Italian Soccer Club Owner's Response to anti-Semitism Leaves Rome's Jewish Community 'Unimpressed'

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Lazio's players wear shirts with a picture of Anne Frank and the words 'No to anti-Semitism' before their match against Bologna in Bologna, Italy, October 25, 2017.
Lazio's players wear shirts with a picture of Anne Frank and the words 'No to anti-Semitism' before their match against Bologna in Bologna, Italy, October 25, 2017.Credit: ALBERTO LINGRIA/REUTERS

On the face of it, the owner and president of the Roman soccer club Lazio seemed to be taking a very firm stance against the latest episode of anti-Semitism by his club's hooligan supporters. Earlier this week the hard-core fans, known in Italy as ultras, plastered stickers of Anne Frank wearing the jersey of Lazio's rival club, Roma, in their shared stadium. Lazio's president, Claudio Lotito, condemned the episode, headed to the Great Synagogue of Rome with a blue and white flower wreath – his club's colors – and promised to bring 200 supporters every year to the Auschwitz concentration camp for an educational trip. Twenty-four hours later, however, Italian police found the flowers floating in the waters of the Tiber, the river that runs through the city. The local Jewish community did not take the solidarity gesture well.

“I can confirm that the flowers were thrown away by members of the Jewish community,” said Daniele Regard, a 31-year-old Italian Jew who works as a press officer for Nicola Zingaretti, the president of Italy's Lazio region. “To most people in the community, those flowers were too little, too late,” he added. At the beginning of the month, the Italian Football Federation decided to close down the northern curva, or stadium stands, where Lazio’s hard-core supporters normally sit. The decision was taken after they booed black players from the Sassuolo club, something Lazio fans have a long history of doing. Instead of letting them stay at home for Lazio's match against Cagliari, Lotito decided to open up the southern stands of the stadium, the place where Roma's hard-core fans usually sit. He sold tickets for 1 euro – virtually a gift to the banned fans – giving them the opportunity to paste the controversial stickers all over the enemy's terrace. The Italian Football Federation has now decided to take measures against the move.

“Lotito made concessions to the hard-core fans after they engaged in racist behavior, and then he thought he could get away from the Anne Frank scandal by turning up at the synagogue with a bunch of flowers,” says Enrico Camp, another young Jew from the Rome community. “We expected concrete steps, not trivial gestures,” he concludes.

Lazio soccer team president Claudio Lotito gives a statement to the press after laying a wreath outside Rome's Great Synagogue, October 24, 2017. Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP

“The visit came across as a rushed way to clean Lazio’s conscience,” agrees Daniele Di Nepi, a soccer fan from Rome who lives in Israel and works at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. To make matters even worse, a recording where Lotito dismissed his visit to the synagogue as a “charade” – that is, a necessary PR operation because of the widespread outrage over the stickers, rather than a sincere way to show solidarity – emerged on Wednesday. In another misstep that gave the impression he didn't take the case seriously enough, Lotitio said on a radio program that the media outrage surrounding the Anne Frank stickers could be a conspiracy against Lazio, “because we are doing so well this season.”

In the aftermath of the scandal, the Italian Football Federation deemed that passages from Anne Frank’s famous diary would be read ahead of this week’s matches in the Italian Serie A league. On Wednesday evening, referees gave copies of the book, along with Primo Levi’s "The Drowned and the Saved," to the captains of the teams, who in turn gave it to the children who traditionally walk them to the pitch. But these measures are not effective, members of Rome's Jewish community told Haaretz. “It is extremely stupid and wrong to treat the current incidents as an episode, and to try to address them with an emergency response,” said Camp. “Racism is a structural, long-standing problem for Italian soccer, which includes not only anti-Semitism but also discrimination against black players and territorial discrimination against the poorer regions of Italy’s south.”

In yet another expression of racism, a few days ago, fans of the Benevento club from the southern province with the same name put up a banner calling their former coach a “Gypsy” after a series of bad losses for their team. Southern supporters are often mocked as “terroni,” a derogatory term which literally means “people of the land” or “farmers,” by their rivals.

Lazio’s hooligans were genuinely surprised at the public's outrage to their Anne Frank stickers, since their recent behavior isn’t any different than what they have consistently been doing for decades. Di Nepi thinks it will not go away: “Sometimes a scandal on racism in Italian soccer erupts, people kick up a big fuss about it and then everything goes back to where it was before,” he says. “Racism among hooligans is a problem for most Italian teams.” His friend Daniele Regard agrees. “It takes more than a few readings of Anne Frank or some flowers to solve such a deep-rooted, profound cultural problem,” he says. Many hard-core supporters across Italy did not react well to the exchange of books about the Holocaust in the pitch, chanting disrespectful slogans or ignoring the event altogether. Supporters of the Ascoli club went as far as purposely remaining outside of the stadium when the ceremony took place ahead of their team’s match.

“If anything, the current round of measures against anti-Semitism will make the phenomenon go bigger. The Jews will come across as annoying, as always behaving like they are victims,” says Clemente Mimun, a prominent Italian journalist who happens to be both a Jew and a Lazio fan. As someone who knows Lazio well, he swears that Lotito actually had long years of conflict with the hooligans and that he is not complicit when it comes to racism and anti-Semitism. “Israeli ambassador Ehud Gol used to sit next to him at Lazio matches,” he recalls, even though he admits giving out tickets to banned ultra fans two weeks ago was a mistake on Lotito's part.

Politically, the Jewish community in Rome has been closer aligned to the right to the left in the last few years. But when the most conservative segment of the right bring up references to their fascist past and proudly uphold them, the entire community feels a deep sense of unease. Mimun, who is 64, says that he suffers a great deal from the racism of the fans of the very team he supports: "Soccer was the last game connecting me to my childhood, and they broke it, I don’t know if I will be able to go to the stadium anymore, I’m so pained and angry."

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