MILAN – When Matteo Salvini became Italy’s new interior minister in June, one of the first public events he attended was a party at the Israeli Embassy celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Jewish state. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he said he is in favor of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Salvini has made clear throughout his political career that he supports Israel, yet in the past few months has received an unprecedented wave of criticism from Jewish organizations.
UCEI, the umbrella organization of Italy’s Jewish community, has issued two formal statements criticizing Salvini and his government. In June, its governing board compared Salvini’s plan to hold a special census of the country’s Roma community to the anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s. And earlier this month, UCEI President Noemi di Segni warned against a general climate of “growing intolerance, racial hatred and radicalization,” adding it was “unfortunately fomented by certain members of the institutions.”
The Italian media was quick to interpret this as criticism of the new government’s crackdown on asylum seekers and its anti-immigrant rhetoric.
What gave the statements added prominence is that the Jewish organization is usually extremely cautious about taking a political stance. In fact, it has a history of turning a blind eye to contentious political matters, such as when Silvio Berlusconi flirted with neofascists while serving as prime minister. Indeed, when another Roma census was proposed a decade ago (and was even partially carried out before being ruled unconstitutional), the organization issued no formal statement even though individual Jewish leaders were against it. (Di Segni declined to speak with Haaretz for this article.)
So why has the usually cautious Jewish group been vocally critical of the new government, and of Salvini in particular?
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Salvini is the leader of the far-right League party, which is seen as the Italian equivalent of France’s National Front. At the beginning of June, the League formed a coalition government with the Five Star Movement – a populist, antiestablishment party that eschews the left-right distinction and whose political positions are inconsistent at best. Technically, the League is a minority partner in the cabinet that is headed by an independent prime minister (law professor Giuseppe Conte). However, Salvini has managed to establish himself as the public face and de-facto leader of the government.
Since the government was sworn in last month, it has been extremely active in opposing immigration from African countries – in some instances, preventing refugee rescue ships operated by NGOs from docking at Italian ports.
Besides the refugee crisis, the government’s stance on international affairs is not very clear either: While the League is unapologetically pro-Israel, the Five Star Movement tends to be more pro-Palestinian. Both parties, meanwhile, are close to Russia.
The League is also unabashedly xenophobic, often attacking Muslims, Roma and African immigrants. However, it has never expressed anti-Jewish sentiment and, unlike other far-right parties in Europe, doesn’t have historical roots in anti-Semitic fascism (it was originally born as a Northern secessionist party). It has cozied up to various neofascist groups, though – for instance, organizing a protest with CasaPound, a hard-line, neofascist Italian group.
The Five Star Movement, meanwhile, has been traditionally less aggressive toward immigrants but has endorsed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Surge in anti-Semitism
Asked what makes the current situation different, Gadi Luzzatto Voghera – chairman of the Jewish research center CDEC – says the main source of concern is that the current political climate might empower anti-Semites.
“After the elections we noticed a surge in anti-Semitism, even though it’s mostly verbal and takes place online,” Luzzatto Voghera said. “Anti-Semitism has remained quite stable in Italy for the past 10 years, since we began monitoring it. Some people – like [architect] Adachiara Zevi – are receiving hate mail with open threats, which is quite unprecedented.” Zevi, the daughter of renowned Jewish writer Tullia Zevi, filed a complaint with the Rome police last week after receiving a threatening letter with a picture of Hitler on it.
Luzzatto Voghera said a possible explanation for the new mood is that anti-Semites “feel emboldened, less inhibited.” The climate has become so tense, he said, that being pro-Israel is no longer enough to reassure the Jewish community.
“The Jewish community used to get courted by right-wing parties who claimed to support Israel,” he said. “But Italian Jews are suddenly more woke. They made it clear that they are not willing to close an eye [to racism] just because someone is pro-Israel.”
But others say the situation is more complex.
“Italian Jews are surprised and perplexed: this is an unprecedented situation,” said Maurizio Molinari, editor-in-chief of daily La Stampa and one of Italy’s best-known Jewish intellectuals.
“The League and the Five Star Movement are both extremist forces," he said. “It’s not like they have an official position hostile to Jews, but both parties include representatives who have shown hostility to Jews. Just think of what happened in Rome recently, when members of the city council proposed to have a street named after [Giorgio] Almirante [who headed the neofascist Italian Social Movement until 1987]. Or in Turin, where members of the city council asked for a boycott against Israel.
“It’s too early to have a clear answer, but there’s definitely a question of whether the League and the Five Star Movement are Jewish friendly or hostile to Jews,” continued Molinari. “The fact Salvini has often expressed pro-Israel views is reassuring. But what makes the situation more complicated is that the League and Five Star Movement lack deep historical roots – so they don’t have the antibodies to contain the extremists in both camps. But we can still be optimistic; maybe they will develop them eventually.”
However, the question remains of how representative the Jewish institutions are. When umbrella organization UCEI openly criticized the government recently, was it really speaking for all Italian Jews?
Unlike the United States, Italy doesn’t have political opinion polls based on religion or ethnicity, so there’s no way of officially knowing which parties are more popular among Italian Jews. Anecdotal evidence, though, suggests that the League enjoys at least some Jewish support: After UCEI issued its statements against Salvini, some Jews distanced themselves from them.
Fiamma Nirenstein, an Italian-Israeli conservative pundit, wrote that “populism is not anti-Semitic,” while Hatikwa – the newspaper of young Italian Jews – published an Op-Ed by young journalist Nathan Greppi urging Jewish leaders not to attack the League.
“This government has its supporters inside the Jewish community – not so much the Five Star Movement, but the League does,” said political historian David Bidussa. “Some Jews appreciate the League because they perceive it as being pro-Israel and anti-Islam. Not to mention that they share some skepticism of the European Union because of its criticism of Israel.”
The bottom line, Bidussa said, is that “when someone is pro-Israel, that’s still a passport to forgive other sins.”