sapienza university and as a member of Rome's Jewish community, Eugenio Sonnino is preparing a nationwide survey of Jewish communities in Italy. His research, partly sponsored by the University of Jerusalem, will inevitably fuel the ongoing debate sparked by Bernard Wasserstein's book Vanishing Diaspora, which argues that over the next century Jews will all but disappear from European society.

"A basic flaw in the statistics used so far is to count the Jews in Europe by those who are members of local religious communities," says Sonnino. He thinks a better method would be to include all those who may not be members of the Jewish religious community but are of Jewish descent and certainly consider themselves to be Jews.

"Europeans are becoming less religious. Can we say that Jews who are not members of an official religious group cannot be counted as Jews?" "The point I am trying to make," he says, "is that there are significant numbers of people who are not connected to a synagogue, who nevertheless consider themselves to be Jews and identify with a Jewish culture. These 'unofficial' Jews are a permanent connection between Jewish and Christian society. In fact, mixed marriages need not involve a loss of 'Jewishness' but can often result in an extension of Jewish culture."

His vision is inevitably influenced by the situation in Italy, home to some of Europe's oldest Jewish communities. Rome's, for instance, dates from about 100bc. The number of "card-carrying" Jews in Italy has remained constant over the past three decades thanks to an influx of Jews from Libya in the 1960s. These swelled the Roman community, which, with its 15,000 members, accounts for almost half of "official" Italian Jewry.

Sonnino's plan is to work from individual members of the communities outwards, to members of their families and extended families who are not members of the communities. He thus hopes to create a revealing, if not statistically precise, map of "Jews beyond the religious communities."

Sonnino points out that when, in 1984, it became compulsory for members of Rome's Jewish community to pay an annual subscription, many dropped out. "Are these people no longer to be counted as Jews?" he asks.

"Probably, the only fair way to arrive at realistic statistics would be, if it were possible, to count as Jews all those who consider themselves Jews. Taken to its extreme consequences, this would mean that anyone, irrespective of descent or religious background could declare themselves to be Jewish. Which might, after all, be a solution to the old and unanswerable question of who is a Jew."

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