Italy's Jews face new Fascist threat

April 25, 1994|By Fiona Leney

WITH the right-wing Freedom Alliance apparently set to cobble together an administration, the Jews of Italy face becoming the first in Europe since the Second World War to live under a government containing neo-Fascists.

The Northern League's Irene Pivetti, who is on course to be elected as speaker of the lower house, has a track record of anti-Semitic statements that was cited as cause for concern last year in the Anti-Semitism World Report.

The Jewish historian Michele Sarfatti voices the fears of many Italian Jews. "It is terrifying to think that the next time there is a skinhead attack on the Jewish community, our leaders may have to ask for protection from a neo-Fascist Interior Minister elected with the votes of those very skinheads."

The Jewish community is small, about 40,000 people, or about one-tenth of the number of British Jews. But it has always played a disproportionately important part in the life of the nation.

Jewish merchants and bankers generated much of the wealth behind the cultural flowering of the Renaissance. Rome's Jewish community traces its roots back 2,000 years to the times of the Roman emperors.

The man who would be imperator of Italy today, Silvio Berlusconi, the Alliance's head, has courted the community in his quest for premiership.

He stood for election in the central Rome constituency which contains the ghetto -- an area of a few blocks around the city's central synagogue and the heart of the Jewish community.

He also voted after sunset on the second day of Passover in deference to those affronted by the government's clumsy choice of an election date which clashed with an important Jewish festival, and was said to be hurt by the rowdy reception from Jews angry at what they considered inept window-dressing.

His neo-Fascist allies, with whom Mr. Berlusconi enjoys excellent relations, have done their best to present a respectable face to the electorate, but they are still the direct heirs to Mussolini's regime.

Under this regime almost 7,000 Jews of the 33,300 in Italy at the start of the Second World War were deported to concentration camps. Some 6,000 died there. Fewer than 1,000 returned alive.

The neo-Fascists' attempts at political rehabilitation were not helped by a rare indiscretion by their well-groomed leader, Gianfranco Fini, who spoke after his election victory of his admiration for Mussolini, "the greatest statesman of the century."

The leaders of Rome's Jewish community are reluctant to comment. "We don't believe it is helpful in the current situation to make political declarations," Alberto Piatelli, the assistant to Rome's Chief Rabbi, Elio Toaff, told the Independent newspaper of London tersely.

It had taken a written request and innumerable telephone calls to get that far. But ordinary Jews feel angry and alienated.

"Italian Jewry retains residues of wanting to get on with the authorities at all costs," said Emanuele Fiano, a 31-year-old member of Milan's Jewish community. "Our leaders feel we must act correctly, and respect those in power."

An added moral dilemma, he said, was that Mr. Berlusconi's message of helping small businesses and keeping out Communist excesses had struck a chord with some Jews.

"Some of the sentiments that allowed the right to triumph nationally can be found in the community itself," he added.

Tullia Zevi, the President of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy, did agree to talk. At her elegant apartment overlooking the neoclassical synagogue in Rome's ghetto, Mrs. Zevi was charming and diplomatic.

"Since we are so integrated in Italian society, we Jews cover the whole range of the political spectrum," she noted. "On the whole we voted center-left. That is our historical political home. But of course some were dazzled by Berlusconi. He has been very eager to court the community.

"We tread a very fine line. Although we welcome cooperation and consideration from the authorities, we have to be careful of being manipulated."

Certainly, neither Mr. Berlusconi, nor his uncouth ally, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, has dissociated himself from the neo-Fascists' stance.

It is this collapse of "public morality" that Mr. Sarfatti finds so alarming. "Fini's declaration (about Mussolini) created no problems for Bossi and Berlusconi. It is hard to believe their consciences allow them to act like this," he says.

Mr. Sarfatti believes that modern Italian sensitivities have been blunted by tales of the kindness of ordinary citizens to Jewish neighbors during the Second World War.

"Italy has never come to terms with its anti-Semitism as a nation. It is true that behind every Jew that survived there was a good Italian. But it is also true that behind every Jew that was deported after 1943, there was an Italian who betrayed him."

Mrs. Zevi issues a warning about the neo-Fascists: "Fini has never really denied his past. In that interview (about Mussolini) it was his subconscious that came out. Those in his party will certainly not reject their past, and one has to wonder, will he be able to keep the extremists on the leash forever?"

Fiona Leney originally wrote this commentary for the Independent newspaper of London.

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