Achieving success in one field is usually enough for the average person but Amos Luzzatto, who has died aged 92, was far from average.
The ultimate polymath, he worked as a surgeon for decades but was also a writer and university lecturer. During his two stints as president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities he passionately promoted pluralism and explored the role of Jews within the wider European society.
Amos Michelangelo Luzzatto was the son of Leone Michele, a left-wing intellectual, and Emilia Lina Lattes. On both sides his was a family steeped in Judaism and Jewish culture: the Luzzattos’ roots can be traced back to south-east Germany, but by the 15th century they were living in the Venice region. Amos’s great-great grandfather was the celebrated rabbi and poet Samuel David Luzzatto, known as Shadal, who in 1829 moved to Padua to teach at the newly established rabbinical college. Under his leadership the college would become a beacon of Jewish thought.
Luzzatto’s maternal side was no less notable: his grandfather was Dante Lattes, a rabbi, writer and essayist and one of Italy’s early Zionists.
But the promulgation of the 1938 racial laws that restricted Jewish civil rights had a seismic effect on Luzzatto’s life. The worst thing, he would recall years later, was being excluded from high school: his top marks were rescinded and he was unceremoniously booted out. He resorted to studying in a park with his mother, but could not get rid of the feeling that those around him knew why he was there and looked down on him because he was Jewish.
His 1939 move to Israel — then Mandatory Palestine — with his mother and maternal grandparents opened a window on to a completely different world. He recounted being closely shadowed during the trip there “on the train, in the hotel, in the restaurant” by the fascist police and the feeling of total freedom on his arrival at Haifa.
Luzzatto spent the war years in Israel with grandfather Dante and his friends, mostly refugees from Germany and Austria. It was an intellectually stimulating environment that would have a profound impact on his character and shape his ideas of Judaism as something deeply rooted but also vital — a heady combination of thought and action.
Back in Italy in 1946, Luzzatto graduated in medicine and started a successful career as a surgeon, which would last almost 50 years and see him work in a number of Italian hospitals. He was also involved in studying the application of mathematical methods to medical research.
His medical career aside, he was the author of several books, among them an autobiography, Conta e Racconta. Memorie di un Ebreo di Sinistra (Memoirs of a Left-wing Jew), and an academic (he taught a course on the Midrash at the University of Venice). And throughout his life he was a promoter of dialogue — between the different branches of Judaism, between Jews and Christians, or Jews and Muslims.
During his two stints as president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (1998-2006) Luzzatto’s aim was to “give meaning to being a minority” and work with other minorities to sustain democratic pluralism. He especially strived to express, in a uniform way, the different opinions of the Jewish public. Also of great importance for him was maintaining a close relationship with Israel’s reality, both religious and secular, without trying to be a spokesperson for Israeli politics. That function, he reasoned, in a democratic and civilised world belonged to Israeli citizens and the institutions they had created.
A sworn enemy of all types of racism, which he called “an everlasting poison”, he denounced what he saw as a subtle and insidious form of antisemitism, whereby criticism of the Israeli government (which he agreed could be wrong as well as right) turns into a negative view of all Jews.
Luzzatto traced his ideas about equality and his thirst for justice back to Jewish culture, insisting that it could all be found in the Bible; one just had to look for it.
His gift for diplomacy was more than once called in to help defuse delicate situations; most notably on the visit to Israel of the then Italian foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini in 2003. Fini, whose background was famously neo-fascist, had been courting the acceptance of Israel and Italian Jews in general; he minimised Mussolini’s responsibility for the racial laws, insisting they were all Hitler’s fault.
Luzzatto, who had personal experience of the evil caused by those laws, succeeded in getting him to see the fallacy of that belief. He convinced Fini that he could be accepted by the Jewish community only if he would admit Fascism’s active role and ultimate guilt in the extermination of the Jews.
One of Luzzatto’s greatest achievements during his time as head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities was opening up Italian Judaism to Europe. In his 2003 book Il Posto degli Ebrei (The Jews’ Place) he had explained how the history of the Jews was essential to imagining a new European continent and a different West. Jews had learned to co-exist with various other groups without losing their identity; likewise, Europe could flourish as a combination of majorities and minorities that enrich one another in a mutual exchange of experiences.
A great believer in the role of culture in establishing Jewish identity, Luzzatto was instrumental in establishing the European Day of Jewish Culture, which he described as “the first event that truly reunites politically European Judaism.”
Amos Luzzatto was married to Laura Voghera. She survives him together with their three children, Gadi, Alisa and Michele.
Amos Michelangelo Luzzatto: born June 3, 1928. Died September 9, 2020