This is a letter to the editor of The Occident and American Jewish Advocate about the Edgardo Mortara case in Italy. The letter appeared in the September 1, 1859 edition of the paper and was written by Simon Bermann of Richmond, VA.
The Mortara case involved a Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who had been secretly baptised as an infant by his Catholic maid when he was seriously ill. When Mortara was six years old, the conversion became known and the Vatican, in accordance with Catholic law forbidding Jewish families from raising Catholic children, removed the child from his parents and placed him in the care of the church. In 1858, Sir Moses Montefiore travelled to Rome in an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to the pope for Mortara’s return to his family. He was not granted an audience with the pope, and Mortara was never returned to his family.
In this letter to the editor, the writer, Simon Bermann, objects to Sir Moses Montefiore’s visit to Rome. It was clear, he claims, that Montefiore’s trip would not be successful, and he states that, although not with his parents, Edgardo Mortara is safe and well taken care of. Bermann is keen not to “wake up the slumbering tiger” (i.e., the church) who might then harm the Jewish people even more. He reminds readers of the terrible way that the Catholic Church has treated Jews in the past:
Had any one forgotten the cruel butcheries, the horror-awakening, murderous deeds which fanatical Catholicism, at the same time intent on plunder, has occasioned among the Jewish nation?
He wonders why the community is speaking up now, on behalf of Mortara, having been silent in the face of other larger atrocities: “Why is Mortara better than other affected parents who have been visited, by the same misfortune?” He believes that the pope is using the Mortara case to test the Jewish reaction:
And if my fears do not deceive me, a heavy, storm is impending over us. We may expect a crusade against us. I believe that the Mortara boy robbery was done by the Pope as a mere advance measure, in order to see how the dark drama of the thirteenth century would be received now.
He is afraid that due to the enlightenment, the church is feeling threatened and will lash out against the Jewish community. Montefiore’s trip worries Bermann; he feels that nothing positive was accomplished and that the trip might cause the church to treat the Jewish community more harshly in the future.
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Edgardo Mortara Case – In late 1857, an inquisitor in Rome heard that a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, had been secretly baptized by his Catholic maid when falling seriously ill as an infant. According to Catholic law, this made the boy Catholic, and the law forbade Jewish families from raising Catholic children. In 1858, papal soldiers seized the child and took him to the Vatican, where he was placed in the care of the church. The church refused to return the boy, causing international outrage. Many international leaders, including Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I, Napoleon III of France, and US President Ulysses S. Grant, tried to influence the pope to return the child to his family. After six months of advocating in Britain, Sir Moses Montefiore travelled to Rome to try and return the boy to his Jewish family. However, the pope refused to meet with Montefiore, who returned to Britain having failed in his attempt. Mortara remained with the Catholic Church and became a priest. The case has continued to be discussed in Jewish and Catholic circles. The Mortara case was one of the reasons for the Jewish community’s opposition to the beatification of Pius IX by Pope John Paul II. For Catholic theologians, the case is an example of the tension between Catholic and secular morality, constantly debated between liberal and conservative branches of the religion.
The Jews of Italy - The Italian Jewish community has ancient roots that can be traced back to the Roman era in the second century BCE. In ancient Rome the community was highly organized with several synagogues. With the introduction of Christianity to Italy the situation of Italian Jews generally declined, and anti-Jewish laws were passed. Similar to other European countries, the Middle Ages brought persecution and expulsions. However, this was also a flourishing period for Bible commentary, Talmud, Hebrew grammar, and halacha (Jewish law). Jews were also known as skilled medical practitioners, some serving as physicians to the kings, nobles, and clergy. The fifteenth century was a time of migration: many Spanish Jews arrived in Italy following the Spanish expulsion of 1492, and a few years later, more arrived from France. In the sixteenth century, when many Italian areas fell under Spanish rule, Jews fled the inquisition and moved to southern Italy and other European countries. This was also the period when the first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice and other prohibitions were issued against the Jews including a yellow badge, ghettos in additional cities, forced labour, and expulsions. This continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Influenced by liberal thought, French rule in Italy, and the decline of the Papal influence, the Jews slowly gained emancipation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1910, a Jew was prime minister of Italy, one of the first in the world. Another Jew served as mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913, and Jews also served as senators. Italian Jews fought in World War I, half of them as officers. The 1930s brought Mussolini, fascism, and, ultimately, anti-Semitism to Italy, influenced by Nazism and the racial ideologies of the time. Despite the fascist regime’s alliance with Germany, the Italians did not initially cooperate with the deportation of Jews to the camps. The deportation of Italian Jews only began in September 1943, when the Allies captured southern Italy. While many Jews were saved by local Italians and the Church, approximately 7,500 Jews were murdered. The Jewish community has declined since World War II due to immigration to Israel and other countries, assimilation, and low birth rates. It is estimated that 45,000 Jews live in Italy today.
Sir Moses Montefiore - Moses Montefiore was born on October 24, 1784 in Livorno, Italy while his parents were visiting their Italian family. The Montefiore family returned to London where Moses grew up, was educated, and began his career in business. He became one of the twelve “Jew Brokers” – Jewish merchants who had the right to trade on the London exchange. In 1812, he married Judith Cohen, whose sister was married to Nathan Mayer Rothschild. The two brothers-in-law became successful business partners, until in Moses retired from business in 1824 and began a civic career. After retiring from business, Montefiore devoted his life to philanthropy. He invested much money and effort helping Jews throughout the world, travelling to Syria, Italy, Russia, Morocco, and Romania to protect Jews from blood libels, pogroms, and other troubles. He was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1835–1874 and a member of London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue. In Israel, he is perhaps best known for building Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem. He also donated large sums of money to the promotion of industry, education, and health among the Jewish community of Palestine. One of these projects was the building of a windmill that still stands next to the Yemin Moshe neighbourhood that was named after him. Sir Moses Montefiore died in 1885 at the age of 100.
The Occident – The Occident and American Jewish Advocate was published in Philadelphia from 1843 to 1869. Founded by Isaac Leeser, the newspaper’s subtitle was: “A Monthly Periodical Devoted to the Diffusion of Knowledge on Jewish Literature and Religion.” Leeser was a defender of Judaism in the general press and an opponent of the missionary activity toward Jews that was appearing in Christian publications. Leeser used his newspaper to fight against discrimination against Jews, to support traditional Judaism, and to oppose Reform Judaism.