This fall marks 80 years since Fascist Italy passed the racist laws that reduced Italian Jews to second-class citizens. Overnight, children like my grandparents were barred from attending public schools and many of their parents from performing their jobs. In the following years, almost 8,000 Italians of Jewish descent were killed in the Nazi death camps.
Eight decades later, the Jewish population in Italy has shrunk, but it thrives. There are several Jewish day schools, kosher restaurants, and active synagogues spread all the way from Turin to Naples. Jewish culture and history are also flourishing: Public institutions are paying for a software-assisted translation of the Babylonian Talmud and the annual European Day of Jewish Culture involves the participation of nearly 90 cities across the country. And yet, thousands of Benito Mussolini’s nostalgics still visit the fascist dictator’s burial place to pay homage, and pigs’ heads are left at synagogues before Holocaust Memorial Day.
Enter the new government. Holding power today there is an unlikely cocktail of far-right politicians—the anti-migrant, Matteo Salvini-led League—and a populist, chaotic party—the Five Star Movement. Since these two parties have formed a governing coalition in June, the following has happened:
Minister of Interior and Vice Premier Matteo Salvini called for a census of the Roma community. “I’ve asked the ministry to prepare a dossier on the Roma question [sic] in Italy,” he said during a televised interview.
His colleague, Family Minister Lorenzo Fontana called for the abolition of Italy’s most important anti-racism law. The law—which condemns racist violence, hatred and discrimination—according to this minister is used by “globalists” to “disguise their anti-Italian racism as anti-fascism.” Fontana is also a homophobe who’s claimed same-sex families “don’t exist.”
It’s these same politicians who have repeatedly denied the existence of racism in Italy. Over the summer, dozens of attacks on migrants or black people suggested a growing pattern of racially motivated violence. A dismissive Salvini said it was all “an invention of the left.” Yet, a couple of months later he proposed to force “ethnic” shops close at 9 p.m., because they’ve become a “haunt of drunks” and drug dealers in the evening.
Italy is a country that singled out its Jewish population for a census only 80 years ago. It is a country where laws that protect minorities must be not only preserved but strengthened, and the direction the government has taken should ring an alarm for Jews of all political affiliations.
Italian Jews are a heterogeneous group and support political parties across the political spectrum. Yet, many Jewish leaders have distanced themselves from the current government. Senator and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, for instance, abstained from the vote of confidence for the new government in June. “I refuse to think that today our democratic civilization can be tainted by plans for special laws against nomadic peoples,” she said in a speech in the Senate.
Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities also called Salvini’s proposal for a census of the Roma population “disturbing,” explaining it “awakens memories of racist laws and measures of just 80 years ago.” After Minister Fontana wrote about abolishing the anti-racism law, the president of the organization told me the community was concerned with the radicalization of the government and of European society in general.
But not all Jews agree. Many of them—just like many American Jews do—vote according to a candidate’s stance on Israel. Since Salvini is a self-declared supporter of Israel, he has the backing of some Jews who believe that he will defend the Jewish State and protect Italy from Muslim radicalization.
The fear of Muslim radicalization in Europe is a legitimate force among Italian Jews who know that walking around certain neighborhoods with a yarmulke on the head can be dangerous. But such concern should not be mistaken for instances when fear is used to mask plain racism and intolerance.
A Jewish youth magazine this summer published an opinion piece listing the reasons why Jews should not side against the government. The league’s approval ratings have spiked over the summer, the author wrote, and Jews should avoid siding against the majority to avoid attracting animosity. “If the league did not exist, the votes it has received would go to truly neo-fascist parties like CasaPound and Forza Nuova,” he continued. “Those who don’t love the league should at least resort to the logic of ‘the least worst choice.’” (The magazine’s editor promptly published a critical response to the piece.)
On Facebook, members of a small group called “Jews/Zionists for Salvini” (Ebrei/Sionisti per Salvini) are rejoicing over the vice-premier’s Trump-like, zero-tolerance policy on immigration. They post Breitbart articles and videos of Salvini’s rallies. “Milan: Kindergartens invaded by foreign children,” reads the headline of an article shared in the group, “Italian children have become a minority.”
A member of the group posted a racist meme that shows two African men shooting with a bow. The caption reads: “History of African evolution: 1518 – 2018.” On Oct. 15, another member shared a video of Alessandra Mussolini—the anti-Semitic dictator’s granddaughter, who is a conservative politician—defending the Italian government for closing its ports to migrant rescue ships.
The closer one looks into these parties and their supporters, the harder it gets to imagine how any Jewish person would back them:
The league used to be a secessionist party called “Northern League” that advocated for the separation between the northern and the southern regions of the country. Today, it mainly attracts a conservative, right-leaning base that opposes migration, distrusts the European Union and the so-called political establishment. While Italy’s south used to be the league’s scapegoat blamed for Italy’s economic woes, it has now jettisoned that past as it targets a different group as the main threat to the country’s security and economy—foreigners.
The Five Star Movement, on the other hand, is a confused mix of center, right- and left-leaning political amateurs who won the majority in this year’s parliamentary elections after a hard-fought campaign based on unrealistic promises and populist rhetoric. Their leader, Vice Premier Luigi Di Maio, has announced economic measures that are scaring the European Union. He claims he’s “abolishing poverty.”
Conspiracy theories, attacks on the press and a distrust for science are the key ingredients of the populism that the Five Stars have advanced over the last few years. They’ve even made it legal for children to attend public schools without being vaccinated, putting immunosuppressed classmates in danger.
Some of the movement’s leaders openly support the boycott movement against Israel, which they call a “terrorist” state.
Jews, as with all Italians, cannot ignore the bigotry of those in power right now. Eighty years ago, politicians in Europe incited the crowds with racist arguments that involved protecting the white race, solving the “Jewish question,” and controlling minorities. Look at what that led to. The signs we’re seeing today are too reminiscent to be ignored; not just in Italy, but across Europe and across the Atlantic, as well.
Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.