For those who know Italian culture, there is something eerily familiar in the images that we see these days from Milan: the empty streets, the few passersby in places that are usually always crowded… There is an immediate association with the 1630 plague, via a 19th-century novel, and several 20th-century movies.
Let me explain. The 1630 plague is a memorable event in the history of Milan: almost half of the population died in a few months. It was vividly portrayed in a 19th Century masterpiece of Italian literature, I Promessi Sposi (“The Betrothed”) by Alessandro Manzoni, which is required reading for every 10th-grade student.
Such a well-known novel has become the subject for several movies, all set, as the novel is, in Milan. The very same places, that are in the novel, are usually bursting with life and packed with businessmen and tourists. But in recent weeks, they are deserted and ghostly, as in the novel by Alessandro Manzoni, or in some of the movie versions.
Manzoni wrote his novel in 1827, but the description of the plague is incredibly vivid, as it is based on chronicles that are contemporary to the events. Those pages inspire and raise questions even today. For example the Archbishop of Milan, known as a holy man, called for a procession because he believed that the plague could be stopped by a display of religious piety. Needless to say, the gathering of so many people, at the peak of Summertime, provided the ideal setting for the contagion and made things worse. All true history. By telling this episode, Manzoni, himself a religious person, advocates the progress of science against religious superstitions.
Not all the Catholics of his time were ready to digest such a message. Things are obviously different for us Jews. In these hours we do not ask forgiveness for our sins, we do not look at plagues and illnesses as punishment for our sins, but we encourage scientific research and we are confident that a cure and an immunisation will be discovered soon, perhaps by Israeli scientists.
Other famous pages of Manzoni’s novel are particularly interesting today, in these times of fake news. According to popular belief, the plague in 1630 was spread by shadowy characters, who walked around Milan anointing the doors with a poisonous unguent. Hence their name, “untori”, anointers. It was, obviously, a legend, but because it was widely believed, innocent people ended up burnt on the stake, after a quick staged trial. Justices and public officers did not believe in the existence of “untori”: they just wanted to placate the mob and give to them a feeling of safety. A pillar was erected on the place of the execution, the colonna infame, infamous pillar. It was supposed to memorialise the anointers’ crime. It became an admonishment to judges and magistrates to fulfil their mission with integrity and not to rush to condemnation. just to please the mob or the public opinion.
For a strange turn of history, the main University’s Law Faculty, opened its premises not so far from the colonna infame, some decades after the 1630 plague. Law students and magistrates literally have walked by it for generations. It worked as a warning to judges, present and future, that their mission was and is to establish justice, not to please the crowd. Because when the crowd feels to be in danger, feels threatened, or insecure, either for real or imagined reasons, it is never a good thing. Then the people look for a scapegoat, usually a weak minority, and demand justice, while in reality, they are looking for blood.
There is a Chinatown in Milan. Families with a Chinese background have been living and running shops and businesses there for more than a century. It is usually bursting with life and packed with passersby and businesspeople, running around all the time. These days it is deserted. It looks like a ghost city. Shops are closed and few people walk around the streets. It does not need much imagination to understand why. The Chinese, or better to say: the Italians of Chinese origin, are terrified to become the scapegoats of the epidemic.
While it is certainly true that the epidemic started from China, it makes absolutely no sense to blame those Italians of Chinese origin who have been in Italy for many, many years and never visited the Country their families are from. Nonetheless, the fear is there, and the hard-working, very united and loving Chinese families now live in fear of being singled out or even physically assaulted.
Here too, Judaism has several things to teach us. First of all, our historical experience of being victims of bloody legends such as the untori, anointers. Jews did not live in Milan in 1630: it was a Spanish dominion, and Jews were forbidden to live in Spanish dominions from 1492. But historically, in Medieval Europe, Jews have been victims of precisely the same hateful violence, based on superstition and scapegoating. Of course, the difference in religious attitudes regarding personal hygiene did not help. Christians were afraid of nudity and did not bath often, while Jews used the mikveh regularly. Hence, in time pestilences, fewer Jews died than Christians. Which to the Christians sounded like a confirmation that Jews were spreading the poison!
Coronavirus is not causing the same number of deaths that the 1630 plague caused. But already we see, in social media and on the Internet, attempts to blame an entire community and to scapegoat them. Already we see legends around.
It is our duty, as Jews and as human beings, in time of pestilence, to stand against superstitions and scapegoating. To reaffirm our trust in science and scientific progress. The Coronavirus will be defeated. Scientist, perhaps Israeli scientist, will find the proper therapy and the proper immunisation. And please do not waste your time believing in conspiratorial legends that blame the USA government, the Chinese government or whatever. Remember, every time we start thinking in a conspiratorial way, we allow antisemitism to slip in. Because, just like with the AIDS epidemic, first someone blames some evil USA scientist, then someone else “uncovers” some strategy by the USA military and in the end, guess what, they blame Israel, that is the Jews.
While we do our best to protect ourselves from one of the most contagious infections of the last decades, let us keep the human inclination to look for scapegoats, under control.
Let us be vigilant, let us pray, let us be hopeful. And may this illness come to an end soon, speedily and in our days.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 7 March 2020