Later this month, Roberto Saviano, the renowned Italian journalist, will testify at the first hearing of a trial against 39 Italian neo-Nazis who were accused, among other things, of participating in an online group that incited racial discrimination and violence. For years, between 2009 and 2012, the group held discussions that included white supremacist and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the American hate site Stormfront.
In one of the threads, members of the site posted lists of alleged influential Jews: entrepreneurs, artists, and journalists. Among the people listed, were Carlo De Benedetti, former president of the publishing group L’Espresso, TV host Gad Lerner, and Saviano himself, whose maternal grandparents had Jewish origins, although he identifies as atheist.
An investigation carried out by the Italian police revealed chilling conversations among the members of Stormfront Italy. “I still believe that the great Führer had found the right solution for those damn rats,” wrote Filippo Galbesi, one of the users, in one of the threads. Another member, Alessandro Pedroni, stated: “To build—this time FOR REAL—homicidal gas chambers, applying for real what they pretend happened to them, I believe that would be the REAL FINAL SOLUTION.” All members took part in the discussions under nicknames, but the police discovered and published their names.
Roberto Saviano is no stranger to hatred, online hatred included. After publishing in 2006 his debut novel, Gomorrah, in which he exposed the operations of a cartel of the Neapolitan mafia, the death threats became so serious and frequent that he was put under police protection. As of today, the book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and was translated into over 50 languages. The hatred toward him remains—from the mafia, of course, but also from the people who bitterly accuse him of capitalizing on his anti-mafia fight to enrich himself.
But what he read in the Italian threads of Stormfront—which was later shut down in Italy—and the thousands of hate emails that followed, calling him a Jew and a Mason, particularly upset him.
“They began creating these lists [of Jews], claiming there was a secret connection between them in order to manipulate public opinion,” Saviano said in an interview at Tablet magazine’s office in New York. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists often claim the existence of a Jewish lobby that controls politics, the media, and the economy. “These lists were very dangerous, as they were successful, getting thousands of clicks.”
These Neo-Nazis could have written a book, Saviano said, and nobody would have paid attention; but these documents being so easily accessible, just one click away, made them so much more widespread.
The reports on the lists, published by the Italian news media in 2011, captured the attention of the police in regards to the site.
A few months later, a member of the forum, Ivan Lomasto, who then was 19 years old, created a thread titled “List of Jewish Communities in Italy, Shops, Restaurants, Schools.”
In 2012, the members returned to focus on Saviano in a new thread regarding his positions on immigration, which he had recently expressed on a popular talk show, Che tempo che fa. A few days later, police raided the homes of several members, and arrested four of the Stormfront Italy activists.
About a year later, Saviano reported the group to the police. Other individuals who had been insulted or threatened in the pages of Stormfront, including journalist Marco Pasqua and former minister Andrea Riccardi, had previously filed police reports, as well.
“This group of people were building a network through which they picked their targets and coordinated [cyber-]attacks,” said Saviano, who splits his time between Italy and the United States and will travel to Rome to testify in court on May 28. His goal, he said, is to create a precedent in the Italian legal system that will help regulate hate speech on the internet.
The trial may last several years. In the meantime, Saviano has been busy with many other projects. The TV series he wrote inspired by his own book, Gomorrah, released in the United States by SundanceTV and now on Netflix, has been particularly successful. During our interview, he revealed that he’s written a new series, entitled Kosher Nostra, on the Israeli mafia in Tel Aviv and New York. “They mainly did pills,” he said, “in the 1990s they were the kings of ecstasy.”
Palomar, an Italian production company, has bought the rights to the subject. Saviano is currently discussing the project with other people in the United States, such as Thomas Benski, one of the producers of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Nadav Schirman, who produced the documentary The Green Prince.
Above everything else, Saviano wants to fight racist conspiracy theories. He said that anti-Semitism is returning to Italy as a form of “translation” of conspiracy theories.
“Try to look up Soros [on Google], you’ll find thousands of pages about him.” According to the theories, Jewish business magnate George Soros, who has donated billions of dollars to several philanthropic causes, wants to import millions of immigrants into Europe to destroy the old continent. “This stems from the fact that Soros is Jewish and that he speculated against the lira. These two elements are used to attack all of the Jews in Italy and consider them Soros’s allies.”
Last summer, Saviano published an article defending the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders for saving migrants in the Mediterranean. He was criticized for it, with the claim that he was defending the NGO because he is Jewish and he therefore sides with Soros’s alleged plan. Another reason for the online attacks was his participation in a debate on Israel in 2010, despite his openly critical stance on many of Netanyahu’s policies. “In Italy,” Saviano explained, “you cannot have a critical and interlocutory opinion on Israel; either you ask for its immediate dissolution, or you are considered to be part of the conspiracy.”
Stormfront was founded in 1995 by a former director of the Ku Klux Klan. It is considered to be one of the most popular online forums for white supremacists and other racial extremists, counting hundreds of thousands registered members.
Just like their American colleagues, Italian members of Stormfront, before the site was obscured by local authorities, were obsessed with white supremacy, the alleged existence of a Jewish lobby, and Holocaust denial.
“They use a word, a neologism … ‘olomiracolata’ (Holomiraculous),” continued Saviano. This is the way they contemptuously call Holocaust survivors who “profit and get famous because of their survival. If you profit from your books or your talks on your [experience in the Holocaust], you are an Holomiraculous.”
Saviano gazed back at the papers of the impending trial.
“I’m tired of being a victim of this systematic obscenity,” he said. “The internet has no rules.” You may be able to delete a racial slur from an online thread. “But,” he concluded, “you cannot delete the evil you’ve done.”
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Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.