Last week, all that stood between our taxi and our hotel in Rome were 1 million anti-war protesters.
My wife and I had gone to Italy for a brief vacation -- the editor fiddling while the world burns -- but found a Europe seething with emotion over America's actions in the Middle East and the world. You can escape from current events by spending a few hours inside the Vatican Museum or a couple hours at a trattoria, but eventually, back on the streets, the talk is of war, Bush and war.
When we finally made it to the hotel, Nicola, the desk clerk, tried to make light of the marchers, to put us Yanks at ease.
"Oh, what is it they're saying? No to war, yes to peace? No George Bush, yes Barbra Streisand?" Nicola believed "Stony End" was Barbra's best album, and launched into a full-throated Babs imitation. He was the only European we met not eager to offer us criticism of the war.
Rainbow-colored flags with the word PACE (peace) lined the streets of Florence and Rome, as prevalent, if not more so, as American flags here after Sept. 11. The French magazine Le Match ran a huge photo of President Jacque Chirac under the headline, "A Warrior for Peace." Bookstores featured the latest popular nonfiction work, "La Nuova Intifada" ("The New Intifada"). I thumbed through it -- it largely blames Israel and its supporter, the United States, for "the failure of Mideast peace process and the lack of concessions of the Israeli government."
Nobody I spoke with supported the war. To them, it was about oil, Israel or power. It was Bully America against Third World Iraq. At a cafe in Siena, the diners at the table beside us were international: Italian, Eastern European, French.
"The war," said one young man, "is for Bush and Sharon. Sharon is a butcher." The others nodded, "Tell us something we don't know."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made it clear that he supports George Bush, but evidently his sentiments are not unanimously shared. Even so, at least in Italy, people weren't anti-American. They were waving the PACE flag, not burning the American one. People wondered what we thought of the war -- their belief that this is "Bush's war" prevented them from understanding that other Americans themselves also supported it.
Watching all this, warily, are Europe's Jews. "We are zero percent of the Italian population," a Roman Jewish woman told me. Statistically, she's close to correct -- there's about 35,000 Jews among a population of 60 million. They are torn about the war, and at the same time feeling especially vulnerable.
In Florence, one member of that city's 1,000-member community said things haven't been quite the same since Sept. 11. There is a great deal of acceptance of Jews among all but a fringe group, she told me, but the Muslim population is growing, and the looming war is making everyone uneasy.
"I don't like it," a Roman shopkeeper said in refrence to the war. Only late in our conversation did he reveal -- as I ingeniously suspected from the Hebrew birkat ha'esek (business blessing) by his cash register -- that he was Jewish. The war is keeping tourists away, and making him feel insecure.
The concerns of the relatively few Jews in Italy pales against those of the much more visible Jewish populations of France, which numbers some 650,000, and Germany.
"This war is going to be seen by all Muslims in France as a war against Arabs, and by others as a war for Israel," a French Jewish anti-war protester told one of our reporters there: "That makes me very scared of what might happen here if there's a war."
While the number of anti-Semitic incidents in those countries has dropped recently -- after increasing greatly in 2002 -- officials fear that attacks will surge if the United States invades Iraq.
On the plane home, I read a story in the International Herald Tribune about how Marine sergeants must pick one soldier from their platoon to be the first to take off his protective gear to determine if the danger from a chemical or a biological attack is really past. If he survives without symptoms for five minutes, the rest of his platoon can take off their masks.
The image of that first Marine sticks with me as I think of the Jews of Europe now. If the war drags on, becoming even more despised, very likely the first population to feel the sting of retribution will be Europe's Jews. While we here are ensconced in our duct-taped rooms, they will be standing outside, with all of their masks off. Â