In the Piazza della Rotunda of the Pantheon, at the heart of Rome, there was a rally in support of Israel held by the historic Roman Jewish community. Traces of trauma from World War II are here, scattered throughout the cobblestone streets in gold plaques marking former homes of Jews murdered over the tortuous last years of the war. The Holocaust is palpable in Europe in a way that it can never be in America. The Roman Jewish community is known to be rather conservative, closely linked to the Zionist Haredim.
In the Italian circles I run in, however, people are largely inclined to the Left on the Israel-Palestine issue and tend to be far more concerned with Palestinian suffering than with justifying Israeli self-defense. The week I returned from Palestine the region imploded in another incandescent rain of bloodshed and fire, and I was exhausted from both the travel and from the aftershock of everything I had seen there. One night, in an attempt to clear my mind and take a break from Israel and Palestine, I went for a run through my neighborhood and wandered over to San Giovanni. I saw a festival sponsored by the Italian political party Sinistra Ecologia Libertà and wandered in. I heard a panel discussion droning on at the back and as I neared I realized…they were discussing the plight of the Palestinians. Thus I realized that the conflict is inescapable for me right now. Having stumbled upon a hotbed of Italian Palestine sympathizers, and listening to local conversations around the topic as the weeks pass and fighting intensifies in Gaza, I have the impression that many Italians are outright opposed to the occupation of Palestine and to Israel’s penchant for disproportionate retribution.
Hungry as ever for the “other side of the story” (there are infinite sides to this kaleidoscopic Rubix cube), I proceeded to the Israel rally at the Pantheon. On the way to the Roman Jews I paid special attention to any religious signs or suggestions that surfaced on the way. Right away I saw Muslim men gathering at the mosque on my street for Ramadan prayers. I strained for some signs of Catholicism (in Rome!) but even the majority of the subway stops reference ancient Rome and the Republic’s political history—the few relig-ish stops are place names, Battistini, Basilica San Paolo, Santa Maria del Soccorso. Aside from the tourist trade, which keeps papal statuettes in rotation, Catholicism is harder to find among Italians and in typical neighborhoods than I expected.
The only sign of Christianity in front of the Pantheon is the cross atop Emperor Hadrian’s obelisk, but it is less a sign of Christian faith and more of political domination and colonialism, the Holy Roman Empire declaring its triumphant territorial claim.
Tonight Israeli flags are flying next to the ancient obelisk erected by the Roman Empire (the unholy one), across from Hadrian’s triumphant dome. It is topped by the later-placed cross. The crowd, bedecked in Israeli flags, magen david jewelry, many of the men in kippot, claps at the mention of the thousands of Israelis who visit Rome every year. I think of my Palestinian friends whose passports do not permit their travel. “Zionismo viva bel cure del popolo italiano!” cries the speaker at the microphone, and the stylish audience cheers in response. A giant screen behind him reads, “L’unico rifugio che chide il popolo ebraico è la pace.” The rally organizers stream videos of Israelis living with fire raids and bomb sirens, and of Israeli Defense Forces deciding not to fire when they detect Palestinian children on their target monitor.
The speeches are pretty predictable, about the beauty of democracy and the barbarism of Hamas, and the audience gets the most excited about the simpler speeches, the ones about Israel being the only side that wants peace, about defending our children, Zionism is from the heart, who is for Israel, Israel needs us, etc. Israel developed a system to protect its cities but Hamas developed one to attack them, etc. Am Yisrael Chai! (The People of Israel Live!) Wild applause.
The hotter the rhetoric, the happier the people—after all, they came to the rally to rally, not to parse nuanced points about epistemology and hermeneutics. Such cumbersome meanderings don’t block a bulldozer or restore water supplies. People get the most excited when terrorism is invoked by an inflamed young man, voice straining in grief as he disputes charges of Israeli war crimes. “Non è vero! Non è vero!!” he shrieks, clearly in agony, and the crowd meets him with a howl. The more restless the crowd becomes, the more the heavily armed Carabinieri guards around the perimeter of the Piazza della Rotunda stand at attention.
Everything the rally speakers say could be true. But my gut radar doesn’t respond to the slanderous stuff about Palestinians or even Hamas. It only really feels right when they are proclaiming their love and support for Israel. Dismissal and libel of Palestine as a whole seems too simple and, for me, at least, discredits the power of the rally because it reflects a blind, insular patriotism–and conflicts with my recent lived experience among Palestinians.
Again I feel the shifting sands of perspectives and truth claims concerning this conflict, the unstable tectonics under the Piazza della Rotunda.
I find myself coping with the conflict in the way I always must–with principles. Love strengthens and hate weakens. That seems to be the most consistent lesson I derive from this conflict. I see the blue and white flags and I wish I could find a flag for love, or human rights, or merely for complexity. Would that flag be grey? Transparent? Or perhaps an evasive, translucent silver that glitters evasively?…then it would have a chance at representing complicated, simple, evasive, potentially possible human peace.
All photos courtesy of the author.