One Man's Campaign Against the Arch of Titus — and How It Changed Italy's Jews

Lonely Objection to Mural Prompted Soul Searching

When in Rome: A bas-relief on the Arch of Titus depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.
yonidebest, wikimedia commons
When in Rome: A bas-relief on the Arch of Titus depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.

By Morton Satin

Published December 01, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
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“Yes?” I inquired cautiously. “So, what did they have to say?”

“They didn’t know we’re not supposed to walk under the arch!” Yoram said. “Can you believe that? What can I tell you — government people are the same everywhere! Bureaucrats! Anyway, because this business takes place in Rome, they said the matter should be handled locally. So our embassy will bring the matter up to the chief rabbi of Rome.”

This was not the most encouraging news, so I anxiously awaited the outcome of my letter to the director-general. At 9:45 a.m. I received a call from the director-general’s chef du Cabinet — an individual not known for his liberal views, particularly on any subject, issue or person of a non-Francophone origin. “Monsieur Satin, I wish to tell you that I spent the weekend in the library of the French Embassy at Piazza Farnese in Rome — the entire weekend! Monsieur Satin, vous avez raison — you are correct! In fact, the situation is even worse than you described. Non, Monsieur Satin, we cannot have this horrid wall here!”

At 11 a.m., I wandered down to the large alcove where the now infamous wall had finally been placed. To my surprise, it was covered from top to bottom with a dreadful orange shroud that had originally been used to wrap up the huge red carpets that are regularly pulled out to grace our floors at formal diplomatic receptions. I was astonished at the speed with which a large bureaucratic organization, traditionally known for its inertia, can move when it is motivated. I immediately penned a short note of gratitude to the director-general and the chef du Cabinet.

A few days later, Yoram dropped by and said that the chief rabbi of Rome had told the Israeli Embassy that the original ban was no longer valid, since an independent State of Israel had been established. Unfortunately, no one who knew about the ban had ever been informed of its abrogation! Trying to sound as authoritative as I could, I told Yoram, “Make sure the embassy tells the chief rabbi that the ban may be lifted for him, but for me, it isn’t!”

He replied: “Don’t worry, chief, I’m on it. Things will work out. Don’t worry!” With that, Yoram, my old colleague, dependable friend and agent provocateur, left. That was the last I heard of the matter for several months.

In November 1997, I received a call from a politically connected friend who is affiliated with the American University of Rome. He told me that the hornets’ nest I stirred up had triggered considerable deliberation within Rome’s Jewish community and had spread to the mayor’s office. It appeared that they decided it was time to formally and publicly lift the age-old ban on walking beneath the Arch of Titus. I was invited to attend the ceremony, which was to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel. I gladly accepted the invitation, recognizing that sometimes, if you had the chutzpah to mix it up for what you believed in, good things can happen. Yoram was right.


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