Giuseppe Laras, Milan’s chief rabbi for 25 years and “the face of Italian Judaism,” has died at age 82, leaving a written testament that accuses the Left of having betrayed the Jewish people.“During my life I have been able to live in first person the fall and the rise of different worlds,” Laras wrote in his spiritual testament, a document he prepared as his illness was progressing inexorably and which was read aloud before the local Jewish community last Wednesday.
“Today, I am witness to the emergence of a new wave of anti-Semitism, especially in its ambiguous form of anti-Zionism, the betrayal of the Left and the rapid intellectual and moral decline of Western civilization,” he wrote.
Laras was witness to an era, having presided as chief rabbi in Milan from 1980 to 2005 as well as leading the Assembly of Italian Rabbis and the Italian Rabbinical College. One of the most prestigious Jewish leaders in the country, Laras lived through events as disparate as the Shoah and the formation of the State of Israel, to Jewish-Christian dialogue and the re-emergence of radical Islam.
The Left’s betrayal of Judaism was born out of the tragedy of 1967, Laras declares, when with the Six Days War, European and Communist Leftists turned their backs on Israel, following Moscow and an ideological “anti-imperialist” reflex from which—he said—they are still struggling to recover.
Laras’s life, like many others of that generation, was a journey between the horror of the Shoah and the hope of Israel. Recalling the birth of the state of Israel, he wrote: “I recall the commotion, the euphoria and the sense of astonishment of those days.”
Yet in his testimonial, Laras says that the project of “the destruction of the Jews in Europe” had touched his existence, “marking it forever.”
“Mysteriously,” and “thanks to my mother’s strength and courage,” he wrote, he survived what he called the “horrors and ashes of the Shoah.”
As his student Vittorio Robiati Bendaud recalled at a celebration of Laras’ 80th birthday, he survived miraculously, while losing his mother and his grandmother “seeing them disappear forever from his eyes.” As a child he fled from wartime Turin alone into the night, losing the ability to speak for several months.
And now 70 years later new challenges and new anguish are emerging for European Jews, Laras observed. “In the silence or the ignorance of the great nations we have witnessed the persecution and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Islamic countries, where many had lived for centuries, sometimes before the birth of Islam,” he wrote.
In the future, Laras saw a road for European Jews that was both “uphill and narrow.”
“Nevertheless,” he wrote, “today our existence is no longer at the whim of the nations, thanks to the most Holy and Blessed God and the commitment of many.”
After a public ceremony in Milan, Rabbi Laras was buried in Israel late last week.
“I distinctly remember my trip to Israel and the surprise, happiness and pride at reading the signs in Hebrew, from road signs to notices in the markets,” he wrote in his latest testament.
Milan and Muslims remember Laras as a key figure in interreligious dialogue. But he never treated dialogue as a superficial meeting where differences were smoothed over too easily.
Laras was no flatterer, and never surrendered.