On this episode, we had two conversations about the history of Fascism. We first spoke with Gord Hill about the history of Anti-Fascist movements and the connections between Fascism and Colonialism. We then spoke with Shira Klein about how to understand the widespread Jewish support for Fascism that existed in interwar Italy.
Sam: I’m Sam.
David: I’m David.
Sam: And this is Treyf.
David: Welcome back to Treyf, the only Jewish podcast to take a very generous Christmas vacation.
Sam: I just checked the database, and David you are correct.
David: The database?
Sam: I don’t know, the database of Jewish podcasts.
David: Not database?
David: But we were away for quite some time. We took a break for a month or two. And why was that, Sam?
Sam: We took a break because I was studying for the bar exam in the province of Quebec, Canada, North America, world.
David: Shkoyach for all that time studying.
Sam: I never want to sit at a desk and look at a book again.
David: Well it’s nice to have you back here and away from the world of legal textbooks.
Sam: Yes, I’m very happy to be back in the studio. It’s a new Gregorian year..
David: Yeah! Happy New Year, Sam.
Sam: Thank you David, same to you. Did you do anything exciting on New Year’s Eve?
David: Yeah I went to the annual New Year’s Eve noise demonstration. Just outside of Montreal, there’s a series of prisons that are all clustered together and so about 100-150 of us take a series of school buses out there every year and we just light up some fireworks, make a lot of noise, and show solidarity to folks inside.
Sam: And this isn’t something that only happens in Montreal, it happens across North America I think?
David: I mean if you’re curious about this and you’ve never heard about it before, there’s a great episode of a podcast called From Embers about the tradition of prison noise demonstrations, and I’ll just put a link in the show notes so you can check that out.
Sam: Good old show notes.
David: And yeah, I thought we could maybe just set some intentions for the New Year of the show.
Sam: But David, before we look forward I think it might be wise to take a moment to look backwards.
David: That’s a very good point. You know, the first few years of the show had different themes to them. Like the first one was trying to respond to Jewish media a lot.
Sam: Yeah, and then in the following year we kind of moved on from responding to the news explicitly, and then focused more on different Jewish leftist formations in North America, and talked to a bunch of people who were involved in different kinds of organizing.
David: Yeah. And so this year on the show, we were sort of going in this direction more gradually over the past year anyway, but what we’re trying to focus on is having conversations about the ideas that are animating a lot of the political conversations that we find ourselves having.
Sam: And while that might sound intentionally vague it kind of is (laughter). We don’t have a clear game plan necessarily, but we wanted to try this different course and kind of see how it goes if folks have ideas. Please get in touch. treyfpodcast [at] gmail [dot] com.
David: Yeah, and so we wanted to start off the year with a series of conversations we’ve been having about Fascism and the rise of far-right movements, across not just where we live but all over the world.
Sam: Okay David, I know that this is a hobbyhorse of yours. This is something you’ve been pushing for the last couple of months and we are finally at the beginning stages of it. Can you talk a little bit about why you think this is so important right now?
David: Well I think there’s a lot of reasons why. But one of them is that in this particular moment I think that the radical left – at least the anarchist parts of the radical left that I feel very strongly embedded in here – is having a hard time being able to articulate very coherently the degree to which the rise of these far-right movements represents continuity or a discontinuity from what we’ve seen before. And because of that I think a lot of liberal narratives about how to understand what’s happening right now are sort of taking over. And what we’re hoping to do is through conversations, get a clear understanding of what we’re seeing happen.
Sam: And we have two people on the show today who are going to help us begin this process.
David: Yeah, two relatively unrelated conversations about fascism (laughter). The first person that we’re talking to is Gord Hill. Gord is an Indigenous author and activist, he’s been involved in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements here for several decades, he’s a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, and recently published ‘The Antifa Comic Book’ with Arsenal Pulp Press.
Sam: Yeah, it was it was really cool to chat with him. He also wrote The ‘500 Years of Resistance’ comic book and the ‘Anti-Capitalist Resistance’ comic book. And for our second interview, we talked with Shira Klein who’s a professor at Chapman University. We discussed her relatively recent book, ‘Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism’.
David: Yeah, and I’ve sort of read about Jewish support for fascism in Italy for quite some time but Shira’s book is the first real study that I’ve come across talking about this historically and trying to understand it. And so it was really interesting to talk to her.
Sam: And so without further ado, here’s your episode of Treyf for the 14th of Adar, 5779.
Gord Hill: My name is Gord Hill and I’m from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation and I live on the West coast of British Columbia, and I’ve been involved in anarchist and anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and indigenous resistance movements for many years.
Sam: We wanted to chat about your relatively new book called ‘The Antifa Comic Book,’ and to kind of get things started can you just chat a little bit about how it came together? Who’s the intended audience? And what was your goal in putting this together?
David: That’s a lot of questions (laughter)
Gord Hill: Ok, well over a year ago, like last September in 2017, Arsenal Pulp Press contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in working on an Antifa comic book, because of the events in Charlottesville, the Unite the Right rally, where Heather Hayer was killed by the neo-Nazi who drove his car into the rally. So I started working on it. The audience it’s intended for is the Anti-Fascist movement and generally people who might be interested in what Antifa is and its history. It’s a history of Fascism and Anti-Fascist resistance movements. So anybody who might have an interest in the origins of the Fascist movement as we know it today or how Anti-Fascist resistance fought against the rise of Fascist movements through the 20s in the 30s, and even up until today. So that’s generally what the book is.
David: As a reader of the book, I found that I had a bit of a different feel or flavour from some of your previous work and I’m curious if for you it feels that way?
Gord Hill: Oh yeah, it is really different for me. Because I mean with the 500 years of Indigenous comic book, I mean some of those comics I’d done in 2004 or 2005, so they’re almost 15 years old now. So I became more proficient in the craft of making graphic stories. And there is a connection between Capitalism, Fascist movements, and Colonialism. But I don’t really get into that in the comic book, because with this comic book I didn’t have a lot of time to do that bigger analysis about Fascism and Capitalism and Western society. And so I just stuck to the most basic thing – Fascist movements, Anti-Fascist resistance – to get the comic produced as quickly as possible because that’s what the publishers wanted. So it’s not a big part of the comic book.
David: Yeah, I mean before the book, at least the writing of yours that I’ve read mostly focused on resistance to Colonialism and to Capitalism. Both movements you’ve been a part of for some time. And I’m curious if you’ve also been a part of Anti-Fascist work in a similar way or had a similar relationship between the writing happening with this project?
Gord Hill: Yeah, back in the late 80s to the mid-90s, I was involved in Anti-Fascist organizing in Vancouver and different Anti-Racist mobilizations. So one rally is when Tony McAleer, who was a neo-Nazi skinhead at the time, was organizing to bring Tom Metzger from the White Aryan Resistance up to Vancouver. We organized a massive counter-rally, we had a very large militant contingent, and we found out where the hotel was that the meeting was supposed to occur at. And then we marched up to it and surrounded it and the neo-Nazi skinheads had to basically run for their lives out the back door to escape. We had a lot of success I think, the neo-Nazi movement in Vancouver never really got to be very large and we learned a lot from ARA Toronto and some of the other groups that were active at the time. I’d done a lot of research during those years about the fascist movements especially those that were active at the time, like Aryan Nations, Aryan Resistance Movement, and I was able to use that as kind of a basis to start with. But I had to do a lot of research, re-learning even about Fascist Italy. That one I just thought was really important as a basis for starting the novel. But anyway, yeah I was involved in Anti-Fascist organizing up until the mid-90s or so.
David: I also want to get back to something you were saying earlier about analysis. That you didn’t have a lot of time to get into a broader analysis of how you understand fascism. Because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way of understanding Fascism, sort of first-wave European Fascism, as a form of Colonialism ‘come home to roost,’ so to speak. And how that understanding has sort of been taken out from the mainstream history of Fascism, even sometimes on the left. And I’m wondering if you’ve noticed this as well?
Gord Hill: I mean if you look at Italy, they were involved in Northern Africa, they had colonies in Northern Africa, same with Germany. I mean they had colonies in Africa by the late 1800s, and the genocide they committed there, and those same soldiers came back, the same military forces came back. I think you could extend the analysis of the roots of Fascism back to the Roman imperial system. They adopted a lot of the same symbols: the Roman salute, which we now know as the Fascist salute, the eagle standard, all this type of stuff comes from the Roman Empire. And of course that’s one of the origins of Western civilization: Colonialism, Imperialism, going out conquering new lands, expansion. I mean this is all part of the Fascist politic that we know today. But like I said, I just didn’t really have time to get into it.
Sam: So bringing things back to the present moment, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the growth of the far-right relates to Settler Colonialism in so-called Canada?
Gord Hill: Well I think the motivator for this resurgence of Fascist and far-right movements today is largely immigration. And if you look back in history you can see periods of time when the far-right has experienced a very large resurgence, like back in the late 60s early 70s with the National Front in Britain. It was about immigration, that’s what made the National Front grow to become this much larger entity. And through the history of Fascist movements, the rise and decline of them, since the 60s, immigration has been a big part of it and I think that’s the same today. The conflict in Syria and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, different countries taking them in, they use it to exploit people’s fears about immigrants and people of colour. And in Canada, with the rise of a far-right you would see more of a Settler Colonial against indigenous movements. But I think their main focus right now is Islamophobia. I think that’s their main recruiting tool, anti-immigration in general, people of colour immigrants in particular. I think these are the biggest things that are the motors pushing the growth of the far-right today.
David: Where we’re living, we’ve got to see the rise of the far-right in ways that are quite disturbing. And one thing that’s been an interesting difference from maybe the last wave in the 90s, at least are we are, is that the groups that they’re targeting are slightly different. So in the 1990s, Indigenous peoples here were definitely a target, Jewish people were a target, in a way that perhaps they’re still targets now but they’re not at the top of the list. And in the Jewish communities that we’re from, there’s definitely some attempt to recruit. And I’m wondering if you’ve seen this happening in different Indigenous communities? Is the far right is trying to reach out as well?
Gord Hill: Yeah, I think you know we had the incidents in Kahnawake a few months ago where La Meute, which is the far-right organization that is really large in Quebec, attempted to hold a rally in Kahnawake and they’re obviously trying to build some kind of alliance with Indigenous people there. I mean at those La Meute rallies there’s always a couple of people with the Warrior flag walking around, as well. So for some far-right groups this might be a way to like say: oh we’re not really racist, you know we’re reaching out to these Indigenous people. But it’s all a different context. If you go to Saskatchewan and Manitoba and you have a resurgence of the far right, Indigenous people are going to be a main target. In Toronto, you have a large immigrant population and more refugees coming in and the far-right, that’s their main focus. And the same with the rallies in Ottawa, these anti-Islam rallies. But in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the refugee thing isn’t at the top of the list there. So anti-Indigenous racism becomes even more prevalent. You see all the incidents in Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, and all these different assaults, even murders occurring. So I think the context changes from place to place.
Sam: What do you think people today on the radical left don’t understand about Fascism? What are some of the things you came across while doing your research that you think folks on the radical left aren’t engaging with enough or don’t understand about Fascism and the far-right?
Gord Hill: Well I think looking historically there’s always been this underestimation of the far-right and its capabilities. So in Fascist Italy, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, I don’t think they really took the threat seriously. And so they actually prevented their members from participating in the armed resistance, which was Arditi del Popolo, an armed anti-fascist formation that was created after the black shirts, which was the fascist paramilitary group, began this kind of campaign of terror and murder and assaults on the left. And in Nazi Germany, again they really underestimated the ability of the Nazis. When the Nazis were on the verge of gaining power, when Hitler was given the chancellorship, the slogan of the Communist Party in Germany was, ‘After Hitler, Us.’ After the Nazis fail, it’ll be our turn – the communists, the revolutionary left – that’s going to be our moment. And today I think they’re still, they’re underestimated because when you look at them, and this was the same with the Nazis from what I gathered back in the 20s, when you look at them they kind of look like buffoons and clowns. You know they’re dangerous, but they’re just kind of idiots. And you look at the far-right now, and you’ve got these guys showing up wearing a flag as a cape, and they’re wearing this old Greek armour and stuff like that, they look like idiots and you can’t really take them seriously. But there’s elements within their whole movement that are really thinking, you know they obviously have alliances with wealthy individuals who are financing them. And generally it’s actually it’s still a very small movement or a composition of movements but you can see the dangers that they represent even though they’re a small movement. You’ve had two or three dozen murders in the last two or three years carried out by far-right individuals, including massacres in Synagogues, Mosques, the Sikh temple shootings in the States. I mean, in Italy the Left was completely unprepared for the Fascist offensive. The Socialist Party, a very large party that controlled entire regions of Italy, within months their organization was dismantled and basically destroyed by the black shirts. There is still that element today where a lot of leftists don’t take their threat seriously, they don’t understand the threat, they basically underestimate the Fascist threat.
Sam: So Gord before we let you go, David and I have a segment on the show where we kind of give a congratulations or a big-ups to a person, a group, a thing that’s happening. We call it a Shkoyach. Do you have a Shkoyach to give to anyone, to an activist group, or to resistance that’s happening now?
Gord Hill: Maybe the Gitimt’en clan and the Unis’tot’en who are facing imminent police raid in order to force through a pipeline up in northern B.C. And they’ve been out there for many years since 2010 or 2011, I think, the Unis’tot’en have had their camp there to stop pipelines, so that would be my choice.
David: Yeah, I mean our eyes were on Twitter before this and will continue to be after, waiting to hear word from what’s happened with folks out there. So our thoughts are with them as well. And depending on when this episode comes out, we’ll probably have more updates on where things are at. But Gord, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us especially today as all our thoughts are with folks in Unis’tot’en, thanks for taking the time.
Gord Hill: All right. Thanks for having me.
Jessica: Hey Treyf friends, this is Jessica. I’m calling because I just got back from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights conference and I want everyone to know how incredible it was. I learned so much. I was so inspired. Incredible Palestinian, Black and Brown leadership, Indigenous teachers telling stories of their struggles and teaching their wisdom. Skills shares, and campaigns to join, and really beautiful organizing and teaching and learning. So big shout out to all of the folks from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights who work so hard all the time and put on an incredible conference. I’m really honoured to be part of such a powerful movement. See you at the next conference.
Shira Klein: My name is Shira Klein. I’m a professor of history at Chapman University, which is in Orange County in California. I teach modern Jewish history, my training is in modern Jewish history, and I just wrote a book called Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism. It came out with Cambridge University Press in early 2018.
David: Well thanks so much for coming on the show.
Shira Klein: Thank you for having me.
Sam: So we invited you on to talk about your recent book, and I was hoping that you could just start by giving a little bit of context about how the book came together?
Shira Klein: That’s a good question. I was doing a PhD in Jewish history at New York University and I started on a particular topic and then discovered that I didn’t like it and I was sort of in a vacuum and searching frantically for what to study. I had Italian as a third language and I wanted to travel somewhere beautiful and I had an interest in the modern period and particularly in World War 2 and I put all that together and the book is the end result of a process that took, I would say, 10 years from start to finish.
David: And the book has different sections but the section of the book that we wanted to talk the most about is a section that deals with the mass support for Fascism that existed among Italian Jews, both before Fascism gained state power but also during the first 15 years of Mussolini’s rule. And I was wondering when you first learned about that history and whether it was something that surprised you?
Shira Klein: It did absolutely surprise me because coming into this topic without knowing much about it I had this notion of Fascism as something fairly scary. Fascism had persecuted Jews in Italy so I was surprised to find that Italian Jews, by and large, did not oppose Fascism. And some of them fervently supported it. And I would say most of them accepted it or were just indifferent to it but very few vehemently opposed it. And I’d known about a few famous Jews, what I would call celebrity Fascists, and those were pretty well known, I’d heard of them. But the more research I did the more I discovered this sort of acceptance of Fascism that was almost a given for most Jews. And again in different degrees, some would ardently support it and others were just indifferent or didn’t really care but certainly didn’t oppose it. And the Anti-Fascist Jews, and there were some famous Anti-Fascist Jews as well, they never actually attracted a mass following.
Sam: When we’re talking today about the relationship between Jews and Fascism, we’re often looking at the historical example of Germany, and we’re doing this for obvious reasons. But why do you think the example of Italy has been rarely examined in comparison? Why are we talking about it less?
Shira Klein: That’s an astute question because in the context of modern Jewish history no country has been studied as much as Germany, and Italy definitely lags behind in the historiography, in other words in the volume of research that has been done on that country. I think part of the reason Italy lags behind so much is that there is this assumption that Mussolini was small fry, so to speak. And that whatever Italy did under Fascism, it never was more than a pale imitation of big bad Germany. And this is where we get into another of the book’s points which is what historians call the myth of the good Italian. And the idea is that Italian conduct both before and during the war was really relatively benign, not just towards its Jews but Italian occupation of the Balkans, Italian colonization of Africa, they were all really not so bad. And particularly when it comes to Jews, Italy’s main role has been seen as saving Jews from the Germans. And historians have recently exposed that as a myth, and that’s why they call it the myth of the good Italian. And my book definitely builds on what historians have said about that. But I think that myth is still very much around outside of academia, so for people who don’t really study this. And that’s one of the reasons that Italy has received far less attention, is this misguided notion that actually Italy didn’t really do anything serious under Fascism or during the war.
David: And in reading the book I was actually really surprised, there’s one part of the book you write about, on the eve of the government takeover, that Jews in Italy were disproportionally represented in the Fascist party itself. And you give different explanations for this support and representation in the book, but it seems like the most direct one has to do with class. And I was wondering if you could just talk a bit about how that worked.
Shira Klein: Well to understand why Jews initially supported Fascism you have to go back a few years and look at Italy of the teens and twenties of the 20th century. And Italy in the 1910s and 1920s was incredibly polarized. So to the left, one polar was the left, made up of a militant working class – these are workers who faced very harsh conditions on the factory floors, very little representation in government, sort of no maximum hours, no minimum age, really difficult conditions. And to the right of the political spectrum was the middle class and these were people like factory managers, white collar professionals, and they feared an uprising by the workers. Then in the center, in between these two polars, was a fairly weak government that the left felt was not doing enough for the left and the right felt was not doing enough to stop the left. And so what you get right after World War 1 in particular, is that workers staged enormous strikes. We’re talking about land grabs, and closures of factories that would disable the economy for weeks on end. And the middle class responded by saying: we need a more authoritarian government. And that’s really how Fascism comes to power, on the shoulders of the middle class who is extremely fearful of Bolshevist-style revolution as happened in Russia. Now Jews were more likely to be in the middle class and therefore they were more likely to breathe an audible sigh of relief when Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922 and soon after ends the government as it was it sets up the Fascist regime. Because to them, as authoritarian as Mussolini might be, what Mussolini represented to them was the end of the fear of a working-class revolt that they had a lot to lose from. So they were very pleased when Mussolini comes to power and that’s one of the reasons I found in memoirs, in letters, in the sources that I looked at, the reasons that Jews were giving for supporting Fascism, or as I said at least accepting it.
Sam: And in this climate of upheaval, how did anti-Semitism in the country play into this dynamic?
Shira Klein: Well going back to your question on Germany and on the comparison between them, this ties into that as well because Mussolini was not Hitler, and Fascism was not Nazism. And I think one of the differences between them was that for Nazism, there were two clear enemies: One was the left, and the other was the Jews. In Italy, for the right, for Fascism, Jews were never a central enemy. And it’s not to say that Fascism was not anti-Semitic, it certainly was. But really, the main enemy for Fascism was a class enemy. And so the relative absence of anti-Semitism as a party agenda for Fascism played into the fact that Jews could more comfortably support Fascism. But I do want to say that anti-Semitism was rife as part of public opinion and as part of Fascism, and as part of Catholic teachings and it was everywhere in Italy. So it’s not to say that it didn’t exist. It certainly did. But it wasn’t there as a party agenda in the same way that it was for Nazism.
David: So something that also struck me from the book was you attributed this at least partially to the lack of migration of Eastern European Jews, and that the Fascist regime just didn’t have Jewish immigration as an issue. And so, can you maybe just talk a bit about how that played out and what that meant for anti-Semitism there?
Shira Klein: Yes absolutely. You know, and I struggled with writing that portion of the book because I didn’t want it to seem as I though I was saying that since there were fewer Eastern European Jews in Italy, therefore there was less to be anti-Semitic about. Really what I was trying to get at was that in places like Germany, France, Britain, New York, generally wherever immigrants went in large numbers, anti-Semites would pounce on that and say look they’re so different from us, they’re unassimilable, they speak a different language, they wear different clothes, they work in different jobs. In Italy there wasn’t that excuse for anti-Semites. There just wasn’t a very large migration by Eastern European Jews. And probably the main reason for that was economic, because Italy wasn’t as leading a power economically as Britain or Germany or America or France, but there were plenty of other things that anti-Semites in Italy did say. And one thing that you see more so in Italy than in other countries is the Catholic strain of anti-Semitism. The idea of Jews as Christ killers, or ideas about Jews being deformed or having a tail or having six fingers on their hand or little horns under their hair or things like that. Those definitely surface in Italy in the interwar period.
Sam: So we actually we actually come from Quebec where the residue of the Catholic Church perception of Jews still persists today.
Shira Klein: You get that too? Tails?
Sam: Yes. I mean, not my generation. But it’s not that far removed. The church kind of only lost power in the 60s…
Shira Klein: Interesting, Wow.
David: So we actually give these workshops sometimes about anti-Semitism, and how to fight anti-Semitism, how to understand it, and one of the things that we often try to emphasize to people is: fighting anti-Semitism through relationships of solidarity people who are also fighting related systems of oppression. And there was a part of the book that I actually found a bit difficult to read which is when you described Jewish support for fascism in Italy as part of a broader historical trend of sort of looking to the state for alliance rather than with other people facing oppression from the State. You actually reference the work, I think the historian was named Yosef Yerushalmi who did this survey of Jewish history, could you talk a bit about this pattern that you’re pointing to?
Shira Klein: Sure, yeah, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi was a famous historian who one of his famous pieces is a piece that talks about vertical alliances versus horizontal alliances in Jewish history. And Yerushalmi was, let me preface this by saying that he was writing at a certain point in time soon after Hanna Arendt had written a sort of evaluation of how Jews had responded to Nazism, and implying that Jews could have foreseen a little bit more wisely what Nazism would do. And Yerushalmi takes this as a starting point, in response to that, that there was no way that Jews could have imagined that the State would turn against them in the way that the Nazi state did. And the reasons he gave for saying that there was no way that they could have known, was to look at Jewish history from antiquity to modernity, and see what kind of relationship the Jews had with the State. And he says that no matter what the period, Jews always sought and were almost always given protection from the State or by the State. And he shows that at almost no point in time where there horizontal alliances that made sense for the Jews, that were practical for the Jews. Horizontal alliances as meaning groups that also suffered oppression from the State, as you implied David. And just to give an example, in the Middle Ages the people who were also downtrodden, who tended to be masses of poor subjects, they didn’t tend to be very friendly towards Jews. And so Jews feared them, they feared the mobs, they feared the masses, and they sought protection from the highest authorities. Whether they were the pope or whether it was the king, and this is what Yerushalmi called these vertical alliances or royal alliances he also calls them. And I found echoes of that reverberating in the decisions that Italian Jews made, because they sought protection from the State from this working-class threat, and this working-class threat wasn’t against them per se, right, but along with all the other Italian middle class, they saw an authoritarian government as the power that would be able to redeem them from this in the 20s.
Sam: So, one other element of the Jewish community support for fascism that you write about in the book deals with Mussolini’s plans for Colonialism and Imperialism outside of the Italian borders.
Shira Klein: You know it’s funny you should ask about that because I’m actually now working on a new book, my second book is going to be about exactly that question: Italian Jews and Italy’s African empire, or Italy’s African colonies. So it’s very much close to my heart at the moment. If we’re looking at a whole range of reasons why Italian Jews didn’t oppose Mussolini or did accept Mussolini, Colonialism was definitely another reason. Most Italians, Jews included, were anxious to see Italy get a slice of the cake of Africa, or they called it a place in the sun, that’s how it was known, that’s how Africa was known. And this is exactly what Mussolini promised. And in a way, he delivered. He promised to expand Italy’s empire and he spoke in terms of restoring Italy to its glory that it had during antiquity, right, under ancient Rome and most Italians liked this message. And when Mussolini took over Ethiopia in 1935 that was the zenith of his regime, that was a time when he received the most support from Italians and again, Jews included. And again there were exceptions, there were Jewish socialists who saw Colonialism as abusive, but they were definitely the exception.
David: I guess I’m just curious if there is anything about what excited the Jewish community about those plans, for Colonialism and Imperialism, that was different from any other Italians.
Shira Klein: That’s a fantastic question, and it’s not really something I get to in a book but it’s something that I’ve discovered since in my new research. And that is that Italian Jews saw Italian Imperialism as a chance to reach out to Jews living in Africa. There were thousands of Jews living in Libya which became an Italian colony in 1911, 1912 and there were thousands of Jews living in Ethiopia. And Italian Jews saw it as their role and their duty to reach out to Jews living in Africa. But Jews in Africa, in Libya or in Ethiopia some even in Somalia, weren’t always keen on the interventions by their European brethren.
David: (laughter) You don’t say…
Shira Klein: Italian Jews would say things like: it is up to us to bring the light of civilization to our Jewish brethren in Africa. To Italian Jews that light wasn’t there in the first place, right, that Jews in Africa were this benighted community that needed guidance from the enlightened white Jew, if that makes sense. And the assumption among Italian Jews was just as most Europeans assumed, white ranked above dark and Africans could only benefit from the progress that European civilization brought. This was the kind of language that was in vogue then.
Sam: Yeah, it sort of reminds me a bit of the complicated relationship between French and Algerian Jews during the French Colonization of Algeria.
Shira Klein: Yes, I think France is definitely the go-to point of comparison. In the French case, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, the Alliance for short, which was a French Jewish body and part of its rationale was to spread enlightenment among Jews, particularly in the French empire. And they again use very similar language, that they need to educate the benighted Jews in Africa or in the Middle East and bring them up to date with modern Western values. This seems to be not just an Italian story but perhaps a European one in general too.
Sam: Okay so moving a little bit away from the why part of this interview, towards looking back a little bit. A good portion of the book deals with the way that Jewish support for Fascism before 1938 was kind of willfully forgotten at the end of the war. Can you kind of talk about this process and then why you think it took place?
Shira Klein: Absolutely. And let me just explain 1938 for listeners as well because that was a big turning point in this story of Jewish support for Fascism. So as I said Jews generally accepted Fascism or even supported it until summer of 1938. And then something very dramatic happens which is that Italy under the Fascist regime enacts a series of racial laws very similar to the Nuremberg Laws. And these racial laws said things like Jews were not part of the Italian Aryan Nation, they had no right to serve in the military anymore, they had no right to work in many professions, they couldn’t marry non-Jews, they couldn’t send their children to school anymore, they couldn’t employ non-Jews. And the list went on and on and on. And by 1939, 1940 there were dozens and dozens of regulations saying what Jews could and could not do. After that, and particularly after World War 2, Jews were no longer supporters of Fascism, right. They saw Fascism as a movement that had betrayed them. And so Italian Jews tried to minimize their pre-1938 support of Fascism. So as a historian, what we do is we go to archives and we go to as many archives as we can, and look at as many documents as we can in these archives. And in one of the archives I was in Italy, of a Jewish community, I was in lots of these but in one of them the archivist said: you have to run every single document that you consult by me and get approval to take notes from it or to scan it or to use it in your research. Just to clarify how unusual this is, you know if you go to an archive and you spend let’s say two or three weeks there and you go through hundreds of documents or sometimes thousands of documents, imagine what it means to run every single document by the archivist who’s also doing other things herself, right. This is very unusual and I asked the archivist: may I inquire as to why I need to run every document by you? And she said: well imagine that someone will later read your book and suddenly see there a mention of their grandparent or great grandparent and that mention said that they were Fascist. Imagine how the person reading your book would feel. So what this reflects to, this very unusual request, is a deep sense of discomfort that Italian Jews have today with this chapter of their history. A deep sense of discomfort that their grandparents or great grandparents had supported Fascism. I think that discomfort is also maybe a reason why not many people have written about it today. You know, it isn’t something easy to see if you see a memoir of someone saying: I was a fascist and proud of it. And I’ve seen so many memoirs like that. And that’s something that’s not easy to grapple with these days.
David: And I mean to be honest, before reading your book I don’t think I’ve ever read any real study engaging with, not even why Jews supported the Fascist regime in Italy, but even the fact that they did at all. Why do you think there isn’t more work on this? Do you think there’s just a lot of blocks similar to the one that you found at the archives?
Shira Klein: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s not so much the barriers, and it’s not so much the primary sources being unavailable, I think it’s more the kind of questions that researchers choose to ask. I think Italian Jewish history is so understudied and the sources are there, but I think it’s very understudied compared to certainly to German Jewry or French Jewry. And one of the reasons is demographics, I mean Italian Jewry was a much smaller community. In the modern period, it hovers at around 40,000. But I don’t think it’s smallness makes it any less significant. And I think, on the contrary, I think it’s easier for us to research that kind of small community which despite its smallness has left a vast documentary footprint. So really there are so many sources out there for historians to look at.
David: So I’m just thinking about the myth of the good Italian and the strength that it had even among Italian Jews who stayed in Italy. And I’m wondering if you see echoes of that myth today or reverberations into things that are more in our present moment?
Shira Klein: Yeah. So the myth of the good Italian is still very much around today. Many thought that there had been some mistake, that Hitler had somehow forced Mussolini or twisted his arm into passing these laws. And that is part of how I explain the myth of the good Italian and it taking such strong hold. And historians have questioned it, but there’s a very big gap between what historians say and what the public perceive. And I would say public opinion not just in Italy but among anyone today, if you were to ask someone: do you know anything about the Holocaust in Italy? Their knowledge is likely to come from non-academic sources. And I would say that one source that has really shaped what people think about Italy and the Holocaust today is ‘Life is Beautiful’. Have either of you watched it?
David: Yeah, a long time ago though
Sam: Yeah, quite some time ago.
Shira Klein: Yeah. It came out in 1998 so it’s it’s a little bit dated but I think it’s still very much shown on TV and it’s very well known. It was an incredibly successful film and you can find it in any number of languages and that is one of the films that I think has most shaped public opinion. It’s just totally and utterly false. It’s a beautiful film, it’s very very lovely to watch but it sells a version of history that just didn’t happen. Just to give one very brief example, it shows a Jewish man marrying a Catholic woman sometime around 1939. These are the two heroes, the hero and the heroine of the film. And that just couldn’t have happened. It was almost impossible for that to happen under the racial laws. So you get a sense of 1930s and 1940s Italy as being a very benign place for Jews to live. Here they are really showing Italians as very much benign actors in the 1930s and World War 2. And I think that Italy isn’t alone in its flattering image that it has and other countries grapple with their pasts and what they did in World War 2 and what their citizens did in World War 2, and some countries are actually so nervous about this that they enact laws. And Poland’s Holocaust law comes into mind, this is a law that was enacted just recently in the last couple of years, and it was in response to new scholarship about Polish culpability during World War 2 and seeing how Poland had a hand in persecuting Jews. And the result was a law that actually says you cannot accuse Poland of those kind of things now and if you do you’ll be fined. The original law actually said if you do you’ll go to prison. So the question of what role non-Jews played in the persecution of Jews in World War 2 is still a very thorny question today more than you might think right, given that so many years have passed since then. But it’s still thorny enough and painful enough to trigger new legislation in some countries.
David: Well Shira, I want to thank you, for writing the book first of all, but also for taking the time to talk with us. I know we’ve taken a lot of your time, thanks for speaking with us on the show today.
Shira Klein: Thank you so much for your excellent questions, some of which I still have to think about and really relate to my new research and will definitely help me along the way. So have a great day and I hope you keep warm in freezing Canada!
David: (laughter) Thank you.
Shira Klein: All right bye, thanks.
Sam: Take out your graggers. Put them away, it’s Purim Katan.
David: It’s time for Shkoyach.
Sam: Welcome back to the world-renowned segment. We get emails about it on a daily basis.
David: None of this is true.
David: Hashtag fake news.
Sam: Don’t make those jokes, David. You’re in Shkoyakh! Welcome, everyone. It’s been a little bit since our last Shkoyach so David and I are actually going to take liberty and give a bunch of mini-Shkoyachs.
Sam: So David, what is your Shkoyach or Shkoyachs for the day?
David: So today I am actually giving two Shkoyachs because yeah, we’ve been away for a while and I just want to cover some ground. But since we last were on the show, Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that we’ve talked about a lot on the show, have officially taken a position against Zionism as a part of their platform. And it’s been a long time coming, they’ve been doing a lot of work to educate their membership about this in the past few years. So I want to give a Shkoyach to Jewish Voice for Peace for taking this really enormous step.
Sam: Yeah, a double Shkoyach from me. And also for folks who are listening who haven’t seen the website, check out the website it’s actually a great resource.
David: Yeah, we’ll have a link in the show notes. They have a lot of writing and educational material about why they made this decision. It’s not all perfect but it’s an incredibly positive development, it’s such a huge organization and Shkoyach again to them.
Sam: Yeah big thumbs up, two thumbs.
David: Another attached Shkoyach I’d like to give is here on this side of the border, Independent Jewish Voices Canada. They’ve had a campaign for a really long time trying to get the Canadian government to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Jewish National Fund here. They’re formally a charitable organization here so they don’t have to pay taxes.
Sam: David I have a question.
Sam: If people have listened to a particular Jewish podcast in the past, is it possible that they’ve come across a conversation about this before?
David: Oh yeah!
David: Okay so earlier on in the show, a few years ago we did an interview with someone from Independent Jewish Voices where we mentioned this campaign. But we also spoke with someone named Ismail Zayid who is a retired professor out in Halifax. Ismail was actually born in a Palestinian village that was depopulated and ethnically cleansed by Israel to create something called Canada Park which was a JNF Canada project. Ismail along with two or three other people filed a complaint against the JNF a few years back. And Independent Jewish Voices backed this and as a result, the Canadian government is now auditing JNF Canada. So it’s a step forward in this campaign, it’s been getting a lot of media attention and media traction. And I’m not sure if it’s directly a result of this but a few days before we recorded this, another Zionist charity called Beth Oloth got their tax-exempt status revoked since they were giving money to activities of the IDF and supporting settler activity in the West Bank. So Shkoyach to Independent Jewish Voices for pushing this campaign along.
Sam: David, are you pandering to a majority of the audience?
David: Well given the information we have from soundcloud dot com, a very small amount of people listening are actually from the country we live in. So I don’t know about the second one, maybe the first?
Sam: David, we’re not allowed to promo companies on this podcast so…
David: Stricken from the record.
Sam: Okay great. So you gave a Shkoyach to JVP, you gave a Shkoyach to IJV, do you have any others?
David: So my other Shkoyach is to a struggle that’s escalated a lot since we last released a show. Which is the struggle out in Unist’ot’en camp, which I’m sure people have been reading about and hearing about since that time. The Unist’ot’en camp is something that was created about 10 years ago, it’s on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory on the West Coast. And over that 10 years it’s been in the path of several different pipeline projects by several different companies. And most recently, a company called Coastal Gas Link was able to get the government to give it a legal injunction to go into their territory and get work started. This led to the RCMP storming the gates around the territory.
Sam: Yeah. And I mean this has kind of been front and centre on the Twitter and news that we consume. But for folks who are less familiar, where should folks look to learn more about this?
David: Well Sub Media, which is an anarchist media project based out of Montreal, has been getting out a lot of great information about what’s going on with that struggle, they’ve had a relationship with folks at Unist’ot’en for some time. Also, there’s a reporter who’s usually based in Toronto, Michael Toledano, who’s been out there doing a lot of great reporting. But I want to give my Shkoyach to Indigenous land defenders out there who’ve been pushing through this really difficult time. As well as people around the country who have been engaging in solidarity actions, disrupting and shutting down the machinery of Colonialism so that there can be no business as usual as long as this is continuing to happen.
Sam: Well I guess for the third time I’m going to be co-signing your Shkoyach, and giving a big shout out to the folks on the West Coast and to everyone else who’s engaged in solidarity actions across the territory that we’re on.
David: So I tried to squeeze a lot in there but I’m handing it over to you, Sam. What is your Shkoyach for this episode?
Sam: I’d like to give an absolutely enormous Shkoyach to Liana Finck, who is a cartoonist and drew one of my favorite pieces of art of the year 2019 and maybe 2018 and 2017. For folks who do not receive Jewish Currents magazine or who are not on Jewish Twitter, this was a cartoon that I’m going to try my best to describe right now.
David: Oh yeah, it’s going to be hard.
Sam: (Laughter) We’ll have a link in the show notes for people who did not get this comic delivered to your home because you’re a Jewish Currents subscriber.
Sam: But David, can I try to describe this cartoon?
Sam: It is a drawing of two people.
David: Okay. How would you describe the style?
Sam: Okay so it’s black and white.
David: Very minimalist.
Sam: Minimalist, sure. And ultimately it’s two people. On the left side of the page, you have a person with a speech bubble that says Jews and then another speech bubble that says Jews. And then the other person who is responding, or however you want to think about how the process started, the other person has three speech bubbles and they say Jews Jews and Jews. And under this cartoon is a box. And in that box it says Jews.
David: And what else is in the box?
Sam: Surrounding the word Jews are brackets as well.
David: What do the brackets mean?
Sam: It means Jews, David.
David: And how did this comic come to your attention?
Sam: This comic came to my attention because the fine folks at Canada Post delivered this piece of mail to my home. I’m a subscriber of Jewish Currents magazine and I believe that they often send art as part of their winter edition. And this was the piece of art that I think is now in the homes of many lefty Jews across North America.
David: Yeah, I mean I walk through a snowstorm yesterday to my old apartment to get some mail that was there and it was a big brown envelope and when I got home it was just this comic inside which I was very happy to receive. And I just want to add to your Shkoyach to say that Jewish Currents is killing it right now. I’m just consistently impressed with everything that they’re doing and putting out, both online and in print. So Shkoyach to them.
Sam: Yeah. Shout out to them. But I want to take away from Liana Finck’s glory over here, David. This very simple cartoon does such a fantastic job of encapsulating what we do
Sam: And what many of our friends do.
David: For better or for worse.
Sam: I mean probably four worse but still.
David: So do you have any other Shkoyachs for today?
Sam: Yes, I have a second Shkoyach, that’s a little harder to pin down. This is going to be a hard one to navigate through but let me just give it a whirl, and we’ll see what happens?
David: I’m putting on my seat belt.
Sam: (Laughter) I’d like to give a Shkoyach to the decision that I made to stop following the bouncing balls of American politics. I think I’d been afflicted for many years of opening the Internet and following every small thing that every dumb Senator or politician did.
David: That’s a lot to keep track of.
Sam: And I think it just polluted my brain for so many years and I kind of passed it off as saying oh this is my this is my TV, this is my soap opera, I’m following it, I’m paying attention. But I think that it was really damaging, David. And the combination of having to study for the bar exam and also your ongoing counsel that I stop-
Sam: -engaging with the minutia of political stories and stop buying into the liberal narratives that are presented, that combination really helped and I think I’m cured, David
David: Oh wow!
David: I mean, I’m glad that it’s had a positive effect.
Sam: It’s just so much stupid shit that I don’t need to care about and that I should not spend any brain energy on.
David: Yeah, I also feel like there’s a critical mass of it compared to like even 10 years ago with that meant, how many stories like that were available compared to now, it’s is very different.
Sam: It’s unbelievable!
David: Yeah, engaging with everything at this point is just impossible.
Sam: Yeah, 100 percent! Because on the one hand, you’ve got to read the initial story, then you’ve got to read the people tweeting in response to the story, then you’ve got to read the people who are responding to the responses. And it’s just, that’s three hours! and then a whole new thing happens. And it’s just irrelevant to the day to day realities of the majority of people. And me!
David: Well I’m glad to have you back, Sam. From both the clutches of legal study and also from the world of political reporting.
Sam: Yeah so a big Shkoyach to the idea of refusing to engage with the bouncing ball of useless political media. And if anyone needs any tips on how to detox, just send us an email treyf podcast at gmail dot com. And yeah, that about sums it up for me.
David: Another case closed by Treyf podcast.
David: So that’s our episode for today.
Sam: Thank you all for staying on board.
David: Now if you’re thinking to yourself: I like Treyf podcast. I’m not in love with the Treyf podcast. But! I would like to communicate with the listeners of the Treyf podcast – you’re in luck, my friend. Sam, what do we have for them?
Sam: We have a brand new voice memo that you can send to us. Please make it less than one minute. Include your name, where you’re at, and what you want to talk about. Really it could be anything that vaguely relates to the topic of the show. I’m getting a stare from David right now because it is not anything. (laughter)
David: Yeah, if we think it’s bad we won’t play it. (laughter)
Sam: But no, ultimately please send voice memos. We’ve thought about it as a way for folks who listen to communicate with other folks who are listening. So yeah, please send stuff along.
David: And again if you have any input in terms of the topics you’d like to see us talking about on the show, we’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at treyf podcast at gmail dot com.
Sam: Treyf podcast is Sam Bick and David Zinman. A huge thanks to CKUT 90.3FM where we record this podcast under the shadow of the giant cross of secularism on occupied Kanien’kehá:ka territory.
David: Thanks to everyone who helps make Treyf podcast happen. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and now Instagram at Treyf podcast, T-R-E-Y-F, and send us comments, suggestions, or hate mail to Treyf podcast at gmail dot com.
Sam: More episodes soon.
David: And why are we doing it now and not the Jewish new year?
Sam: um, uh…no good reason.