An ally of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and presumed right-wing candidate in Milan's mayoral elections has sparked outrage in Italy by suggesting that Arabic, Hebrew and other foreign languages should be banned from sermons in mosques, synagogues and all places of worship.
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Alessandro Sallusti – a popular pundit and editor in chief of the conservative daily il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi's family – made the suggestion on a talk show broadcast Tuesday on Italy's RAI state TV.
Berlusconi, a media mogul who led four Italian governments and now heads the conservative opposition, has said he wants Sallusti to be his coalition's candidate in Milan's mayoral elections next year.
Sallusti was speaking on the talk show about Islamic extremism and the need to better monitor mosques.
"Unfortunately Italy doesn't have a law demanding that sermons be held only in Italian. But I hope we will get one," he said. A young representative of the Muslim community in Milan, Davide Piccardo, challenged him: "Would you also ban Hebrew from services in synagogues?"
Sallusti replied that he would support a law forbidding rabbis from preaching in Hebrew, although he said that prayers could still be uttered in their original language.
"With his ignorant remarks Sallusti has tried to erase millennia of integration of Jews in Italy." Emanuele Fiano, a Jewish lawmaker for the center-left Democratic Party who has also been floated as a mayoral candidate, said in a telephone interview with Haaretz.
Sallusti is considered close to Berlusconi and the paper he edits supports his policies. Il Giornale is also well known for its pro-Israel views and regularly features articles by Fiamma Nirenstein, a Jewish Italian politician and former lawmaker in Berlusconi's coalition who moved to Israel and was named by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the next Israeli ambassador in Rome.
The Union of Italian Jewish Communities did not comment officially but ridiculed Sallusti's words in its daily newsletter, calling them "bizarre," especially considering that most local rabbis already preach in Italian.
Gad Lerner, a liberal Jewish writer and TV host, told Haaretz that Sallusti's comments are "representative of the complete ignorance of Italy's political class when it comes to minorities." Noting that "this ignorance [about Jews] is very common in the pro-Israel right," Lerner said that he is not sure whether the gaffe will harm Sallusti's political prospects.
Piccardo, the Muslim representative who debated Sallusti, told Haaretz his reaction proved a point: "If you keep attacking Muslims, you can't pretend to be friends with the Jews. Whether it's protesting against the use of Arabic in mosques or halal meals in schools, anti-Muslim arguments can easily become anti-Semitic ones."