The Popes against the Jews

The Popes Against the Jews
The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism
by David Kertzer
Alfred A Knopf, $27.95, 355 pp.

Two different though related books coexist uneasily within the covers of this volume by a Brown University historian, author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (1997). The first is a compelling work of scholarship, based largely on David Kertzer’s extensive research in the Vatican’s own archives, documenting the church’s policy toward the Jews in the territories where it held temporal power, and especially in Rome, during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. In this treatment, the material is presented dispassionately, without editorial comment, allowed to speak for itself. The dismal picture that emerges is indeed depressing, and sometimes infuriating.

Kertzer maintains that with the restoration of the Papal States in 1814 following the defeat of Napoleon’s armies, there was an opportunity for a new policy in the exercise of papal power toward the Jews. But Pope Pius VII rejected the appeal of the Austrian government and the advice of his own secretary of state, following instead the conservative majority of the curia and reinstituting the worst aspects of the earlier status of Jews in the papal domain.

These included restoring the mandatory ghettos, particularly oppressive in Rome, where the overcrowded, squalid conditions seemed appalling even to a Vatican commission instructed to investigate. Also restored were the requirements of attendance at conversionary sermons and acts of ritual...

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About the Author

Marc Saperstein is Charles E. Smith Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University.