Back when I was 17, like all male Italians, I had to spend a few days on an army base for various preliminary checkups and tests before being called up for military service. The compulsory draft would be abolished only a few years later. After a couple of days, a doctor determined that my knees were not good enough for military life, and I received an exemption.
While I wasn’t particularly crestfallen for not having made the cut, not everyone felt the same. As we waited to be released from the base and future recruits filed past us, a fellow reject bitterly spat out: "It’s disgusting, they rejected us but took those shitty Gypsies."
Even though, as a Jew growing up in Italy, I had already had multiple run-ins with anti-Semitism, I was still shocked by that racist and irrational statement. I hadn’t even thought to identify the group of slightly darker-skinned comrades as belonging to a different ethnic group – after all they spoke perfect Italian, and probably came from families that had been Italian for generations.
That memory popped back into my mind this week after Italy’s new far right interior minister and deputy PM, Matteo Salvini, announced plans to take a "census" of Roma people in the country, with the goal of deporting those without Italian citizenship.
Speaking on a local TV station, Salvini crassly added: "As for Italian Roma, unfortunately, we’ll have to keep them in Italy because we can’t expel them."
Salvini is the head of the right-wing, anti-immigrant League party, which earlier this month formed a government in an unprecedented alliance with the grassroots anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.
Although in this age of rising nationalism and populism the cry of "Fascist!" is issued perhaps too easily at every utterance by the demagogue du jour – the chilling historical parallels evoked by Salvini’s plan are indeed too strong to ignore.
As mainstream critics of the government were quick to point out, the census of Jews that Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ordered in August 1938 was the prelude to the racial laws that his regime approved later that year.
Those laws restricted the rights of Italian Jews and booted them from schools, the army and most professions, while also leading to the expulsion of foreign Jews living in the country (many of whom had sought refuge from the Nazis.)
In 1943, when the Germans took over central and northern Italy, those same files helped the Nazis and Fascist collaborators find and deport thousands of Italian Jews to the death camps. Roma people were also persecuted by the regime and interned in concentration camps even before the Nazis took over.
Salvini’s plan to target Roma people with a census "is worrying and recalls the memory of the racial laws and measures that were passed just 80 years ago and which are sadly often forgotten," Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities said in a statement. "The search for popularity or the yearning for public order cannot justify the disturbing proposal to target certain categories of citizens, register them and then impose security policies dedicated just to them."
The Jewish community’s stance against similar measures has been consistent: when a previous Italian government proposed fingerprinting Roma, it reacted by calling the policy dangerous and an echo of Mussolini’s racial laws, adding: "Italy has lost its memory."
Criticism has poured in from both the left and right of the political spectrum. The renowned left-leaning anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano (who lives under the protection of an Interior Ministry-provided police escort) said that Italy no longer has an Interior Ministry, but a Cruelty Ministry, and wrote in The Guardian that he fears for his country’s future.
Conservative politician and journalist Giuliano Ferrara called the minister a "racist bully" and a new "Duce" who should resign immediately.
Even the League’s main coalition partner, 5 Star leader Luigi Di Maio, came out against the plan, conceding that such a discriminatory census would be unconstitutional.
But of course Salvini and his ilk are not interested in the reactions of mainstream intellectuals, Italy’s tiny Jewish community or even their immediate political allies.
This 45-year-old firebrand – who sees U.S. President Donald Trump as a role model and has close political ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the French National Front – speaks to an entirely different constituency.
Since coming to power some three weeks ago, nary a day has passed without the Twitter-savvy Salvini making headlines.
First, he announced plans to deport half a million undocumented migrants, saying that "the good times" for them were over; then he caused a multination standoff by closing Italian ports to a ship that had rescued 600 desperate migrants at sea; and he’s even looking to start his own, Trump-style trade war by blocking shipments of Asian rice to protect Italian producers.
Most of this is probably rhetoric and bluster. Salvini cannot stop the influx of migrants with his tweets, nor, at this juncture, is it possible to see how he could legally create a registry of Roma people, let alone deport any non-Italian Roma, most of whom are stateless and therefore cannot be expelled to any third country.
In fact, after basking in the criticism, the interior minister allowed himself to backpedal slightly on his plan, saying that the census was not a "priority" and stressing that he didn’t intend to target any ethnic group, but to merely ensure that Roma camps were in line with the law and that children were being sent to school.
Playing statesman, he could afford to moderate his tone, because he had already achieved his goal of pandering to his base.
Like most modern politicians, Salvini is in constant campaign mode, with the added incentive of knowing that his alliance with the 5 Star is fragile, and may collapse at any time, leading to new elections.
Salvini is doing what he does best, using his new position to tap into the most basic fears of Italians, identify an enemy to be blamed for all their misfortunes and then present himself as the their would-be-savior. It is no coincidence that he targeted the Roma, a minority that most Italians see as a source of petty crime and urban decay. According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 86 percent of Italians view Roma unfavorably – the highest number in Europe.
It is equally unsurprising that Salvini’s ability to grab the limelight is being generously rewarded. The latest polls show that his party, the League, which took 17 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in March, has now jumped above 29 percent, overtaking the 5 Stars to become Italy’s largest party.
It is sadly not difficult for me to imagine my army acquaintance, who was so quick to make the Roma a target of his own anger and frustration, as one of the eager new recruits to Salvini’s cause. Nor is it unfair to link his hardline rhetoric to the behavior of three youths who last week, near Naples, injured a Malian immigrant in a drive-by shooting while chanting "Salvini! Salvini!"
Even if the interior minister’s plans do turn out to be just words, Salvini has dangerously crossed the line into fascist territory by even suggesting that a state should target an ethnic minority, one that includes many of its own citizens, and by deliberately stoking racial hatred - and all that for just a handful of votes.
Ariel David is an editor at Haaretz English, and a Tel Aviv-based foreign correspondent for Italian and English-language publications. He was previously AP's correspondent in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican. Twitter: @arieldavid1980
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