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Jews have been in Italy since Roman times. At the end of the fifteenth century, they were expelled from southern Italy, then a Spanish possession, at the same time as the Jews from Portugal and Spain. Consequently, many southern Italians were hardly aware of Italian Jews even in the Fascist period. Jews were never expelled from Rome and other papal possessions in central Italy, in part because the Church needed them as living reminders of the sufferings of Christ. Yet life was not easy for Jews in Rome, at least not after the sixteenth century, when a ghetto was set up there. They were then forced to attend church to hear weekly sermons exhorting them to convert, and to be exposed to the taunts of the populace.
Jews fared best in the north, where enlightened princes brought in many of them to promote commerce and where Jewish emancipation began early in the nineteenth century. The Royal House of Savoy, which united Italy between 1860 and 1870, was especially philo-Semitic. In return, as Alexander Stille points out in his excellent book, the assimilated and prosperous Jews of Turin, Genoa, and other northern cities were fierce royalists. Italian Jews became bankers, doctors, lawyers, judges, cabinet members, police chiefs, and army officers in numbers and proportions exceeding those in all other countries, except perhaps the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. During World War I, fifty Jewish generals served in the Italian army, a bewildering figure, for it means that more than one out of every thousand Italian Jews was a general. This surely exceeded the proportion of generals within even the Prussian Junker class.
After World War I, such educated and assimilated Jews who did not happen to be Socialists, and not many were, enthusiastically embraced fascism, which presented itself as a necessary defense against Bolshevism and anarchy. Two hundred and thirty Jewish Fascists marched on Rome with Mussolini in October 1922; Jews sat in the Duce’s cabinet and in the Fascist Grand Council. As late as 1938, at the time the first anti-Jewish measures were adopted in Italy, more than 10,000 Jews, or about one out of every three Jewish adults, were members of the Fascist Party, a much higher proportion of party membership than among the gentile population. Even Jews who were not party members took part in holiday parades wearing Fascist uniforms of one kind or another, as, of course, did much of the rest of the Italian population. Within the party, a few Fascist leaders had been anti-Semitic from the start, while others were philo-Semitic, but for most Fascists “the Jewish question” simply did not exist. Nor did it concern the general public, among whom the 47,000 Jews (one tenth of 1 percent of the total population) were distinguished neither by physical characteristics nor by language, and only a little by customs and habits.
Mussolini does not seem to have had strong feelings about the Jewish issue, except when it suited the interests of this most accomplished of …