As a student activist in Italy, I would often have a hard time with the Left: the rabid anti-Israel rhetoric in some sections of the Italian Left often descend into anti-Semitism. I was therefore not surprised it was discovered that some sections of an ideologically aligned Left in the UK harbour similar prejudices. While Labour Jews grappled with anti-Semitism after some of Corbyn’s supporters came to prominence, Italian Jews – for the last three years – have had their loyalties questioned every 25th April, the day Italy celebrates the victory of the Resistance against the Nazis and their Fascist collaborators.
In 2014, during the march in Rome, a group of Pro-Palestinian sympathisers started taunting the section of the march arranged by the ‘Brigata Ebraica’ (‘Jewish Brigades’); the year after, during an organising meeting for the march, a few dignitaries from far left groups intimidated members of the Jewish community over the issues of flags for the march. Those people, it was reported, were particularly upset ‘Jewish Brigade’ flags had a yellow star of David at the centre. Since then, the main body organising the 25th April March, the Associazione Nazionale Partigiani Italiani (ANPI) has not been able to give satisfactory security guarantees to the ‘Jewish Brigade’ bloc. This has led to a complete absence of the Jewish community at the commemoration of the resistance in Rome since 2015. In Milan, where the ‘Jewish Brigade’ and the local community have kept participating to those celebrations, abuse from a number of anti-Israel protesters shouting ‘Palestina Libera’ (Free Palestine) or ‘Israele deve essere distrutto’ (Israel must be destroyed) has been forthcoming.
This series of events on the Left goes against a tradition of Italian Jews being allied with progressive forces. Indeed, even after 1967, when left-wing Anti-Zionism started to take a perilous turn towards conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, the Italian PCI (the largest Western Communist party), tried to balance a commitment to supporting human rights abroad with not alienating the Jewish community. Between the 1980s and 1990s, party officials’ memoirs tell of contacts with the PLO representatives as well as meetings with Israeli embassy officials. In 1986, the future Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, at the time a prominent ‘Migliorista’ (‘moderate’) of the PCI, went as far as visiting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He also gave a lecture about International Politics and Security at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Members of his wing of the party were largely viewed as pro-Israel as well as pro-two state solution.
An untold story is that of the no-less-dangerous right-wing anti-Semitism. While Berlusconi might have posed as one of the most pro-Israel leaders in Italian history, His rise to power has contributed to mainstream racism in Italian political discourse. Before 1994, when he came to power, the far right in Italy was limited to the MSI (Italian Social Movement).
Before 1994, being ‘fascist’ in Italy was something one would be very careful to hide. Berlusconi’s rule came about with the support of the MSI-Alleanza Nazionale, bringing a sea-change in the political landscape.In this regard, particularly instrumental was the role of Gianfranco Fini, the MSI secretary back in 1994. He himself espoused the same worldview and foreign policy of the alt-right in the US. This entails an official ‘disavowal’ of Fascism. This did not prevent the youth wing of his party, ‘Azione Giovani’, from greetings with roman salutes and expressing anti-Semitic feelings. Indeed, Gianfranco Fini’s visit to Israel back in 2003 and subsequent condemnation of Fascist infamous racial laws was a bitter pill for Alleanza Nazionale’s Youth Wing, which at the time officially condemned the visit.
It is therefore not surprising anti-Jewish feelings sometimes surfaced on top: Berlusconi himself and his clownish style of telling jokes during important meetings twice crossed into anti-Semitism. Once, he told a joke about the Holocaust playing on classic tropes of money. You can still find YouTube videos of this incident. In 2013, during the 27th January commemorations in Milan, he said the deportation of Italian Jews was a mistake of a regime ‘which had otherwise done good things’.
Unfortunately Italian anti-Semitism continues to be rife in mainstream politics, despite the exit of Berlusconi. A recent horrifying episode demonstrates this: Emanuele Fiano, a Jewish MP for the ruling Partito Democratico, has been recently abused over his proposal to strengthen antifascist legislation in the country. His amendment, if passed, would outlaw organisations that express ideological affinity with Fascism (whereas today existing legislation only forbids a party to invoke a restoration of the defunct Fascist regime). Last Wednesday, a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party tweeted a picture of Fiano claiming his eyebrows ‘cover the signs of circumcision’. While it is not the first time right-wing MPs in Italy toy with anti-Semitism, it is unprecedented in the history of the Italian republic that an MP insults a colleague with an anti-Semitic jibe. The offender, Massimo Corsaro, former MSI member and now one of Forza Italia dignitaries, refused to apologise.
This is a clear example of how the right has the ability to publicly express support for hawkish Israeli governments while toying with anti-Semitism. It is a powerful reminder of what is happening in the United States under Donald Trump, where anti-Semitism has at least been accepted by the mainstream right, despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warm embrace of the Republican president. Or a reminder of the recent spat between Israeli ambassador to Hungary and the Israeli PM, who rectified on the former’s condemnation of anti-Semitic billboards against Soros.
All of us, Jews and non, have recently been focused on instances of Leftwing anti-Semitism. Indeed, the Left is not completely alien from anti-Jewish tropes, when some of its supporters pose loyalty tests to Jews on where they stand on Israel. But we should not forget this stain exists on the right too. And no empty profession of being ‘pro-Israel’ (which in those people’s worldview is only Israel’s right) can hide rightwing anti-Semitism is more entrenched and harder to eradicate.