MILAN, Italy – When Matteo Salvini, the secretary of Italy’s anti-immigration party, Northern League, announced his decision to form an alliance at the European Parliament with France’s far-right Front National, no one was surprised: The two parties share the same anti-euro agenda and the same Islamophobic incendiary rhetoric. Yet, after the announcement, Salvini found himself attacked by a most unlikely critic: Riccardo Pacifici, the head of Rome’s Jewish community.
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Pacifici issued a public statement urging Salvini to rethink his party's alliance with FN, headed by Marine Le Pen, daughter of politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted among other things of Holocaust denial. Siding with Le Pen, Pacifici warned, would “place the Northern League among xenophobic, extreme right-wing parties that pose a threat to European democracy.” But Salvini dismissed Pacifici’s statement as “inappropriately political,” and joined Le Pen’s bloc in the newly elected EU Parliament.
While criticism by a representative of the Jewish community of a far-right politician may be relatively common in other European countries – French Jewry, indeed, has for a long time spoken out against the FN – this is almost unprecedented in Italy.
What’s even more surprising, perhaps, is that such criticism came from a Jewish public figure who, until recently, maintained good relations with Italy’s far right. Pacifici, among the most politically conservative leaders of the Italian Jewish community, was close to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was for decades an ally of the rightist Northern League. Moreover, Pacifici has had openly friendly relationship with Gianni Alemanno, a post-fascist politician who was mayor of Rome until 2013 (among other things, Alemanno hired Ester Mieli, a former Pacifici aide, as his spokeswoman).
In truth, for the past decades the more conservative and staunchly pro-Israel part of Italian Jewry has often sided with the conservative parties. Apparently, they were willing to turn a blind eye to Berlusconi’s trivialization of the Holocaust (most notably, he claimed that Mussolini hadn’t killed anyone), and to his allies’ xenophobic rhetoric, which at times has smacked of outright racism – in exchange for Berlusconi’s unconditional support of the Israeli government.
“We reached the point where some [Jewish leaders] were openly siding with political forces whose foreign policy was pro-Israel, even though their national policy went against the interests of Jews and other minorities, including the separation of the [Catholic] Church and the state,” explains Tobia Zevi, a progressive Jewish activist who also serves in the Democratic Party’s national assembly.
Until Berlusconi came to power, within the Jewish community those siding with the Democratic Party – which counts a few Jews among its activists and parliamentary members – were accused of being “traitors” and self-haters.
Things, however, are rapidly changing: In the post-Berlusconi era, it seems that also the most conservative part of the Jewish community is siding with the center-left Democratic Party. This can be attributed not to a sudden awakening of conservative Jewish leaders’ civil conscience, but rather to profound changes in Italy’s political landscape.
Soft spot for Israel
As right-wing forces have recently made big gains across Europe – predominantly, in Hungary, Britain and France – Italy seems headed in the opposite direction. Here, the Democratic Party, lead by the young and charismatic Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, scored a huge victory in the general election on May 25, garnering an unprecedented 40 percent at the polls.
In second place was the Five Stars Movement, a populist Eurosceptic party founded by radical comedian Beppe Grillo, with 20 percent of the votes. Although most of its supporters come from the left, Grillo is currently negotiating an alliance at the EU Parliament with British far-right party UKIP, angering some of his voters. The Northern League is stable, at 6 percent.
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, on the other hand, scored an all-time low by winning 16 percent of the vote – a failure some attribute to the diminished role of its leader. Convicted for tax fraud, Berlusconi has been formally barred from public office. Still popular among the public, he tried to “lead from behind” but that strategy proved ineffective.
In short, recent European elections have demonstrated that the Berlusconi era is gone for good. This situation, incidentally, has left the so-called pro-Israel camp – an unofficial, broad alliance of conservative Jewish leaders, right-wing pundits, bloggers and politicians who focus their activism around the staunch defense of Israel – orphaned.
Nowadays, however, the pro-Israel camp seems more keen on supporting the left. In online forums, activists urged people to vote for the Democrats, while Pacifici himself publicized his meeting with PM Renzi widely, following the anti-Semitic attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month.
The fact that the new prime minister seems to be more pro-Israel, as compared to other Democratic Party leaders, does help. Indeed, in Jewish and other pro-Israel circles there’s a widespread perception that the premier has a soft spot for the Jewish state.
In practice, under Renzi, Italy’s foreign policy hasn’t shown a significant shift yet. Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini recently issued a statement in support of the Hamas-Fatah unity government. Still, the language the prime minister uses seems Israel-friendly. Renzi even mentioned Israel's economy as a model, in his inaugural speech this past February. Previously, he stated his opposition to Palestinians’ request to join the United Nations, a bid that was supported by the previous Italian government.
Apparently, "[Renzi] sees the issue [of supporting Israel] as a way to distance himself from his predecessors,” who are often perceived as pro-Arab, his biographer David Allegranti told Haaretz.
“For sure, Renzi has often demonstrated a sincere commitment to the Jewish state, and I see as a positive thing [the fact] that many within the community look at him favorably,” says activist Zevi. “What makes me uncomfortable, however, is the number of Jewish activists who get involved in politics only as Jews, rather than citizens, as if Israel were their only priority.”