World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder has praised “Jewish resilience” in the face of persecution and anti-Semitism in remarks commemorating the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto.

The Venetian Ghetto was an area where Jews in the Republic of Venice were forced to live for from 1516 to 1797. This was the first attempt to separate a community from the rest of the population on religious grounds. However, despite the segregation, the Jewish community flourished, establishing five synagogues over the years.

“The creation of this ghetto was a terrible act; it was the first time that an entire community was separated because of their religion. […] And yet, in spite of this decree, the Jewish community still flourished within the walls,” Lauder said a congregation gathered at Venice’s La Fenice opera house. The audience included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as Italian dignitaries.

“I always find it fascinating: When Jews are singled out and placed in intolerable situations, what are the first hings they do? They build synagogues. They study. They write books. They compose music and plays, and create art,” Lauder said.

“Then, as now, the prime motivation of Jews was education and charity, not bitterness. Because of who they were, Jews were not defeated by the Venice ghetto, in spite of the effort to isolate them. And even though this was done to separate the two faiths, Jews and Christians continued to work together,” he said.

“We must be honest. Yes, there was anti-Semitism here in Italy, and at times, it was very brutal. Jews were isolated by severe decrees. The darkest hours occurred within my lifetime, when Italy was allied with Nazi Germany. But today, in Italy, where there was once anti-Semitism, the Italian government, the heads of parties, and the institutions, all actively fight anti-Semitism. And we appreciate this very much,” Lauder added.