The Mortara Case

Abe Silberstein

On 8 October, the day after Hamas militants from Gaza penetrated Israel in an unprecedented invasion and killed an estimated 1400 people, I went to the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. A few days earlier I had bought a ticket for Marco Bellochio’s new movie, Kidnapped, with a vague idea of reviewing it. Now, having had little sleep the night before, compulsively checking social media and refreshing news sites, I all but abandoned any critical intentions.

Kidnapped (Rapito) tells the story of the Mortara case. In 1858, papal officials seized a six-year-old Jewish child from his family in Bologna after learning that he had been secretly baptised as an infant by the household maid. The legally sanctioned kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara was a major source of controversy for the Catholic Church, which the movement for Italian unification leapt on as yet another reason to relieve the pope of his temporal authority. But for the Jewish community and Edgardo’s family, it clarified the condition of Jewish powerlessness. Edgardo was brought up in a seminary in Rome and eventually ordained as a priest. He died in Belgium in 1940, at the age of 88, two months before the Nazi invasion.

Bellochio’s career-long feud with the Church is obviously present in Kidnapped. Yet what I found most affecting is the film’s sensitive portrayal of Jews in Bologna and the Roman Ghetto. Bellochio and his co-writer, Susanna Nicchiarelli, clearly took pains to understand and accurately convey the practices of the community. Edgardo’s father (played by Fausto Russo Alesi) enjoins him to recite the Shema every night as a way to remember his Jewishness, which is surely what any Jewish father would say in such circumstances. It filled me with both pity and anger to watch the Jewish leaders of the Roman Ghetto bowing before Pius, kissing his red leather shoes, even as he berates them for daring to ask after their abducted kin.

The latest Israel-Hamas war has now been going on for more than two weeks. After the shock and devastation of the initial attack, which killed at least hundreds of Israeli civilians, including children, the underlying power discrepancies between Israel and the Palestinians it subjugates have brutally reasserted themselves. Israel dropped more than six thousand bombs in the first week of the war. The Israeli Air Force has devastated entire neighbourhoods, wiped out families and damaged critical infrastructure. The Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, has reported over five thousand deaths, 40 per cent of them children.

The general consensus among the Jewish majority in Israel is that war in Gaza is something being prepared, not a cruel reality already underway. Except for Ha’aretz, the Hebrew press has not fully imparted the extent of the wreckage in Gaza to its audiences. It is widely accepted that a negotiated ceasefire would represent a victory for Hamas, even if it meant the safe return of the more than two hundred Israeli hostages now held in Gaza (including two that have been held for nearly a decade: an Ethiopian Israeli, Avera Mengistu, and a Bedouin-Palestinian resident of the Negev, Hisham al-Sayed). According to Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Hamas has floated such a deal, to no apparent consideration by the Israeli government.

The contrast between Jewish helplessness in Kidnapped and Israeli revenge in Gaza has gnawed at me. For years, I was an outspoken left-wing Zionist who rejected the colonial occupation of the territories captured by Israel in 1967. I also believed that Israel, and indeed all Zionists, had to come to terms with the Nakba, even if we could never properly redress it. The power imbalance compelled me to speak out against Israeli abuses rather than of my Zionist inclinations, but they were always there.

They still are, though it is mostly my anti-Zionist friends who still take me for a Zionist. The Mortara case is not only an argument for Jewish self-determination but a cautionary tale against relying even on sympathetic non-Jewish neighbours. Edgardo’s kidnapping sparked genuine outrage throughout the world but it didn’t lead to justice. Father Pier Feletti, who ordered the child’s abduction, was put on trial in 1860 by the new Italian authorities, but acquitted. No matter how much a Jewish leftist today supports a single democratic state between the river and the sea, they still fear a possible future, which is a version of the past: persecution with no escape.

But this does not justify the price Palestinians have paid for Jewish safety. I’m reminded of Isaac Deutscher’s parable of a man jumping out of a burning building and injuring another man when he lands. ‘We are the victims of the victims,’ Edward Said wrote, ‘the refugees of the refugees.’ Structure only explains so much; psychology fills in the rest. The settler colonial paradigm is useful in understanding the dynamics of what Rashid Khalidi has called ‘the hundred years’ war on Palestine’. It is less helpful in contending with the painful subjectivities of Palestinians and Jews, and there is no comprehending – much less resolving – the conflict without them.

The tragedy of these intertwined traumas is playing out again. The murder of Israeli civilians cannot be morally sanctioned, and Hamas’s vision offers no hope for Palestinians. Yet there is also no hope in Israel’s living permanently by the sword, which hangs over the head of every Palestinian in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. In the years before 7 October, Benjamin Netanyahu assured Israelis that they did not have to make any compromises with the Palestinians, that Israel could ‘manage the conflict’, as sympathetic experts put it. He is too much of a coward to stand now before his people, including the families of those killed and kidnapped by Hamas, and admit that this is what ‘managing the conflict’ looks like.

The responsibility to speak clearly and truthfully falls on those in Israel, Palestine and around the world who are willing to call for a ceasefire and an end to the perpetual denial of Palestinian national aspirations – even in this moment, especially now. For those of us who are Jews, it means risking the false accusation that we are indifferent to Israeli lives. False – but also completely backward. Settling into sectarianism, guided by specious essentialisms about the other and ourselves, only ensures that a new generation of victims, and victims of victims, will be born and die.