Italy May Finally Criminalize Holocaust Denial. Or Not.

Why has it taken almost a decade for the law to (almost) reach the law books in Rome? While Jewish community leaders hail the belated move, some historians question its value.

Italy may soon finally be introducing a law criminalizing Holocaust denial. Or maybe not. In fact, the country’s government has been discussing the possibility for more than nine years, with various drafts going back and forth between the government and two branches of the Italian Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies and Senate of the Republic). In the process, it has spurred an endless media debate on where to draw the line between freedom of expression and hate speech.

Last Tuesday, the Senate approved a draft law making Holocaust denial legally prosecutable under some circumstances. Under the proposed law, people will face a three-year sentence for promoting, inciting or committing acts of racial discrimination based in part or entirely on the denial of the Holocaust.

The decision was praised by leaders of the Jewish community but harshly criticized by historians – including some Jewish ones.

Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called it “a victory” and “an important tool in the fight against [racial] hatred.” But four leading historians – Marcello Flores, Miguel Gotor, Sergio Luzzatto and Anna Foa, the latter two both of Jewish descent – protested the measure as both ineffective and detrimental to freedom of speech.

“You don’t fight Holocaust denial by making it illegal. What we need is to educate people on the subject,” said Foa, a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, in a telephone interview with Haaretz. “Outlawing an opinion, no matter how despicable, is problematic to begin with. In this case, it could also boomerang, turning anti-Semites into martyrs. I am also concerned that the wider public is getting the wrong message – that the [proposed] law is something of a ‘favor to the Jews,’ which would foster prejudice,” she added.

Emanuele Fiano, a Democratic Party MP who supports the bill, rejects the accusations. In its current wording, he points out, the bill would make Holocaust denial not a crime per se, but rather an “aggravating circumstance in hate crimes.”

“It makes sense that someone who’s inciting to ethnic and racial hatred, which is illegal already, can be judged by the yardstick of history. Indeed, it was a warning from history that prompted the [anti-incitement] law we have,” said Fiano, referring to the Holocaust.

Last Tuesday’s vote in the Senate is far from final, though. The Chamber of Deputies (unofficially seen as the lower house) still has to approve the draft – a process that could take months.

Why the delay?

Italy’s political system requires every small change in proposed laws to be approved by both parliamentary houses, making the lawmaking process sluggish – and the more delicate the issue, the longer the debate. And that’s what happened here.

The bill proposing that Holocaust denial be made illegal was first presented in January 2007. However, that draft was derailed when 28 historians signed a petition claiming that it would “give Holocaust deniers the possibility of presenting themselves as defenders of freedom of expression.” The draft was slightly modified and resubmitted to the Parliament in 2012 and 2013, but to no avail. Two cabinets fell in the meantime, further complicating the process.

In February 2015, a watered-down version of the bill was drafted, proposing to make Holocaust denial an aggravating circumstance in hate crime, as outlined above. The draft was soon approved by the Chamber of Deputies, but it took over a year to get the green light from the Senate, which insisted on a slight rewording that now requires a new vote in the lower house.

“The bill has been stalled for a long time, even by Italian standards,” Jacopo Tondelli, a political analyst and chief editor of the progressive website Gli Stati Generali, told Haaretz.

Many European countries have laws criminalizing Holocaust denial (France was one of the first to adopt one, in 1990, followed by Austria, Belgium, Germany and Spain). The European Union has also encouraged its member states to introduce such laws, in a nonbinding decision in April 2007. However, it has proved a particularly hard nut to crack in Italy.

The proposed law “doesn’t move forward because a lot of people are uncomfortable about it, either for good reasons – such as doubting its effectiveness and concerns about freedom of speech – or for bad ones, such as condoning anti-Semitism,” said Tondelli. “But it also doesn’t get completely stopped, because very few people want to take responsibility for killing it, fearing they might look as if they side with Holocaust deniers.”

Unintentionally spreading Holocaust denial?

Valentina Pisanty, a researcher at the University of Bergamo who specializes in Holocaust denial, strongly opposes both the necessity and effectiveness of such a law. “Holocaust denial is more marginal in Italy than in other European countries, and it mostly takes place on the internet, which is hard to monitor,” she told Haaretz.

Some would argue that Holocaust denial is a serious problem in a country whose former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, infamously claimed in 2003 that “Mussolini didn’t kill anyone,” and where sympathizers of the former dictator, including his granddaughter, are sitting politicians (Alessandra Mussolini is in the European Parliament).

Alessandra Mussolini, member of the European Parliament for the Forza Italia party, May 10, 2016.
Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Pisanty, though, maintains that it’s a separate issue. “Italy has a problem in self-absolving itself: we talk of the Holocaust as if only Germany was responsible. But that wouldn’t fall into Holocaust denial under the proposed law.” Her solution is that “it should be tackled with better education, which doesn’t shy away from discussing the fascist regime’s involvement in the murder of Jews.”

If we accept the narrow definition of Holocaust denial, some data support the claim that it’s marginal in Italy – however, it should be noted that the last poll on the subject was conducted 12 years ago. At that time, Italian research institute Eurispes found that only 2.7 percent of Italians believed that the Holocaust didn’t happen, although as many as 11 percent believed the number of deaths had been exaggerated.

“Italy has fewer deniers because they don’t get much publicity. If we start putting them on trial, they’ll receive attention and their ideas will start spreading,” warns Pisanty. “That’s precisely what happened in France. When [Roger] Garaudy was put on trial [in 1998], he was turned into a minor celebrity – not only at home but in Middle Eastern countries, who started using his Holocaust-denying thesis as a tool to attack Jews and Israel,” adds the researcher, referring to the controversial philosopher who was made a honorary member by the Arab Writers Union in Syria and praised by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi.

“Based on that precedent, we can safely say that anti-Holocaust denial laws have unintentionally helped spread it outside of Europe,” Pisanty concluded.