COVER

‘NEVER AGAIN’

ITALY’S BESIEGED JEWS FIGHT BACK

SCOTT STEELE November 23 1992
COVER

‘NEVER AGAIN’

ITALY’S BESIEGED JEWS FIGHT BACK

SCOTT STEELE November 23 1992

‘NEVER AGAIN’

ITALY’S BESIEGED JEWS FIGHT BACK

COVER

They are scenes reminiscent of an earlier, more brutal time. Across Italy in recent weeks, neo-fascist hoodlums have embarked upon a virulent campaign of anti-Jewish vandalism and terror. In the northern city of Finale Emilia, swastikas appeared on Jewish tombs. At a soccer game in Florence, ultra-right-wing spectators burned a Star of David banner and shouted anti-Semitic slogans. And in Rome, several Jewish merchants found huge posters proclaiming “Zionists get out of Italy” stuck to the windows of their shops. But last week, in at least 30 Italian cities, Jews and gentiles alike underlined their determination that such displays of hatred could no longer be tolerated.

On the 54th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a notorious pogrom against the Jews in Nazi Germany, demonstrators took to the streets in the thousands, brandishing banners condemning the recent wave of racism. About 30,000 Italians paraded through central Rome shouting, “Nazis out of the sewers and into the jails.” And on the steps of the main synagogue in the capital, Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff told a cheering crowd: “We have lived in Italy for two thousand years and we are citizens as much as you are.” Poll: But Italy’s Jews, who number about 40,000 in a population of 58 million, clearly have cause for concern. In an opinion poll published on Nov. 2 in the Rome-based weekly magazine L’Espresso, 34 per cent of those surveyed stated that Jews were not real Ital-

ians—even though their presence in the country predates the birth of Christ. And 10.5 per cent of respondents answered affirmatively when asked if Jews should leave Italy. Just hours after its release, racists operating under cover of darkness plastered anti-Semitic posters on Jewish stores in Rome.

But two nights later, a group of young Jews decided to take matters into their own hands. Armed with clubs and sticks, about 100 of them descended on the headquarters of a small, ultra-right-wing organization called the Western Political Movement. The angry crowd smashed windows and ransacked the storefront office. “They should have expected it,” said Alberto Astrologo, one of the anti-fascist attackers. “If the state doesn’t defend us, we will defend ourselves. Jews are fed up with being bullied.”

While most Italian Jews condemned the vigilantism, many said that they could understand the frustration that would lead the young militants to such drastic measures. “Their anger must explode, they must express themselves,” Tullia Zevi, leader of Rome’s Jewish community told Maclean’s. But she cautioned, “Violence only brings violence.”

Those words could well prove prophetic. Members of the Western Political Movement remain defiant. “Anyone who wants to bring us onto the warpath has found something to chew on,” said the organization’s leader, Maurizio Boccacci, after the confrontation. “This vile

and stupid action carried out by cowards simply provokes hilarity. To Toaff, supreme head of this scum, we send, as always, our heartfelt contempt and we hope to meet very soon.” Those were ominous words to many Roman Jews. And, as police beefed up security in the historic Jewish quarter surrounding the city’s central synagogue, a palpable sense of tension swept the community. “This time they’ve dirtied our shop windows, next time they’ll smash them,” said one Jewish merchant. Added clothing store owner Nichele di Verola, who lost 44 relatives in the Holocaust: “I’ve had some ugly, threatening phone calls, but I’ve had even more encouragement from friends who say they will help defend us if necessary.”

Thugs: The violence has by no means been directed only at Jews. Right-wing thugs known as “Naziskins” have also attacked Italy’s African and Asian immigrants, many of whom live in low-grade housing with little public assistance. And other Italians have criticized the government for failing to react to racist attacks. “There are anti-racist laws and they should be enforced,” said Jewish leader Zevi.

Last week, there were a few signs of attempts being made to stem the racist tide. The government approved school videos to make students aware of their country’s Jewish history. Montreal native Edgar Bronfman, leader of the World Jewish Congress, met at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, who strongly condemned the racist violence and agreed to sign an international “Declaration of Tolerance,” drafted by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. And as Italians marched through the streets, many wore yellow Stars of David printed with a message which showed that they were determined to prevent history from repeating itself. It read: “Never again.”

SCOTT STEELE with JANET STOBART in Rome

JANET STOBART