The presence of Jews on the Italian peninsula can be traced back as far as 200 bce during the late Roman Republican period. Italian Jewry is especially diverse, comprising a mix of Italian, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Persian and Libyan Jews. The 30,000 Jews living in Italy today form a thriving community, which is concentrated in the major cities of Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence and Leghorn (Livorno). Interest in Jewish culture is wide-spread among the wider Italian population, though knowledge about Judaism is often quite limited. Kosher food is available in the main cities that have a large community. The representative body of Italian Jewry is the Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (UCEI), the Union of the Italian Jewish Community – the Italian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Italian Jews maintained a trading and residential presence in both Italy and the territories of the Ottoman Empire, and even those Italian Jews who settled permanently in the Ottoman Empire kept their Tuscan or Italian nationality. In the late 19th century, with the establishment of the new unified Italian state, Italy’s Jews obtained full equality.
Between the two World Wars, Libya was an Italian colony and, as in other north African countries, the colonial power found the local Jews useful as an educated élite. Following Libyan independence, and especially after the Six Day War in 1967, most Libyan Jews left either for Israel or for Italy. Today, most members of the “Sephardic” synagogues in Rome are in fact Libyan.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, marking an important moment in the warming of relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community. On January 17, 2016, Pope Francis similarly visited the Great Synagogue after laying wreaths, at memorials, respectively, to Jews murdered in the Shoah, and to the memory of a two-year-old boy killed in a 1982 terrorist attack on the synagogue.
Italian Jews have long been fully integrated in Italian political and cultural life. Two Jews served as the country’s prime minister: Alessandro Fortis in 1905-1906, and Luigi Luzzatti in 1910-1911. Ernesto Nathan was mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913. More recently, Emanuele Fiano, a former director of the UCEI and past president of the Milan Jewish community, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Rita Levi-Montalcini was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Prominent Italian Jewish writers include Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, author of If This Is a Man. Jews were even active in Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement, and a Jew,