Salvini, Israel and anti-Semitism
In Italy IHRA-style propaganda is linked to anti-migrant racism, writes Toby Abse.
The conference on ‘New forms of anti-Semitism’ organised by the Lega leader and former deputy premier/interior minister Matteo Salvini in Rome on January 16 was probably the most grotesque embodiment of the alliance between the Israeli state and the European far right yet seen in the public realm.
After all, Binyamin Netanyahu’s cordial relationship with the Hungarian premier, Viktor Orbán, and his Polish equivalent can be presented as an intrinsic part of state-to-state relations, and thus of a different order to overt support for an opposition leader like Salvini. Moreover, such dealings with the anti-Semitic governments of Hungary and Poland do not involve ludicrous conferences to redefine anti-Semitism - perhaps because both of these eastern European governments have domestic opponents even further to the right (eg, Jobbik in Hungary), which would doubtless criticise any softening of the stance towards Jews, however dishonest such a hypothetical retreat might be.
Perhaps the disgraceful Israeli state endorsement of absurd Polish claims that the Germans alone were responsible for all Jewish deaths on Polish soil between 1939 and 1945 could be seen as the historiographical equivalent of the recent Israeli-sponsored conference with Salvini.1 Arguably, the Israeli approval of Salvini is in some ways more shameless than its approval of the Polish Law and Justice Party, which was an ally of the superficially respectable Boris Johnson in the European parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists group.2 Even the Israeli endorsement of Fidesz could be explained away by the fact that these Hungarians are members (albeit suspended) of the European People’s Party, whose origins were mainstream, centre-right Christian Democratic.
The case of the Lega is much more revealing and, one would have thought, embarrassing from an Israeli point of view. Whilst at a pinch the Lega’s alliance with the French Ralliement National (formerly Front National) can be ignored by disingenuous Zionist diehards on the grounds that Marine le Pen has publicly repudiated the views on the holocaust expressed by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, even the most unscrupulous Israeli propagandists must still have a problem with Salvini’s other principal ally, the Alternative für Deutschland, with its scarcely concealed links with anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism.
Moreover, it is not just a question of Salvini’s unsavoury allies at the European level. The Lega’s willingness to work with the more extreme end of the Italian neo-fascist spectrum - as opposed to the more ‘moderate’ neo-fascists (or “post-fascists”, as they call themselves) in the Fratelli d’Italia - has increased since Salvini became Lega leader in December 2013.3 In February 2015 Salvini had held a joint rally in central Rome with CasaPound, the self-proclaimed “fascists of the third millennium” (and as recently as October 19 last year he had no problem with CasaPound’s very public participation in the Lega-led ‘centre-right’ demonstration in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni against the government.) One assumes that even the most dim-witted Israeli intelligence officer in the Rome embassy would have grasped that an avowedly fascist organisation, named after the notorious anti-Semitic Ezra Pound, would be itself rabidly anti-Semitic.
Salvini himself has a rather longer personal association with the anti-Semitic and hard-line fascist milieu than many have realised. His closest friend at the school he attended between the ages of 14 and 19 was Marco Carucci, a fervent neo-fascist as a teenager, who later became a leading figure in Forza Nuova - CasaPound’s chief rivals amongst neo-fascist groups engaged in street fighting. This friendship continued for years after they had both completed their schooling and Salvini acted as Carucci’s best man at the latter’s wedding in 2006. Given the closeness of this duo, it is not so surprising that Salvini’s history teacher remembers him remarking in a classroom discussion of the Final Solution that “The Jews must have done something to have been treated that way”. Furthermore, in early 1991, when both Carucci and Salvini were pupils, the following slogans were spray-painted on the outer wall of their school: “Death to the Jews. Long live Saddam”. This was accompanied by a Celtic cross - one of the key emblems of hard-line Italian neo-fascist groups. Obviously it is possible that this was done by outsiders, not pupils, but Carucci’s views were widely shared amongst their classmates.4
More recently Salvini has become obsessed with George Soros. For example, in a press conference held in Moscow in July 2017, Salvini explained:
My objective is to ... make an agreement between three political movements, not on the payroll of the likes of Soros, who put at their centre the interests of 500 million Europeans and not the interests of some bankers, some speculators or some multinationals ... - the union that homogenises everything, cancelling the real differences.
In December 2014 he informed a radio station: “I don’t accept the IUS Soli [the law that gives anyone born in Italy citizenship]. It is the replacement of peoples, planned in the name of profit under the god of money [so] it is not the European Union that I want to leave to my children.”5 Salvini was far too shrewd to utter the word ‘Jews’, but the implication would have been grasped by any anti-Semite. The same can be said of his slightly coded references to the ‘Great Replacement’, in which the Jews are using blacks and Muslims to destroy white, Christian Europe. In August 2015, he said: “An attempted genocide of the population that has inhabited Italy for centuries is afoot and somebody wants to replace them with tens of thousands of people who are arriving from other parts of the world.”6
Needless to say, the conclusion reached by the ‘New forms of anti-Semitism’ conference - indeed its only real purpose - was to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. So far, in domestic terms, this belated and hypocritical attempt to present Salvini and the Lega as the friends of the Italian Jews has proved a manifest failure. Not only had 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor and life senator Liliana Segre rejected Salvini’s invitation to attend the conference - for reasons that I will explain later - but the seat set aside for the official leaders of the Italian Jewish community also remained empty.
Here the point needs to be made that, although the leaders of that community are in a broad sense Zionists, they are not uncritical Netanyahu fans, anxious to prostrate themselves at every function attended by the Israeli ambassador, as this conference was. The contrast with their British equivalents (the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, etc) needs no underlining. Moreover, although in the early years of the Berlusconi era, a number of Jewish leaders had closely identified with the political right, in recent times the current leadership has publicly opposed government measures against migrants and gypsies, seeing the connection between general racism and xenophobia, on the one hand, and specific hostility to the Jewish community, on the other. On several occasions they have drawn the obvious parallels with Mussolini’s racial laws of 1938. The collective memory of the community that experienced first persecution between 1938 and 1943, and then deportations to the death camps, as well as some killings on Italian soil, in the last years of World War II, clearly influences their perceptions of the present day.
Two of the three prominent Jews in attendance at Salvini’s conference on anti-Semitism were Israelis, not Italians. These were the Israeli ambassador, Dror Eydar, and the president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, Dore Gold. The only Italian Jew mentioned in the relatively brief mainstream reports of the conference,7 and very probably the only one present, was Fiamma Nirenstein. Nirenstein was for many years associated with Forza Italia and continues to write editorials for Silvio Berlusconi’s daily paper, Il Giornale, even if in recent times, seeing the changing balance of forces on the Italian right, she has become Salvini’s chief advisor on Israeli affairs.
The Forza Italia speaker of the Senate, Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, made the opening speech and remained present throughout the proceedings.8 She was observed having a friendly chat with Salvini at the end - although whether, as he claimed in a subsequent interview, they were discussing the conference or instead were discussing a possible meeting of the senate committee dealing with parliamentary immunity from prosecution, as many cynics in the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) believed, is far from clear. It is perhaps no coincidence, as Italian Jewish journalist Gad Lerner could not resist implying,9 that both Netanyahu and Salvini are hoping to use parliamentary immunity to avoid criminal proceedings in their respective countries. But whether the fellow feeling of two corrupt politicians had anything to do with it is rather debatable.
The somewhat negative outcome of the conference in terms of the organisers’ objectives cannot really be understood in isolation from an earlier dramatic incident in the Italian Senate in October 2019. Liliana Segre - the elderly holocaust survivor referred to earlier - made a speech proposing the creation of a Senate committee of inquiry into anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of hatred. This proposal was supported by the PD, Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) and the minor parties involved in the current coalition government. It was opposed by the parties of the ‘centre-right’ - the Lega, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Forza Italia. This division was dramatised by the reaction to Segre’s speech: the governmental senators rose to their feet at the end of Segre’s speech and gave her a standing ovation, while the opposition remained seated and silent. Given that Segre’s stance was in part motivated by the fact that she was receiving hundreds of death threats - mostly online - from far-right sympathisers, who were annoyed that president Sergio Matterella had in 2018 appointed a holocaust survivor as a life senator and by her criticisms of Salvini’s anti-migrant stance, the behaviour of the opposition, relayed to millions on national television news, gave the impression of a lack of human sympathy.
It is clear that some of the Forza Italia senators were genuinely embarrassed by the consequences of behaving like a united opposition, alongside the Lega and FdI, and could see some distinction between the proposal with which they may have disagreed and the proposer, for whom they may have had some respect.10 However, what was glaringly obvious was the underlying hostility of both the far-right parties - Lega and FdI - towards a Jew who dared not only to speak out against anti-Semitism, but also opposed anti-immigrant racism and hostility to other minority groups.
Obviously Salvini’s public justification did not in any way reference the ‘Great Replacement’, but took the form of alleging that Segre’s proposed committee threatened freedom of expression - essentially the ‘political correctness gone mad’ line we are so familiar with in the UK. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the FdI, ranted about dangers to the family - which presumably needed to be protected by implying homophobic insults, as so many of her followers were in the habit of doing.11 Unsurprisingly, the behaviour of these parliamentarians was seen as a green light for extra-parliamentary hostility to Segre, which increased in subsequent days, with the display of threatening banners by the neo-fascist group, Forza Nuova. So it came about that an elderly holocaust survivor had to be given a police escort for her own protection - something that was widely reported outside Italy.
Both Salvini and Meloni were sufficiently media-savvy to feel compelled to attempt some sort of hypocritical reconciliation with Segre. Meloni telephoned her, offering a half-hearted apology, laced with cryptic remarks about her deep concerns for the family. As Segre subsequently explained in an interview, she responded to the neo-fascist by pointing out that she had been married to the same man for 50 years.12 For the benefit of British readers I feel compelled to point out that Meloni has not married the father of her children, so does not practise the traditional Catholicism she preaches.
In other words, Segre’s response to her pontificating was even more barbed than might first appear. Salvini had had a private meeting with Segre in November - in which, one presumes, some degree of formal courtesy was maintained on both sides (otherwise it is hard to see how he had the chutzpah to invite her to his anti-Semitism conference). She responded to this invitation, belatedly issued in mid-January, by pointing out that she was very busy in late January, having already committed herself to participation in a variety of events around the time of Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). However, she did not limit herself to stating these very genuine demands on her time, which the narcissistic Salvini had probably not thought about. She also made it crystal-clear that in her view the consideration of anti-Semitism could not be detached from discussing other forms of racism - she knew full well that this was what Salvini was trying to do.
Never a man to show any self-restraint when his whims were thwarted, Salvini proceeded to insult Segre by implication at the conference. To quote his exact words: “I am disappointed that somebody is not here today because ‘We ought to have spoken about everything’. It is classic Italian methodology to use this alibi not to engage with the topics.” He added: “Liliana Segre has so much to teach us; Carola Rackete has not”, knowing perfectly well that Segre would not have shared his hostility towards Rackete (captain of the German ship which rescued drowning migrants in defiance of Salvini’s anti-migrant laws - she was arrested for doing so).
Salvini added to the appalling impression he was making on anybody who was not already either a Lega supporter or a slavish adherent to Israeli government policy by losing his temper with journalists at the end of the conference. They quite understandably asked him questions about his immigration policy and the accusations of racism that had arisen from them. He clarified his position by asserting: “We do not confuse the legitimate control of the frontiers and immigration with the barbarism of the Shoah and of hatred towards Israel. It is absurd to accuse me of racism for having done my duty in controlling the frontiers.” Since the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni (who had not attended the conference), had in an official statement qualifying her approval of the idea behind it by adding, “Salvini must take note that he is a reference point for groups on the extreme right”, journalists asked Salvini about his relations with CasaPound and Forza Nuova. The Lega leader claimed, “No relationship exists” - seemingly oblivious to the photographs of him alongside leaders of CasaPound that have often appeared in the mainstream press. Admittedly Simone Di Stefano, a keen leader of CasaPound, has recently remarked: “The drama of the sovereigntists is their psychological subjection [to the Jews]. [Salvini] has voted against the Segre commission? Good. One sticks to this position. No, one rushes to apologise, one pushes to make her an honorary citizen, one invites her to conferences.”13
It seems probable that the anti-Semitism conference may well be the preliminary to Salvini pushing the Israeli agenda on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance agenda on anti-Semitism and outlawing the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign in Italy - if and when he ever has the time to devote himself to anything other than electoral campaigning and his own judicial problems. However, even here things may not go so smoothly. Interestingly, the Italian representative of the IHRA, Milena Santerini, has some doubts about the definition. As she explained to La Repubblica, “The theme is complex. I have already received some criticism for having argued that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism do not coincide perfectly” (January 17).
She has also said: “I am committed to fighting anti-Semitism in the same spirit with which I denounce Islamophobia and antiziganismo: that is, the prejudice that strikes the Muslims and the Roma.” This is precisely the attitude that Salvini denounced at his conference. Santerini, who teaches at the Catholic University of Milan, and has worked with Segre since 1994, is clearly the kind of Catholic who shares the anti-racist views of Pope Francis, who Salvini detests. As Lerner emphasises, Salvini has joined the current of “Christian Zionists” being “at the same time pro-Israeli and anti-Semitic”.14 In one sense Santerini may also be both a Christian and a Zionist, but not in the same sense as Salvini - as Conte’s recently appointed “national coordinator of the struggle against anti-Semitism”, she is not going to be an obedient servant of Netanyahu and Salvini.15
Ruth Dureghello, the president of the Jewish Community of Rome, also took a distance from Salvini in the days after the conference. Asked whether she agreed with his claim in an interview with an Israeli newspaper that anti-Semitism in Italy was the fault of Muslim migrants, she responded:
It’s a partial vision - one part of the phenomenon that adds nothing to what we know already. Anti-Semitism is coming back. From the United States to Australia to Europe, we are seeing phenomena of the extreme right that deserves serious attention, because in Italy, as has already happened in Hungary and Poland, they are moving in structured forms. Every country has its own history, its own traditions, and its own Jews. Although it should take account of the American academics of that conference, the reasoning about anti-Semitism in Italy ought to be done with the Italian Jews.
The emphasis of the rest of her statement was on fascist salutes in football stadiums, holocaust denial and people who invoke the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, not on criticisms of Israel.16 This was particularly significant, given that the Roman Jewish community has in the past had a number of conflicts with pro-Palestinian leftists over events to mark Italy’s Liberation Day on April 25, which have sometimes led to two separate commemorations taking place.17 In short, even the most Zionist of Italy’s Jewish communities has not succumbed to the kind of hysteria whipped up by figures like the chief rabbi in the UK and makes its assessment of where anti-Semitism is coming from without much reference to the Israeli government or American Zionists.18
An anti-Semitic incident during the night of January 23-24 had the effect of further undermining Salvini’s credibility as a friend of the Italian Jews. The German words “Juden hier” (There are Jews here) and a Star of David were spray-painted onto a door of a house in the Piedmontese town of Mondovi, which had belonged to Lidia Rolfi (1925-96) and had been inherited by her son Aldo. Lidia Rolfi had been one of the relatively small number of women in Ravensbruck concentration camp who had managed to survive until it was liberated by the Russians at the end of the war. As Aldo pointed out, his mother had not been Jewish, but a political prisoner deported to Ravensbruck as a result of her role in the Italian resistance. Since Lidia had written a number of books about her experiences, this assumption that she was Jewish suggests that the individual responsible for the offensive slogan was probably ignorant about the historical events of 1943-45, but it is, of course, possible that a hard-line neo-Nazi would identify the Italian resistance with the Jews as part of some ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ conspiracy against the patriotic followers of Mussolini.
Lidia had been a member of the Italian Socialist Party after the war and, although Aldo emphasised in a Corriera della Sera interview (January 25) that he was not a member of any political party, he also told Repubblica: “As a result of hating everybody, always hating, you get to this. How can I not think of Salvini’s intercom?” (January 25) - a reference to the episode a day or two earlier in which Salvini had pressed the intercom of a Tunisian family in Bologna and accused the son of being a drug dealer.
Referring to his mother’s intellectual legacy, Aldo added: “Anybody who has been the victim of racial or political persecution knows that history can repeat itself.” Santerini, the national coordinator of the struggle against anti-Semitism referred to earlier, when asked about the incident, warned people, “Beware of the slogans of nationalism and populism”, and even explicitly condemned Salvini’s “equation” of ‘drug dealer’ and ‘foreigner’.
1. See JT Gross Neighbours: the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton 2001) for evidence to the contrary. Zeev Sternhell, the prominent Israeli historian, denounced the Israeli endorsement of the Polish claim as a betrayal of holocaust survivors on Radio 4’s Today programme on January 22 2020.
2. Johnson’s lack of literary and commercial success as a novelist meant that the prominence of anti-Semitic stereotypes in his book 72 virgins was generally overlooked. In any event, Johnson had long since become a Zionist hero because of his two successful contests for the London mayoralty against Ken Livingstone.
3. There had been a little noted long-term deep entry into the Lega from 1989 onwards by some hard-line neo-fascists, such as Gianluca Savoini, but, with the exception of the Lega MEP, Mario Borghezio, they were not very influential within the Lega, because Salvini took it over instead. For the earlier history of this grouping see C Gatti I demoni di Salvini: I post-nazisti e La Lega Milan 2019.
4. For further details, see ibid pp71-86.
5. Ibid p189.
6. Ibid p177.
7. La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera January 17.
8. In theory the speaker of the Senate holds the second office of state, just below the president of the republic.
9. La Repubblica January 20.
10. Apart from a small number of parliamentarians with a past in the neo-fascist movement, Forza Italia senators were unlikely to be ideologically anti-Semitic or racist.
11. Whilst this was most obvious when they had opposed the law introducing civil partnership, it was also a regular occurrence in any political clash with gay or lesbian politicians on the left or centre-left.
12. Segre has outlived her husband.
13. La Repubblica January 15. This Facebook comment from CasaPound is rather reminiscent of the extreme anti-Semites who accused Oswald Mosley of being a “kosher fascist” in the 1930s.
14. La Repubblica January 20. Lerner was born in Lebanon and had some difficulty obtaining Italian citizenship, which has given him a greater understanding of the predicament of migrants than the average Italian journalist. In his youth he was a member of the revolutionary organization, Lotta Continua. He is now a left liberal rather than a Marxist and is certainly not an absolute anti-Zionist. But his life experience, as well as the anti-Semitic abuse he was subjected to last year at the Lega’s annual Pontida festival, mean that he is fairly aware of the links between the European anti-Semitic far right and the current Israeli government. In short, whilst La Repubblica is the Italian equivalent of The Guardian, the contrast between Lerner and Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian’s leading Jewish ‘expert’ on such matters, is pretty stark.
15. The contrast with Lord John Mann, the ridiculously titled ‘anti-Semitism tsar’ of the UK, could not be more obvious.
16. Dureghello interview La Repubblica January 24.
17. Some extreme left groups have expressed hostility towards the banner of the Jewish Brigade, a group that did participate in Italy’s liberation, while some Zionists have refused to participate in a march with people carrying Palestinian flags.
18. It is perhaps worth noting that the Israeli president, Reuven Riblin, who made a point of snubbing Salvini as interior minister on his visit in 2018, told the Italian president how pleased he was about Segre’s Parliamentary Commission on Anti-Semitism at their meeting at the January 23 Israeli commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So it would be wrong to assume that Netanyahu’s project of favouring the anti-Semitic far right is universally applauded, even amongst the Israeli establishment.