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Anti-Semitism in the European Union:
Italy

(Updated December 2003)


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The 35,000 Jews, of whom 25,000 are members of the various Jewish communities, are completely integrated into the Italian population (total population: 56.3 million). Since the Second World War, anti-Semitic prejudice in Italy has seldom taken on aggressive forms; violent attacks have been rare. However, with the increase in the number of far-right groups since the beginning of the 1990s, the picture has altered. Although anti-Semitic traditions are hardly virulent in Italian society, the networking of the international far-right scene, which uses anti-Semitism to create such networks, has also led to a strong anti-Semitic orientation in the Italian far-right spectrum. In 1995 anti-Semitic incidents rose from 30 to 50 a year; since the middle of 2000 (30-40% rise) to March-April 2002 a sharp increase of 100% has been recorded. In the first instance this is due to the conflict in the Middle East. However, besides this factor, a high level of xenophobic attitudes and views is noticeable in the population, which are supported in turn by racist remarks in public discourse (politics and print media). Above all the socially marginalized working migrants, numbering ca. 700,000 (510,000 migrants mainly from Morocco, Tunisia and Albania), are affected. During the 1990s, not only Jewish culture itself but also the history of Israel, its literature and cinema enjoyed a period of success in Italy, a surprising development for those who had experienced the troubled years of the 1970s and 1980s in which anti-Israeli resentment was virulent, particularly on the left. The crisis that started at the turn into 2001 has accelerated an unforeseen and unpredictable process that in other countries, especially in France, is already evident; in Italy, this process has left a number of options open for the future and these are not immediately clear. In Italy, the second Intifada has set in motion unexpected mechanisms, whereby traditional anti-Jewish prejudices are mixed with politically based stereotypes. It is important to bear in mind that the so-called “spiritual (or psychological) anti-Semitism” has had a greater impact on the overall phenomenon in Italian cultural history during the course of the 20th century (see Julius Evola).

In contrast to France and Belgium, anti-Semitic attacks in Italy have up to now been limited to verbal abuse, graffiti and the like. But since the start of the second Intifada incidents now include death threats against Jews and carry both anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israeli stereotypes, often in a synonymous context. The perpetrators are local Italians and till now, in contrast to Belgium, France and the Netherlands, hardly any person from the milieu of Muslim migrants. In contrast to other countries, in Italy there is rather a revival of anti-Judaist topoi coupled with traditional anti-Semitic and Anti-Zionist stereotypes rooted in the left. It became particularly visible during the events, which took place at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. The worsening of the Israeli-Arab conflict and, in particular, the question of Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity once again led to ambiguous positions being taken in some contexts and witnessed the use of potentially dangerous language.

1. Physical acts of violence

There were a few attacks at the beginning of the year, for example in January, a Jewish lawyer was attacked came in his office by two thugs who hit him with a club on his head and shoulders. It appears that right-wing extremists were responsible for this attack. A number of the incidents occurred in April, but in the following months there was a reduction. The incidents recorded coincided with the heightening in international tension, thus creating entirely predictable peaks. Italian commentators assess that the rise in the scope of anti-Semitism is the result of Israel’s governmental policy towards the Arabs since the outbreak of the Intifada.

There are however some exceptions. These can be linked to the specific Italian situation and there is often the feeling that the lack of public attention or dwindling of public interest in such incidents is the result of the national political situation, its internal crisis and the strong political divisions between government and opposition parties, a factor exerting a severe impact on different spheres of public life. Demonstrations, marches and other political actions were recorded at the end of March, but without doubt the climax was reached in the period beginning with the Israeli occupation of Bethlehem, the stalemate at the Church of Nativity (2 April) and the attack against Jenin refugee camp (10 April). By the end of April tension as well as media attention had again decreased, leaving behind a few consequences and some rather feeble polemics.

4 April: destruction of the research work and the archives on the Holocaust and the resistance created by the students of Liceo Galileo Ferraris High School in Varese, where billboards were destroyed and the school walls were painted in red with graffiti such as “burn the Jews”. Varese belongs to one of the strongholds of far-right groups in Italy, especially right-wing skinheads.

2 June: some newspapers reported that two right-wing extremists were arrested for planning an attack in the Venice ghetto. In addition, powerful weapons and a map with the borders of the Venice ghetto clearly marked were seized.

2. Verbal aggression/hate speech

Politics

On 2 April some Jews from Rome staged a protest in front of the headquarters of the political party Rifondazione Comunista. Although peaceful, the protest still caused some trouble with passers-by: some passing cars reacted to the traffic jam in Corso Italia by shouting anti-Semitic slogans at the protesters. During an event organised by the Social Forum of Bologna in support of the Palestinians, the recurrent words against Israel were “genocide”; “deportation”; “fanatic and racist Zionists” and these were accompanied by the proposal for a vast boycott of Israeli products, which “could be associated to genocide”.

The period in question has been marked by a long and bitter dispute between the trade unions and the government over a proposed revision of a decree stipulating the cancellation of Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute. This crisis resulted in a general strike (16 April), overlapping exactly with the week in which the Middle East crisis reached its climax. During the strike and the accompanying street demonstrations and on the Liberation Day celebrations (25 April), the empathy generated by pro-Palestinian sentiments overtook the trade union issues or historical affiliations which had rallied thousands to protest in the squares, transforming, in some cases but not all, the above events into forms of explicit anti-Israeli propaganda.

4 April: Rifondazione Comunista opened its national congress. Some observers were struck by the opening of the conference: a video showing images of a Palestinian child being protected in vain by his father from shooting (stills from the video have also been placed on a whole series of international far-right websites inferring that the child has been shot by Israeli soldiers) was screened together with a scene from the film Roma città aperta (Rome, an Open City). The scene from the film shows a Nazi soldier shooting the actress Anna Magnani with a machine gun. The secretary-general of the party, preoccupied by the reactions to the party’s marked pro-Palestinian policy, closed the congress three days later, saying that the party supported all minorities and proclaimed: “We are Jews”. During the congress, a number of objects explicitly referred to Palestine: the Palestinian flag, a book by the representative of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in Italy, Diario segreto (Secret Diary; with a foreword by a former President of Italy), as well as other texts by Palestinian leaders and the kefiah, the traditional Arab head gear. During the general strike on 16 April, in Turin many demonstrators were wearing the kefiah. The kefiah is also present in the Italian and European far-right political movements. Some participants in pro-Palestinian demonstrations openly displayed their radical attitude: they dressed as suicide bombers with all the trappings.

6 April: an imposing crowd of anti-globalisation protesters marched through Rome and young people dressed as kamikaze shouted slogans against Israel. The leadership of the political parties Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left) and Margherita dissociated themselves from the protest, which had been promoted by all the trade unions and opposition political parties; for the first time political parties on the left split over issues relating to the Middle East. A number of banners directed against Israel and the Israeli Prime Minister Sharon included the following slogans: “State of Israel, State of murderers”; “Sharon executioner” (with the Nazi “S”), “Bush, Sharon, Peres” (with the “S” styled as a swastika); “Zionists and fascists are the terrorists”; “Against the racist terrorism of USA, Europe and Israel, on the side of the Palestinian masses”; “Holocaust, no thank you. Free Palestine”; “Palestinian Holocaust, Europe, where are you?”

Public discourse

25 April: the Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea (CDEC) was informed that during a demonstration in Milan marking the anniversary of the liberation of Italy from the Nazis, many pro-Palestinian banners were displayed, reading for example “Murderers, Nazist Sharon, Intifada until victory”; others assimilated the Star of David to the swastika or surrounded the star with barbed wire and broken by a closed fist.

Graffiti

31 March: anti-Semitic graffiti and a swastika were found on a synagogue in Modena.

7 April: anti-Semitic graffiti was found in several places in the old Venice ghetto.

6 May: large graffiti in bold characters saying “Jews murderers” was seen in an underground pass in the city of Prato (central Italy). On the same day, the CDEC of Milan received an anonymous phone call from someone who said, “We will burn you all”.

22 May: anti-Semitic slogans were written on the walls of the town of Marrucini in Abruzzo. In addition, in Milan messages such as “Jews out of the neighbourhood” re-appeared on public walls (Via Venini).

Media

There seems to be a return of abusive language towards Jews ; an example of which is the use of the attribute “perfidious” when referring to the Israeli government - a term that used to be in the Catholic Good Friday prayers and was condemned by Pope John XXIII. There is an outpouring of anti-Israel statements on state radio and television and also in some Catholic circles, lamenting the deaths of Palestinians while glossing over Israel deaths. It is absolutely essential to make a clear distinction between the language used by the Pope and that, which appears in the media and in the declarations of some Catholics. Even in some of the politically moderate press there are scattered references to the murder of Christ, showing that, after decades of absence, such stereotypes are also being revived in secular circles.

3 April: the front page of the national daily newspaper La Stampa carried a cartoon by Giorgio Forattini as a comment on the occupation of Bethlehem. At the sight of an Israeli tank a baby Jesus in a crèche asks: “Are they going to kill me for a second time?” A heated debate followed in the papers. Many resentful letters were sent to the editor and numerous Catholic readers filed protests. The president of the Union of Jewish Communities, Amos Luzzatto, strongly criticised the return of the accusation of deicide, cancelled by the Second Vatican Council. The director of La Stampa distanced himself from the author of the cartoon. The same day someone wrote “Israelis Murderers” on the walls of a synagogue in Siena.

5 April: one of the main authorities of the state - the President of the Senate - denounced what he described as “the imbalance of Italian public opinion in favour of only the cause of the Palestinians, thus risking feeding an anti-Semitic campaign, of which we have had dangerous and serious examples”. The same day someone wrote “Free Palestine” on the façade of the synagogue in Cuneo.

2 May: the daily La Nazione of Florence reported that some anti-Semitic messages were written on a Catholic Church in the town of Gavinana outside Florence, praising the Holocaust and the twenty years of fascist domination in Italy.

The head of the Rome Jewish Community, Leone Paserman, stated, “The Italian mass media have started a disinformation campaign that nourishes anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hatred”.

On 12 April the famous Italian journalist and writer, Oriana Fallaci published her condemnation of the media, the church, and the left and their anti-Semitism in the weekly Panorama: “I find it shameful (...) that the government-controlled television stations contribute to the revival of anti-Semitism by crying over Palestinian deaths only, minimising the importance of Israeli deaths, speaking in a brisk and dismissive tone about them”. Fallacis condemnation and fiery indictment was followed by a mostly controversial debate specially because she is known as a controversial left-leaning journalist.

Direct threats

Renowned Jewish journalists have received threatening letters full of insults as well. Some of them received up to fifty such e-mails during the period monitored. Attacks against Jewish students by fellow pupils in schools, at playgrounds and during sports competitions, such as calling them names, including the use of the words “Jew”, “dirty Jew” or “Rabbi” as insults, still persist, as does the hanging of anti-Semitic slogans and banners in stadiums.

Indirect threats

Although they did not increase in the last few months, these remain on a very high level, especially in connection with the football club Lazio Rome.

Public discourse

Particularly interesting is the emergence, in the month of April, of slogans and comments that referred to the current persecution of the Palestine people by describing the Israeli-Arab conflict in terms of the inversion of the victim/persecutor roles, with clear reference here to the extermination of the Jews. Resorting to terms taken from Nazi vocabulary, such as deportation, extermination, genocide etc., is a constant practice and at times such terms are emphasised in newspapers with very large titles or else they are used scornfully in commentaries.

The Internet

The website that can boast a larger number of participants in their discussion list is that of the extreme right-wing militant group Forza Nuova (New Force). Some of these sites – right-wing or pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian (“Lo Straniero Senza Nome”, “Holy War”, “Radio Islam”, “Associazione Italia-Iraq”, “Oltre la Verità Ufficiale”) – make use of the entire spectrum of anti-Semitic stereotypes and have placed the complete text of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an anti-Semitic forgery from Tsarist Russia, on the net. The website of Fronte sociale nazionale (National Social Front) carries a pro-Palestinian Intifada appeal which adopts a traditional anti-Semitic, Anti-Zionist and anti-American language with hostile references to “Talmudic Judaism”, the “global plutocratic cupola” and the bleeding Star of David. Many other sites deal with the subject of the so-called ritual murder and the accusation of blood shedding; in others the denial of the Holocaust is the central point. The website Che fare (What should be done), part of the far left-wing groups, includes elements of Anti-Zionism, pro-Arab fundamentalism, anti-Americanism and recurrent stereotypes against Jews used both in the past and at the present: the Jewish lobby, the relationship with the Masonry, the international plot, world economic power held by Jews, Jews circumcised with a dollar etc. are all examples of the most repeated slogans. It is difficult to know how many people visit these websites as the figures cited seem to be enlarged, for they increase remarkably over short periods to be credible. Between 20 and 29 July, Alfred Olsen, member of a fundamentalist Catholic brotherhood, Holocaust denier and responsible for the anti-Semitic website “Holy War/Tradizione Cattolica”, submitted contributions to the online forum of the daily La Stampa on nine occasions which combined anti-Judaist, traditional anti-Semitic world conspiracy theories and Anti-Zionist stereotypes.

3. Research Studies

Among the various surveys carried out during the past few months, it seems interesting to refer to the ones carried out by Ispo/ACNielsen CRA, between 13 April and 13 May, part of which was published in “Il Corriere della Sera”. The survey was inspired by the observation that the rigid positions regarding “who is right” and “who is wrong” in the Israeli-Arab conflict does not include any references to the circumstances giving rise to the conflict. For instance, less than half of the Italian population knows about the foundation of the State of Israel. Only 4% have knowledge about the historical events that preceded and to some extent explain the evolution of the conflict. The level of knowledge does not change meaningfully when the political position changes, although a greater number of both political far-right and far-left supporters are less informed than those who are centre-right and centre-left supporters.

Exactly one month after the above survey, “Il Corriere della sera” published the results of a poll carried out at the beginning of April. This second survey showed that the number of people who stated that they had no idea about the situation had decreased, while the opinion of the majority of the population blaming “both parties” for the conflict remained stable and consolidated, although some people on the political centre-left (11% against 6% overall) tended to mostly blame the Israelis for the conflict. In addition, during the same period “sympathy” for the Jewish state seemed to have grown and once again this was linked to the political orientation of the surveyed.

Between 12 and 14 April, a further survey was carried out by Ispo/ACNielsen CRA based on a sample of 5000 telephone interviews. The data has yet to be fully processed. This survey asked respondents whether Italian Jews have common characteristics distinguishing them from the rest of the population: 54% of the interviewed still believe that Italian Jews have distinct characteristics and 68% cited as proof a peculiar relationship with money and a mentality and lifestyle different from those of other Italians. In addition, there is growing number of people who think that Italian Jews are not real Italians and that they should stop playing the role of being a victim of a persecution that dates back fifty years. In particular they mentioned: the need to speak less about the Holocaust; the passage from being the victims of the past to becoming the persecutors of today in the Israeli-Arab conflict; and that the Day of Memory (27 January) should not only be devoted to remembering the victims of the Shoah, but also all the other victims of persecution in the 20th century.

The survey commissioned by the ADL between 9 and 29 September 2002 concerning “European Attitudes towards Jews, Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” (see Table: Report on Belgium) established that Italian respondents assumed second place behind the Spanish in their agreement to anti-Semitic statements. Next to Spain (72%) Italy also shows the second highest agreement with the statement that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” (58%) whereby 42 % agreed to the statement “Jews have too much power in the business world” which places Italy with France in third place after Spain and Belgium.

4. Good practices for reducing prejudice, violence and aggression

In the months prior to May 2002, good practices to combat anti-Semitism included those numerous initiatives aimed at stimulating an often fragile and poor historical memory organised all over the country on 27 January to mark Memory Day, established by a legislative decree two years ago. Trade unions organised public debates and initiatives in many regions and provinces, showing an interest for a debate that had not received much attention in the previous years within the trade union movement. Beginning in the autumn of 2002, a training programme started in the region of Lombardy that will continue through into 2003 and involve the high schools of the city of Lecco and union delegates from companies operating in the area. Issues to be dealt with are anti-Semitism and the Shoah and the dignity of man. The provisional title is Considerate se questo è un uomo (Consider if this is a man), taken from the famous phrase by Primo Levi. Rather innovative in Italy, trips will be organised to some of the symbolic places in Europe, from Prague to Auschwitz and to Mostar, including the former Nazi concentration camp Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste. The video Promesse (Promises), on tales of Israeli and Palestinian children in war and their fears and hopes beyond the usual stereotypes, had a remarkable impact on public opinion; the video is useful for a balanced understanding of the dramatic situation in the Middle East. Significantly, the video was distributed together with a major weekly magazine, L’Espresso, allowing more copies to be circulated than would have otherwise been the case.

Another initiative aimed at reconciliation after the division that occurred within the left-wing parties following the rally of 6 April (see chronology) was a concert on 19 April at the Colosseum organised by the Mayor of Rome, during which Israeli and Palestinian singers performed in turn on stage. The proposal by the Radical Party to include the State of Israel into the European Union does not seem to have met with the interest of the other political parties. This proposal was also submitted to all Regional Councils, but there, too, not much consensus was reached, nor did it gain much exposure in the media.

There are quite a number of websites dealing with the issue of anti-Semitism in both Europe and in Italy from a historical perspective, with particular focus on the racial laws in Italy and its consequences. There are also websites created for the specific purpose of countering the wave of misunderstanding and of responding to media attacks against Israel, at times with a certain partisan spirit but on the whole impartial in judgment. An example of such a website is http://www.informazionecorretta.com/ which provides a wide range of sources. Another interesting site that can be highlighted is the site of the confederated trade union UIL which, starting from 23 May 2002, presents a position paper by the educational department of the national secretariat of the union under the title: “Schools and the prevention of anti-Semitism”.

5. Reactions by politicians and other opinion leaders

An appeal by the Israeli writer Abraham Yehoshua to establish a clear boundary between Israel and Palestine, thereby encouraging a unilateral withdrawal of Israel, was signed by prominent Italian writers from across the political spectrum. Political leaders have condemned the anti-Semitic tone of the demonstrations billed as promoting peace or Palestinian rights. The imam of the Italian Islamic Community Abdul Hadi Palazzi maintains contact to the Italian Jewish Community and preaches messages of moderation and even friendship toward Israel.

15 April: some politicians from both the governing and opposition parties called for an “Israeli Day” in Rome; the director of a pro-government daily newspaper - Il Foglio (The Sheet) - acted as promoter of the event. About 3000 people marched through the centre of the city carrying Israeli flags. The participants included militants from a wide range of political parties, acting individually and irrespective of their political affiliations.

25 April: during the manifestation of the day of liberation in Milan, participated by about 200,000 people, the leader (general secretary) of the main Italian trade union, Sergio Cofferati insisted “to fight any revisionism of history”.

In September 2002 Gianfranco Fini, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), the former neo-fascist party, excused himself during his visit to Israel in an interview with the Israelian newspaper “Haaretz” for the anti-Jewish laws in Italy. He said that he would accept historical responsibility for Fascist crimes and would ask the forgiveness of The Jewish People.


Sources: C.R.I.F. - Released by the European Jewish Congress

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