Dror Eydar concluded his three-year term as Israel’s ambassador to Italy on Sept. 4, being succeeded in the position by Alon Bar, the outgoing head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Political Strategic Division.

Neither a career diplomat nor a politician, Eydar came to the post as a historian, intellectual and former columnist and op-ed editor for Israel Hayom. Upon stepping into his home in Rome, there are books in Hebrew, Italian and English wherever one gazes. On the coffee table alone there’s a Siddur, the Talmud and a book of commentaries on the Bible next to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy on the one end, and a book of poetry and a couple of novels, as well as a tall stack of history books, on the other.

While undertaking the classic responsibilities of an ambassador by acting as a bridge between the Italian and Israeli governments, he not only strengthened commercial, military and intelligence relations, but also transformed Israel’s embassy in Rome into one of Israel’s highest-profile overseas legations, by publicly meditating with Italians on Jewish culture, Israel, history, philosophy and religion, encouraging them to take a look at the world through an Israeli perspective.

That objective, which Eydar holds dear, is further demonstrated in his book “All’Arco di Tito: Un ambasciatore d’Israele nel Belpaese” [“At the Arch of Titus: An Israeli Ambassador in Italy”], published by Salomone Belforte & Co. last month. The 543-page tome is a logbook of his three-year ambassadorship; it includes his personal reflections on a myriad of subjects, including Judaism, history, the communities he visited throughout Italy, and daily happenings.

JNS caught up with Eydar at his home in the Italian capital on the eve of his departure. He spoke candidly about the challenges he faced, saying it “wasn’t a normal three years as for other ambassadors, at other times” due to the pandemic, and voicing his frustrations with the Italian Foreign Ministry. In addition, he offered a glimpse into the relations between Israel and Italy and how the rapport between these friends and allies could be greatly strengthened and enhanced.

 

Q: How would you describe your term as Israel’s ambassador to Italy in a few words?

A: As an intellectual amusement park.

Q: What does that mean?

A: These three years were like a doctorate, a Ph.D. on Italy and Italian society, but also on being a diplomat and ambassador.

Q: And what did you learn during your “doctorate” about Italy and Italian society that surprised you the most?

A: That there is a huge error made by many Israelis and others who think that the Italy of today has some connection to the Roman Empire. The latter collapsed in 476. There is no connection between the ruins of the empire that we see in Rome and the people who live here. This is not something you can say about the Jews and Jerusalem, where a stone from the First and Second Temples arouses emotions and historical imagination.

Then I started my journey into Italian society, and learned that they aren’t concerned with the past or myth. This is a society in a process of formation. In Israel, and throughout the Jewish world, the main question every generation asks is, “Who are we?” Italian society doesn’t deal with this question. It’s a society that doesn’t ask existential questions. I’m not saying that this is positive or negative, but it was very interesting.

In addition, I realized that Italy hasn’t always been so friendly toward Israel, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, and I witnessed firsthand how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the tendency to still operate as if it were functioning in the 1980s, by ignoring the historical changes that have occurred in the Middle East since then. This is a society where the past isn’t central within its public discourse.

Q: OK, but why then are we hearing so much time being devoted to Italy’s Fascist past during this electoral season? (Italy will hold national elections on Sept. 25.)

A: Fascism is the only thing they speak about. This is not the past. The past is a package of values. When they speak about Fascism it means that they are stuck in that era. They are not dealing with what happened before and after Fascism.

Another thing I saw is a country that is very vulnerable. They don’t have a sense of urgency. They can speak about some problems, but again none … is existential for them. From one point of view, you could see this as a sign of strength, that you’re not afraid, and on the other side, you can see it as a sign of irresponsibility. It depends upon how you look at it. But take the problem of water, for example. Italy is currently experiencing its worst drought in 70 years, and we have offered to share our experience with them.

Q: Is this a problem of lack of innovation or bad leadership?

A: Italy has tons of innovation. It’s enough to mention Ducati, Ferrari, Gucci. Genius! That said, there is a disconnect between the private sector and the government, and they have a hugely bloated public sector.

Q: And what did you discover about being a diplomat and ambassador?

A: Classic diplomacy is the dialogue between the ministries, especially with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I understood we couldn’t, at least during my term, change the position of the Italian Foreign Ministry, which doesn’t vote with us at the United Nations. The most they will do is abstain. Over the course of the last decade the U.N. General Assembly has voted some six times against Iran, seven against North Korea, nine against Syria—with 500,000 deaths and 11 million refugees—18 against Russia and 125 times against Israel. I ask: Where was Italy? Why didn’t it respond to this moral disgrace? So, I understood the rules of the game.

Q: Which are?

A: There is a huge gap between the intimacy with which all other Italian governmental offices work with Israel and how the Foreign Ministry does. Given this situation, I went directly to the public, because I understood that public opinion can be changed.

Q: You have stated the following: “I am the ambassador of the modern State of Israel, but I am also the ambassador of the Jewish state, of Jewish civilization, which is the basis of Christian civilization; and both are the basis of Western civilization.” Could you briefly elaborate?

A: An ambassador is a mediator. I bring Israel to Italy, but what is Israel? It’s not only politics and conflict, it’s a civilization, a Jewish civilization with a culture, literature, myths, religions, dreams, etc. I brought all of the latter along with me to Italy, and I told Italians that Israel is important for them because in order to survive Western civilization needs to acknowledge its vulnerability and strengthen the values of Western civilization, such as democracy and defending minorities, but also its history, traditions, ancient literature, etc.

Moreover, the base of Western civilization is Christianity. But what is Christianity without Judaism? It stems from Judaism and Jewish civilization. It’s not by accident that the enemies of Western civilization are attacking Israel first. I told Italians that when they support Israel they support themselves and moreover, their survival, and vice versa. We defend you. We understand together. I think this is being strengthened more now as the Russia-Ukraine war ensues and also given the coalition Russia has made with China and others. They are finally understanding the importance of speaking about a Western civilization.

Q: Six months after your term as ambassador began, COVID-19 hit. How did the latter impact your term as ambassador?

A: My historical point of view is that we don’t choose the times; the times choose us. I was an ambassador during a time of world war against the virus. That said, you can read the “Postcards from Rome” I wrote that I posted on my Facebook, where you can follow the pandemic as it unfolded. The month of March 2020 was particularly terrible. Italians called me and said, “Ambassador, please, Israel must help us. We cannot bury our dead. Doctors are dying because we don’t have masks.” They sent me videos of doctors in hospitals in the north where they said the most terrible thing I heard in my life: “They are asking us to be God and decide who to help live and who to let die.”

One of the first things I did was to call Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and urge my government to learn from the bad experience of Italy that didn’t close its airports. I remember going to synagogue that Shabbat and when the prayers concluded people surrounded me and asked, “Ambassador, what will happen? Israel is closed. We can’t go to Israel.” Then and there I understood something that I only knew theoretically before. I now know what Israel means to all Jews throughout the world, even those who attack it. It’s their insurance policy. It lives in their imagination and while they live outside of Israel, it represents a safe haven that they can go to. I understood this and it touched my heart. Moreover, I realized that I represent an entity that is a game changer in the life of the Jewish people. I also decided to stay in Italy as an act of solidarity with the Italian people. They suffered a lot and I cared about them.

Q: If you had a magic wand and could miraculously change any aspect of Italy’s relationship with Israel and/or Jews, what would it be?

A: Israel, out of inertia, accepts the way that Israel and Italy are close allies and friends and yet simultaneously, in the international arena, Italy doesn’t vote with Israel. Italy thinks this is balanced behavior, but I think Israel should be more active and not accept this. They should be more vocal, because Italy and Israel are like siblings. I told them the following in the Foreign Ministry: If my sister is being beaten in the street, what am I expected to do? Defend her. We are like your sister and we are being beaten in the international arena, and what are you doing?

Q: Much has been written about U.S.-Israeli relations, and in particular, the growing disaffection of American Jews with Israel. That said, how do you view Italian Jews’ rapport with Israel and the current state and future of Italian Jewry in general?

A: I think Italian Jews are traumatized by the betrayal of the Italian government during the Fascist era and I can testify to the fact that they still haven’t recovered from it. Italian Jews in general—even if they criticize Israel—are nonetheless Zionist in that they support the idea of a Jewish state. They prefer to live in Italy, but they know that Israel is their insurance policy.

I want to share a historical experience. It’s not by accident that I called my book “At the Arch of Titus.” I asked to go there on the first day of my job, and there is something in that triangle between the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus that is like a magnet for me. The Colosseum was built ex manubiis, from the spoils of the war, Constantine was the emperor who supported Christianity, and the Arch of Titus marks with its engravings the loss of our independence. You see the Menorah [of the Temple in Jerusalem] there. It’s a symbol. Moreover, all the faces and figures engraved on this arch are looking toward the West and their backs are to the East, because Judea was destroyed. Jerusalem was destroyed. There was no future for our people.

Second, when I visited Sicily, I went to the national archive, that was situated in what was the Jewish quarter of Palermo. A glass cabinet in the middle of the hall contains the protocols of the Sicilian Senate from 1492 with the decree by King Ferdinand and Isabella to expel the Jews from Sicily. There were over 30,000 Jews on the island at that time. The prefect of Palermo wrote a letter imploring them to allow the Jews to stay. (Ferdinand of Aragon was also king of Sicily.)

Third, a few days later I went to the Collegio Romano to meet with Italy’s minister of culture, Dario Franceschini. At that Jesuit college, Galileo Galilei defended his theory [that the Earth rotates daily and revolves around the Sun] in the face of the Church. After I left Franceschini’s office I happened to see a bulletin of the Italian government with the number 1938 and found the Racial Laws. They invented the idea that the Italians belonged to the Aryan race.

On these three occasions I thought to myself: Who is observing these symbols of our loss of independence on the Arch of Titus, the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily and the Racial Laws? Not me, but the ambassador of a Jewish state that was missing in those periods. If you went back in time, it would have been unthinkable that one day a representative of a new Jewish state would emerge from the ruins of what these entities did to us. I represent the entity that wasn’t present in those times to defend our people and also to receive them as refugees as we do today with Ukrainian Jews. This is a crucial point for me.

When I came here I was surprised by the deep level of [Holocaust remembrance] here in Italy. They have many projects, TV programs, commemorations and school initiatives. Many times I was asked how the Holocaust could happen. My simple answer, which perhaps many intellectuals don’t like because it’s the most simple and correct answer, is that it happened because they could do it to us. The Holocaust did not happen all of a sudden, but was the climax of 19 centuries of persecution that were enabled because the Jewish people did not have a national home. Thus the Holocaust was not sealed in 1945, but had a corrective epilogue. That epilogue was the establishment of the State of Israel.

Q: You recently published a book in Italian titled, “All’Arco di Tito: Un ambasciatore d’Israele nel Belpaese”. What foremost message do you hope Italians who read your book come away with?

A: That Israel is more than politics and conflict; it’s a civilization. Many of the values and ideas that they know derive from Jewish history and culture. We have a lot in common that can unite us instead of divide us. Moreover, they can discover culture, history, Jewish traditions, ideas, philosophy and poetry, and then also analyze the Middle East, Israel and anti-Semitism. When all these ideas are placed within a broader context they seem reasonable and they can not only embrace but also understand these connections in their lives. I also included my reflections on the meaning of being an ambassador and about my personal life: I spoke about my longings, my loneliness and the way I coped with being at a distance from my children. All this together provides, I think, an exciting human document.

Q: Is there anything you would like to convey to your compatriots?

A: I would urge them to see the complexity of things. The perspective that we can see from here and there, and perhaps also the importance of Europe in Israeli politics, and that from afar some of our fights in Israel are useless and childish. We have a great history. We rebuilt a great civilization. I have said many times that we aren’t the people of the book; we are the people of the books, because we succeeded in building a skyscraper—a textual and intellectual skyscraper—and gave it in inheritance to our descendants. This great past gives us the ability to confront our future challenges in a better and wiser manner.

Q: Do you have any advice to offer your successor?

A: My successor, unlike me, is a professional diplomat. He knows his job very well so I can’t offer him advice. I just want to wish him good luck. He, like me, is an emissary and a representative of the State of Israel. His success will be our success.

Q: What’s next on the horizon for you? Do you intend to remain in political life?

A: First of all, I want to rest a bit because these three years were like 30 years for me, especially under COVID-19. In addition, I want to be a free man. My name is Dror, which means “liberty” in Hebrew. Living three years with all this security and not having the option to move freely was very hard for me. That said, I want to stay in the front between Italy and Israel in order to promote some cultural projects. I do see myself one day in the future, I don’t know when, in Israeli politics of course. I would also like to see myself also as ambassador to the United Nations or somewhere else. I believe the “doctorate” I obtained here in Italy will be helpful for my country in the future.

 
JNS

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