Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism: Resilience and the Jewish Community in the Port City of Trieste

Navya Kumar

Port cities, with access to the wider world, are often thought to embody cosmopolitanism - an elusive term implying the possibility of global citizenship. The Jewish community in the seaport city of Trieste, Italy, proved resilient in the face of rising fascism, which started calling for their persecution in the interwar period. GLOCAL Masters student Navya Kumar discusses how the cosmopolitan character of the port city possibly shaped this resilience, while expounding on the evocation of terms such as cosmopolitanism and resilience in the context of nationalism. 

Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism: Resilience and the Jewish Community in the Port City of Trieste

Port cities, as contact zones of cultural exchange, have often conflicted with power centres wishing to uphold the economic and political homogeneity of the nation state. In the wake of emergent nation states, growing nationalism and fascism, the port Jews of Trieste—previously wielding significant wealth and economic influence—became increasingly designated as ‘outsiders’ with interests allegedly aligned with nations to which the port granted them access. Simultaneously, this very access facilitated escape from persecution for some members of the Jewish community. 

Cosmopolitanism is an elusive term that broadly refers to the idea that citizens of different national backgrounds can coexist in a single global community, thus also often invoking the particular context of port cities. While I examine how the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Trieste may have helped the Jewish community develop resilience, it is essential to not overestimate this cosmopolitan character; only certain professions—e.g. merchants, seamen, brokers, traders—had access to the port as a contact zone. Resilience in popular contemporary usage often presupposes positive connotations. However, the term’s usage in this article is intended to be value-neutral, and not serve as a comment, positive or otherwise, on the actions that may comprise such resilience. Thus, resilience is broadly defined here as an entity’s capacity to absorb social, political and economic shocks, and its ability to adapt to change in the face of disturbance (Meerow, Newell and Stults 2016). It is worthwhile to explore how the ‘cosmopolitan’ character of the port city influenced the Jewish community’s resilience during the interwar period in Trieste.

Trieste is a seaport city in north-eastern Italy, and the capital of the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia Giullia. It was part of the Habsburg monarchy from 1382 until 1918. Roman Emperor Charles VI granted Trieste the status of a free port in 1719. Subsequently, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria came to power and extended the free zone to the whole city in 1769, thereby allowing for greater tax exemptions (Gregori 2018). This attracted many people from across the globe, and as a consequence Trieste became a multicultural hub comprising Italians, Slovenes, Germans, Greeks, Serbians, Croats and many others. In 1782, a law called ‘Editto di tolleranza’ (License of Tolerance) was passed by Emperor Joseph II, which extended the freedom of religion and the right to negotiate and own property to the Jewish population.

In the 19th century, Trieste’s political, economic and social networks were strengthened as macro-political and macro-economic policies were reinforced by city authorities and other local government bodies. Habsburg politics supported expansion of trade abroad. Transport and infrastructure development projects to extend the port and support business enterprises helped rebuild the city in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Global advancement in maritime routes, like the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, additionally helped transform Trieste into a thriving commercial hub. It became a contact zone for several different communities, and a cultural hub regularly frequented by philosophers, artists, musicians, and literary figures. In 1910, Trieste was Europe’s 5th largest port, and the 8th busiest port in the world. It ranked 2nd in the transport of coffee in 1913 (Ažman Momirski 2021). 

Prior to the First World War, the port Jews of Trieste were granted several new liberties and legal privileges under enlightenment-inspired policies. They subsequently held powerful positions in maintaining Trieste’s commercial relationships with Central Europe and the Near East. Although largely underrepresented in political institutions, the port Jews nevertheless were able to permeate political circles by virtue of their influence and social standing (Hametz 2007a).  

Developments during the period between the two World Wars invoked the community’s resilience for at least two reasons. After the Habsburg collapse, Trieste became a part of Italy. The breakdown of the liberal economic structures caused political and military instability, weakening international trade cooperation. Second, the political developments in the region, particularly the rise of Italian fascism—explicitly in 1938 through racial legislation by the fascist Grand Council—called for persecution of the Jewish community. 5,381 Jews resided in Trieste in 1938, and this number halved to 2,500 by July 1942 (ANU Museum of the Jewish people). The port Jews were specifically targeted for their characteristically mixed ancestry and so-called foreign origins. 

The resilience engendered by the port city arguably assisted some Jews in this period, as they were able to utilize their global contacts, wealth, and influence to flee: in short, all advantages that the port’s cosmopolitanism granted them. The port Jews of Trieste typified the ‘recast’ bourgeoisie of the interwar period, and Italy’s regionalised power structure integrated them into national economic networks (Hametz 2007a, 21). While their ties to the wider world contributed to their ‘othering’ and cast doubts on their loyalty to the Italian order, the same commercial networks and financial ties also allowed them to escape to overseas ports. The port of Trieste ultimately became an important gateway for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution and was given the honorific name ‘Zion’s Gate’. Between 1938 and 1940, more than 25,000 Jews made their way to Palestine from Trieste (Hametz 2007b). In contrast, instead of emigrating, some renounced Judaism or converted to Catholicism in order to escape notice (Hametz 2007b). This too may have been an aspect of resilience for survival in a growing hostile national environment, facilitated partly by the multicultural and secular quality characteristic of port cities. Additionally, some wealthy Jews remained in the city by utilising family or community connections, or by applying for special exemptions through petitions to the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Local enforcement of anti-Semitic policies in Trieste was complicated due to the historic influence of wealthy Jewish families, decades of intermarriage, and foreign birth. Some people in the fascist hierarchy aided the port Jews, but whether for personal gains or on humanitarian grounds, or both, remains unclear (Hametz 2007b). 

However, the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Trieste, or its multicultural and tolerant nature, and claims of a homogeneous impact on the entire Jewish community can be overstated in some cases. The wealth, influence and ‘fruits of cosmopolitanism’ secured by the Jewish community remained limited to the elite class. Many scholars point to the inherent elitism underlying the term ‘cosmopolitanism’, and how such discussions do not cut adequately across the distinction between mere co-existence in a pluralistic society and fusing of different cultures (Driessen 2005; Freitag 2014). The Italian Jews had more acceptance from the fascist state, and their national allegiance was brought into question only with the advent of Nazism as they started being grouped alongside other Jews rather than other Italians. Even so, the Jews with more affluence had higher capacity for adaptability in the face of Italian fascism. In fact, the fascist authorities helped some wealthy Jews illegally transfer capital and property abroad to facilitate expatriation (Hametz 2007a). The fascist state also evoked the city’s ‘cosmopolitan’ maritime past to demonstrate its historic links with Italy, and mobilise and nationalise the population. This demonstrates how cosmopolitanism may on occasion both enable and be a cover for exclusionist nationalism. More generally, it seems that the nostalgia of past cosmopolitanism invoked in the present is crafted rather exclusively from the point of view of the bourgeois elite, and does not necessarily signal a universal celebration of diversity that the term ‘cosmopolitan’ implies (Driessen 2005). It is thus important to encourage nuances in exploration of the bases of usage of such loaded terms. The different connotations, some of which may seem contradictory to the term’s general understanding, are worthy of closer and historical consideration. The Trieste case reveals how power centres can orchestrate multiculturalism to serve their own vested interests while positing port cities as cosmopolitan hubs, and that nationalism and cosmopolitanism need not always be seen as antithetical to each other. 

Navya Kumar is a GLOCAL Eramus scholar currently pursuing an Erasmus Mundus joint master’s degree from University of Glasgow, Universitat de Barcelona and Erasmus University Rotterdam.
This blog was peer-reviewed by members of the PortCityFutures community, and edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Hilde Sennema and Vincent Baptist.

ANU Museum of the Jewish people. n.d. "The Jewish Community of Trieste." Accessed June 18, 2021.

Ažman Momirski, Lucija. 2021. "The Resilience of the Port Cities of Trieste, Rijeka, and Koper." Journal of Urban History 47(2), 293-316.

Driessen, Henk. 2005. "Mediterranean Port Cities: Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered." History and Anthropology 16(1), 129-141.

Freitag, Ulrike. 2014. "‘Cosmopolitanism’ and ‘Conviviality’? Some Conceptual Considerations Concerning the Late Ottoman Empire." European Journal of Cultural Studies 17(4), 375-391.

Gregori, Marco. 2018. "The Free Port of Trieste: An Analysis of the Current Legal Framework." In Maritime, Port and Transport Law between Legacies of the Past and Modernization, edited by Massimiliano Musi, 331-350.

Hametz, Maura E. 2007a. "Foreigners in their Own City: Italian Fascism and the Dispersal of Trieste's Port Jews." Jewish Culture and History 9(2-3), 16-32.

Hametz, Maura. 2007b. "Zionism, Emigration, and Antisemitism in Trieste: Central Europe's "Gateway to Zion" 1896-1943." Jewish Social Studies 13(3), 103-134.

Meerow, Sara, Joshua P. Newell, and Melissa Stults. 2016. "Defining Urban Resilience: A Review." Landscape and Urban Planning 147, 38-49.