A far-right politician has earned instant infamy in Italy for criticizing a prominent Holocaust survivor and saying that to call Jesus a Jew is offensive to Christians.
The four Gospels and the Catholic Church are unequivocal about Christ’s Jewishness, so the remarks by Fabio Tuiach — a council member in the northeastern city of Trieste — sparked widespread online ridicule as well as outrage over what is the latest in a series of anti-Semitic incidents in Italy.
Tuiach’s comments were linked to the high-profile case involving Liliana Segre, the 89-year-old Holocaust survivor who was recently placed under police protection after she received hundreds of anti-Semitic hate messages on social media.
Segre, who is a senator in the Italian parliament, has become a target for online abuse ever since she called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to combat racism and online hate speech. After she was given police bodyguards following the abuse, which included death threats, various towns and cities across Italy started naming her an honorary citizen as a show of support.
When the Trieste municipality met to vote on granting Segre that honor in mid-November, Tuiach, 39, spoke out against the proposal. His comments have subsequently been widely shared and criticized.
“I would gladly have this nice little grandma over for tea, I have great respect for her,” Tuiach told the assembly. “But as someone who is deeply Catholic, I was confused and offended because she said Jesus was a Jew — while for me he was the Son of God.”
It was not immediately clear which of Segre’s remarks he was referring to, but in Catholic Italy it is common for anti-racism advocates to recall Jesus’ roots to skewer prejudice against Jews.
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“Dear Tuiach, Jesus was a Jew: it’s not Segre who says so but the Bible,” read a headline in the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper on Saturday, in one of many opinion pieces criticizing the local politician.
Naturally, social media was even harsher in its response to Tuiach.
“He was insulted because Liliana Segre revealed to him that Jesus was a Jew,” read one tweet. “I wonder what will happen when he finds out Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”“The problem is not that Tuiach is in the dark about Jesus being a Jew, but that he thinks it’s despicable,” noted another user.
A third added: “These people say they want to defend our Christian roots, but they don’t even know where those roots come from.”
Tuiach, who is also a heavyweight boxer, was elected to Trieste’s city council in 2016 serving for the League, the hard-line anti-immigrant party led by former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. He has since left the party, briefly joining Forza Nuova — an openly neofascist movement to the right of the League in Italy’s political spectrum — before recently becoming an independent.
Tuiach is no stranger to grabbing headlines with controversial statements. Last January, he proposed banning Trieste’s Pride Parade, describing it as “an abomination” and calling for public prayers as an “act of reparation” for the event. He has also branded the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile” and organized anti-immigrant vigilante patrols in the city, whose location on Italy’s northeastern border makes it a natural entry point for migrants from the Balkans.
In a phone interview with Haaretz, Tuiach doubled down on his latest comments on Segre and compared himself to the senator, who was one of a handful of Jewish children under 14 who survived the Auschwitz death camp during the Holocaust.
“I too am persecuted [like her] because of my faith,” he said. “When I opposed the Pride Parade, which offends my religion, I was showered with insults.”
Tuiach said he was surprised by the controversy surrounding his remarks about Jesus. “People are forgetting what Christianity really is,” he said, adding that “the Middle Ages were the golden age of Christianity, when our saints were Catholic extremists who defended their religion with the sword.”
As for his theological outlook, Tuiach insisted that “Jesus was born to a virgin, he is the Son of God. This should be obvious to anyone defending our true faith: How can he be a Jew?”
Christian theology has always recognized that Jesus was born and raised as a Jew. The Gospels tell of his circumcision eight days after his birth in accordance with Jewish custom (Luke 2:21), and of his praying and studying in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:46). And when Jesus is crucified by the Romans, he is mocked by his executioners, who place a notice on his cross with the words “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19),
If anything, it is Christianity’s view of Judaism that has changed in recent decades, explains Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Aviad Kleinberg.
Until the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which was established in the early 1960s to address relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world, Jews “were seen as stubborn and mechanistic, following empty rituals that no longer meant anything,” Kleinberg said. “Judaism was considered a dead religion and Jesus was the spirit of renewal that had grown out of it.”
After Vatican II, which rejected anti-Semitism and the depiction of Jews as “Christ killers,” the link between Jesus and Judaism became more emphasized: Over the last half century, popes have frequently highlighted the shared roots of the two religions.
“Until Vatican II, the general feeling was that on the one hand Jesus was a Jew, born into a Jewish family. But on the other, he was seen as ‘alien’ to Judaism; he did not represent continuity but rather a major break with Jewish tradition,” the historian of Christianity said. “Today, he is seen as a Jew in every possible respect. Yes, he was an innovator and the Son of God. But he was fully a Jew, not just by birth but also religiously and culturally.”