Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Overshadows Celebrations as Jewish Community Pulls Out of Liberation Day March in Rome

Event has long been blighted by clashes between pro-Palestinian activists and Jewish groups, but authorities hoped for Jewish participation this year on the 80th anniversary of the country’s Racial Laws

Italian police officers, with blue helmets, look on during a demonstration described by organizers as pro-Palestinian, in Turin, Italy, 2008
AP

Rome’s Jewish community is boycotting the annual march celebrating Italy’s Liberation Day on Wednesday, protesting pro-Palestinian groups using the event to demonstrate against Israel.

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April 25 is a public holiday in Italy, marking the country’s liberation from Nazi occupation and the fall of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic in northern and central Italy in 1945.

Marches take place annually on this day in all of Italy’s major cities. The events are traditionally seen as a moment when political differences are set aside to celebrate common democratic values.

The marches still feature veterans from the National Association of Italian Partisans, representing the Italian armed resistance groups that fought the fascists during World War II.

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This year’s Liberation Day has even greater significance in Italy, since the country is marking 80 years since the introduction of the Racial Laws that mainly targeted the country’s Jewish minority.

Palestinian flags started to appear on marches in the 1970s, under the pretext that they were representative of the greater struggle against repression. Indeed, it is common to see symbols and flags seemingly unrelated to Italy’s liberation during the marches, with demonstrators insisting they have to connect the Italian experience with fascism to other national struggles against oppression today.

For decades, Italian Jews joined Liberation Day celebrations without feeling the need to march under separate banners or slogans, or to differentiate themselves from other Italians.

However, soon after the Palestinian flags started appearing, members of Italy’s Jewish communities started to march carrying flags of the Jewish Brigade (aka Jewish Infantry Brigade Group). Its flag, a star of David between two blue vertical stripes, is similar to the Israeli flag.

Benito Mussolini, second left, celebrating the 14th anniversary of Italian fascism in 1936. Liberation Day marks the end of Nazi occupation and fall of Mussolini's party in 1945.
AP

The unit, part of the British Army, featured Jews from British Mandatory Palestine who fought alongside the British in the war. In Italy, some 5,000 Jewish Brigade soldiers fought the Nazis between March-April 1945, with 41 killed. And, of course, many of the Jewish combatants who fought fascism in Europe later fought in the Israeli War of Independence.

Encounters between Palestinian organizations and groups carrying symbols of the Jewish Brigade – often alongside Israeli flags – soon created an underlying tension on Liberation Day marches. In recent years, these tensions erupted into direct confrontations where supporters of the Palestinian struggle attacked representatives of the Jewish Brigade, calling them “fascists,” “murderers of children” and arguing that they should not be allowed to take part in the march.

Likewise, those demonstrating to remember the role played by the Jewish Brigade accused pro-Palestinian groups of hijacking the real significance of the day, while also labeling them “Nazis” and recalling how Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini enjoyed good relations with Hitler. Four years ago, the confrontations degenerated in violent clashes that left members on both sides injured.

Ahead of last year’s Liberation Day, Rome’s Jewish community said it intended to hold its own march to remember the Jewish Brigade, snubbing the main march that for decades had brought together all sides of the political divide.

This move exacerbated tensions with the partisans’ association, which was accused of not doing enough to accommodate the Jewish groups looking to honor the Jewish Brigade.

The announcement of a separate march caused consternation in Italy, since the Jewish community has always been seen as a crucial part of official events to mark the country’s liberation from fascism.

For several months ahead of this year’s holiday, Italian authorities – including Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi and the partisans’ association – sought to find common ground and hold a joint march on Liberation Day.

Two weeks ago, a statement signed by the association, Raggi and the president of the Jewish community, Ruth Dureghello, announced that a compromise had been reached.

“Given the re-emergence across Europe and in our country, Italy, of new and old forms of fascism, given the ubiquitous presence of racism and violence in political discourse, there is a need to be responsible and overcome the differences which, in the last few years, have characterized liberation celebrations,” the statement read.

The march “must concentrate on the history of the resistance, the struggle against fascism and its protagonists,” the statement added, offering an implicit warning against bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the streets of Rome.

But just as everything seemed settled and as the media hailed this year’s “inclusive march,” Palestinian activists in Rome said they would still be marching with kaffiyehs and Palestinian flags. “We call on all anti-imperialists, anti-fascists, anti-racists and anti-Zionists to come to the streets,” a statement said.

Stunned by that statement, Jewish community representatives said they expected the partisans’ association to take a stance against the pro-Palestinian groups that, they said, were once again trying to hijack the celebrations.

However, since the association did not respond to the Palestinian statement, Jewish community representatives said they will boycott Wednesday’s march.

“The National Association of Italian Partisans failed to take an official and definitive position against the participation of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian organizations that carry symbols alien to the spirit of” Liberation Day, the community said in a statement. “It is unacceptable and inconsistent with history to maintain an attitude of impartiality between symbols of those who fought with the Nazis and those of the Jewish Brigade,” it added.

Meanwhile, in Milan, where representatives of the Jewish Brigade marched in the official event last year, unlike in Rome, after the local partisans’ association guaranteed their safety, pro-Palestinian groups said they would meet in the central Piazza San Babila to “protest the Zionist presence in the march” on Wednesday.

The highlight of this year’s celebrations in Milan was supposed to be a video message by Liliana Segre, an Italian Holocaust survivor who was made a senator-for-life by President Sergio Mattarella in January. However, that looks like being overshadowed by yet another round of Jewish-Palestinian clashes.