Walt Secord’s study tour of Jewish Italy
NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel deputy chair and Labor frontbencher Walt Secord recently completed a personally-funded study tour of Jewish sites in Italy including the world’s oldest Jewish ghetto – during the parliamentary summer recess.
“When I walked into a Florence kosher restaurant during Chanukah, I was greeted with a cheery: ‘Ciao, Chag Sameach’. Instantly, we felt at home”, Mr Secord said upon his return.
It is part of his ongoing exploration of Judaism and Jewish issues, which stretch back to his childhood and his days as the first non-Jewish journalist at the Australian Jewish News in the late-1980s – and to recent personally funded study tours to world Jewry sites.
Mr Secord, who is also Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council and Shadow Arts Minister has been a member of the NSW Parliament since 2011 and has been deputy chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel since then.
On previous parliamentary visits since 2012, Mr Secord has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iraqi Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Indonesia, the Palestinian territories and Jewish and Muslim sites in China.
Mr Secord spent two weeks in Italy where he explored Jewish sites including a visit to the historic Venetian Jewish ghetto – Campo de Ghetto Novo; the Venice Shoah memorial; four of the five synagogues in Venice; the Museo Ebraico di Venezia; the Shoah museum and the Jewish museum of Rome – Museo Ebraico di Roma; the world-famous Rome and Florence synagogues and the Jewish museum of Florence as well as Jewish sites in Siena and Pisa.
Mr Secord said his interest in Jewish Italy was sparked by an ABC Radio National documentary on “The Spirit of Things” by broadcaster and academic Dr Rachael Kohn aired last November on the 500th anniversary of the Venetian Ghetto – the world’s first ghetto instituted on March 29, 1516. Many were escaping the Spanish Inquisition.
“At the time, I knew I had to visit and see the historic quarter in Venice for myself,” Mr Secord said.
In 1516, the Venetian Republic granted Jews the right to settle but under very strict conditions at the site of `geto’, an iron foundry, which became the word, ghetto.
“I was not disappointed. Again, I discovered much more about Judaism and Jewish history. The synagogues were extraordinary and beautiful. Due to the spatial restrictions placed on the community, many of the buildings were multi-storey and the synagogues had to be on the top-level attics as they did not want a barrier between the worshippers and the sky.”
“The synagogues – particularly, the Scola Canton built in 1531 and the Scola Grande Tedesca founded in 1528 by German Ashkenazi Jews – were beautiful.”
“At its height, the tiny ghetto was home to more than 4,000 people and had five separate and active synagogues.” By 1938, the entire Jewish population of Venice stood around 2,000 but after World War II, only eight survived the concentration death camps.”
Mr Secord said another highlight was visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome and received a personalised tour. He said it was a “bittersweet visit”.
“The Rome Synagogue had grand Roman architectural influences. It was built in 1904 and shortly afterwards, it was visited by Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III. There was a real sense of emancipation and openness in the shule. But sadly, some 30 years later, it was the same Monarch who with Mussolini signed the antisemitic laws, which removed all civil rights from Jews.”
In 1982, the synagogue was also the site of a PLO attack.
In Qatar, he visited a number of important sites in the capital, Doha, including the Souq Waqif, the State Mosque, and the Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Islamic Art, the five-storey building designed by the internationally famous Chinese architect, I M Pei.
Mr Secord was given a guided tour of the Islamic museum by the Qatar authorities and the Rome Synagogue and Venice synagogues by the local Jewish community with the assistance of the Australian Embassy in Rome.
As well as exploring Judaism and Islam, Mr Secord also visited Vatican City and the Vatican museums, including the Sistine Chapel as well as St Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square.
The museums are the largest in the world with 200,000 objects; of which 20,000 are on display. There are also 27,000 square feet of frescoes. In 2016, 3.952 million tourists and pilgrims visited the Vatican. This is significantly reduced from 2014 when there were 5.9 million pilgrims and visitors. Terrorist attacks were thought to have contributed to the reduced numbers.
On the recent trip, in Germany, Mr Secord visited the Berlin Christmas markets – a day and a half after the terrorist attack – to see the impromptu memorials at the site and pay his respects.
(On 19 December 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market beside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. The terrorist attack left 12 people dead and 56 others injured.) The perpetrator, Anis Amri was killed four days after the attack in a shootout near Milan in Italy.
In addition, Mr Secord visited the Chanukah menorah by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement at the Brandenburg gate and Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Walt Secord is the Shadow Minister for Health in the NSW Parliament and Deputy Leader of the Opposition