Jewish Journal

Cure for anti-Semitism in Italy? Two Mormons and a rabbi in Florence

by Mark Paredes

November 19, 2011 | 12:40 pm

While Europeans are justifiably concerned about Italy’s ability to put its financial house in order, philo-Semites like me are also worried about the country’s rising level of anti-Semitism. According to the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, nearly half of Italians expressed opinions “in some way hostile to Jews,” with 12 per cent in the “fully fledged anti-Semite” category. Of some comfort was the news that only 22 per cent of young Italians (18-29) were considered to be hostile to Jews.

The committee’s report brings together two groups that I care deeply about: Jews and Italians. I served my Mormon mission in Italy (Sicily, Apulia, Basilicata), majored in Italian at college, and have lived in the country three times. During my missionary service, I did notice anti-black sentiment directed at African immigrants, but did not discuss Jews or Judaism with Italians. [This was, after all, in my pre-Jewish obsession days].
Imagine my joy, then, to receive an email from an old contact, Dr. Jonathan Curci, during the same week that the Chamber of Deputies issued its disturbing report. Jonathan is a Mormon academic with a deep love for Jews and Judaism who is trying to bring both communities together in Italy. This week he and Dr. Raffaele Petroni, an LDS Middle East analyst, joined with Rabbi Shalom Bahbout, Chief Rabbi of Naples, at an event held at a synagogue in Florence. According to Jonathan, Rabbi Bahbout has spoken to a Mormon congregation in Taranto and is a good friend of the local LDS community.

The event’s purpose was to commemorate both the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the dedication of the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews by LDS Apostle Orson Hyde 170 years ago. The three men discussed current events and themes from Dr. Curci and Dr. Petroni’s book on Israel, the Middle East, and the Arab-Israeli conflict (“L’esistenza dello stato d’Israele, il Medio Oriente e la comunità internazionale. Considerazioni sul conflitto”).

There are 25,000 Mormons in Italy, and this is a big step forward in LDS-Jewish relations for them. I applaud Rabbi Bahbout for his support and Drs. Curci and Petroni for their vision. Let us hope that many similar events will take place throughout the peninsula. With construction of an LDS temple underway in Rome, Italian Mormons will soon have even more opportunities to share their understanding of covenant Israel with their Jewish friends. The growth of the LDS Church in Italy should be of comfort to anyone who worries about anti-Semitism in the country. As the Italian saying goes, “Chi bene incomincia è a metà dell’opera” (Well begun is half done). This looks like a great beginning to me.   

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Mark Paredes is a former Mormon bishop currently living in Los Angeles. He has worked for the ZOA, the American Jewish Congress, and the Consulate General of Israel in Los...

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