Dilemmas and certainties of Italian Jews in the Meloni era

The Italian elections that have just taken place mark a first. Not only because never before had a woman become Prime Minister in Italy, but above all because never before had the party that won the relative majority been a political force that had inherited – more or less directly – the fascist tradition. For K., Simone Disegni wonders what dilemmas and certainties Italian Jews will experience during the Meloni era…


Giorgia Meloni in 2014, in front of the symbol of her party, the fascist flame, Wikimedia commons


The question has been asked more or less explicitly throughout the summer. It ran from mouth to mouth in endless conciliations, in homes, in bars, under umbrellas, in countless chats. It must be said from the outset that there was palpable anxiety among a large part of the Jewish minority. Because the Jewish minority participates fully in the public life of the country, this anxiety certainly testifies first of all to a general concern about the fate of Italy. This was expressed in the only official note issued by the Ucei (Union of Italian Jewish Communities) after the fall of the government led by Mario Draghi on 21st July. The note aimed at dispelling the institutions’ fear that the new elections would be held on the eve of Rosh Ha-Shana (Sunday 25 September). But it also expressed “concern about the situation in the country, which is undergoing a deep political crisis in addition to the very serious economic, financial, social and humanitarian problems facing the government and the highest institutions. In short, there was, and still is, a widespread perception that the new leadership to come is unlikely to be able to handle the real political, economic and energy storm any better than the executive led by the former central bank chief, who is esteemed around the world.

Beyond these common concerns for the present and the immediate future, there are other reasons that particularly agitate the Jewish minority. These reasons have more to do with a past that is never quite over – that of the twenty years of fascism culminating in the racial laws, the war and the Shoah – and whose open wounds begin to fester again as soon as images, dates, slogans or gestures from ‘another time’ reappear.

Slogans and images

If Fascism is now “relegated to the history books” and has nothing to do with the face of Fratelli d’Italia, as Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly asserted – citing in particular her age (she was born in 1977) and that of the party (2012) – why does the “signature” represented by the tricolour flame remain prominent at the heart of her party’s symbolism? A tribute to the special Arditi corps of the Italian Royal Army according to some, or more directly to the tomb of Duce Benito Mussolini, the flame has been an essential reference point in the post-fascist political tradition since 1947. For decades it was the symbol of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), then of its heir, the Alleanza Nazionale (AN), as well as of another openly neo-fascist fringe which made it not only its symbol but also its name (Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore). The numerous requests to Meloni to remove this image from the party’s symbolism – most recently by Liliana Segre, Auschwitz survivor and life senator – have gone unheeded: “I am Giorgia, I am a mother, I am a Christian”; as well as the constant call, finally, for the defence of the borders and the national interest by true “patriots”.

Names and gestures

Those who are prepared to believe in Giorgia Meloni’s good faith and assurances would be in danger of becoming dizzy if they took a look behind the scenes of Fratelli d’Italia. A virtual stroll through the exhibitors at the party’s celebration in Milan is enough to give you an idea. One of the party’s leaders – who joined it after a long militancy in the MSI and then in the leadership of An – and one of its executives in Milan despite his Sicilian origin is Ignazio La Russa. Second name: Benito. His brother Romano, less well known but with a similar political trajectory, made the headlines in the last days of the electoral campaign to become security advisor in the Lombardy region. A few days before the elections, La Russa attended the funeral of a famous representative of the Milanese far right, Alberto Stabilini, and paid tribute to him and other former “camerata” (comrades) by raising his right arm in repeated Roman greetings, shouting “Presente!” To avoid any risk of disorienting the nostalgic electorate, Fratelli d’Italia therefore chose, in an important Milanese constituency for the election to the Senate, to present Ms Isabella Rauti. Her father Pino Rauti was a young volunteer in the Italian Social Republic (Nazi-fascist entrenchment in Northern Italy after the 1943 armistice), then founder of the Ordine Nuovo movement, before being, from 1995 to 2002, the secretary of Fiamma Tricolore. A hardcore neo-fascist, in short. While maintaining a much more discreet political line, Isabella herself grew up in the circles of the extreme social right, and it does not seem that she has ever distanced herself from her late father’s ideals. The constituency in which Fratelli d’Italia nominated her is the one in which the Partito Democratico (PD) had already chosen to nominate Emanuele Fiano, son of a well-known Italian Auschwitz survivor and former president of the Jewish community in Milan. Only a year ago, the online newspaper Fanpage.it had documented by video the disturbing backstage of the party’s campaign for the municipal elections: jokes about Jews and migrants, Roman greetings, willingness to receive secret funding. It showed the important role of a character such as Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, the “Black Baron”, already convicted in the past for having apologised for fascism and leader, by his own admission, of a support and pressure group on the right-wing parties comprising freemasons, former military personnel, members of the secret services and foreign representatives united by a “black” heart.

Benito Mussolini during the march on Rome on October 28, 1922, Wikimedia Commons


The approach of a key date in Italian history – the centenary of the March on Rome (the armed descent of Fascist squads into the capital that forced the then king, Victor Emmanuel III, to hand over the leadership of the government to Benito Mussolini) – certainly does not help to dispel concerns, both rational and irrational. October 28, 1922 marked the beginning of a Fascist era that would last more than twenty years. No one seriously fears that Giorgia Meloni’s arrival at Palazzo Chigi – almost exactly one hundred years later – represents a repeat of that unfortunate event. But this anniversary, marked by a profusion of essays, novels, documentaries and plays, once again raises the question of the unresolved relationship between the Italian people, and in particular its ruling classes, and the Fascist regime: did they endure it, bearing all its consequences, as a simplistic dominant narrative would have it, or did they indeed allow themselves to be seduced by it and support it – even beyond the obvious constraints imposed by an authoritarian regime? A similar question arises with regard to the Duce’s political choice to implement state antisemitism from 1938 onwards, with the adoption of the racial laws as a premise for mass deportation. Both questions require a delicate and complex answer, and the debate on the subject remains open among historians. However, it is precisely among historians that the debate is essentially limited, while among ordinary citizens and politicians a hasty judgement prevails that does not coincide with that of the Italian Jews. In addition to the historical-emotional fragility of this past, another anniversary is approaching, that of 9 October, which will mark the fortieth anniversary of the attack on the synagogue in Rome – the fruit of another era and of foreign political dynamics, but on which disturbing questions have never ceased to hover as to the possible connivance of certain parts of the Italian State, as we have already reported in K.

In search of a political interlocutor

The facts and references mentioned above are known to almost everyone. The skeletons in Fratelli d’Italia‘s wardrobe – symbols, slogans and members of the party’s ruling apparatus that undoubtedly reek of neo-fascism – have been the subject of much conversation for months. And yet, as we welcome Giorgia Meloni’s victory and await the political cycle it opens, Italian Jews are divided (what news, some would say!).

To understand this, it is worth recalling, briefly, the political and electoral “peregrinations” of Italian Jews over the last century and a half. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, carried by the wave of enthusiasm for full “civil redemption” after the historical confinement in the ghettos and pushed by the political passions of the time, Italian Jews divided themselves to support and often commit themselves to all the great political families: liberals, socialists, communists and, later, fascists. Each of them responded, for Italian Jews, individually or for organised politico-cultural groups, to the need to have their ideals or interests fully represented.

Fascist racial laws announced by Corriere della Sera, Wikipedia commons

After having suffered persecution and deportation under Fascism, the hard awakening of Italian Jews was translated politically into a long rejection of any proposal coming from the right. Indeed, from a general point of view, the ‘pure’ incarnation of the right – the MSI – was considered unbearable and undesirable throughout the Cold War, and therefore carefully kept on the margins of the political system by a large part of the Italian establishment and electorate. In the immediate post-war period, those who best interpreted the need for protection of Italian Jews, and at the same time their sympathy for the cause of the newly created State of Israel, were mainly socialists, communists and actionists (heir to the secular-liberal partisan tradition, the Partito d’Azione, which dissolved into the Republican Party by the end of 1946). But from 1952, as Matteo Di Figlia reconstructs in detail in his book Israel and the Left in Italy [Israele a sinistra. Gli ebrei nel dibattito pubblico italiano dal 1945 a oggi, Donzelli Editore, 2012], the Soviet Union’s support for the Palestinian cause began to crack the political axis between the Jews and the Italian left. The definitive break – or at least the beginning of a much more troubled relationship – was to come in 1967, as the Six Day War undermined the Israeli model in the eyes of a large part of the Italian political spectrum, including the Italian Communist Party, but also the Italian Socialist Party and the ruling Christian Democrats. From this historical break, for a part of the Italian Jewish world, the search for other political options was opened.

Furthermore, the demographic composition of the Italian Jewish community started to change from the same post-war years. To the historical community of Italian Jews that had participated for centuries in the destiny of the country, a growing population of Jewish refugees from various countries where they were no longer welcome was gradually added: Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and especially Libya. Because of their origin and background, these new groups did not necessarily have an intense memory of the persecutions suffered by Italian Jews, but much more of the persecutions suffered in Islamic countries.

Thus, over the years and as a result of these social and geopolitical changes, Italian Jews were divided into two groups – or at least into two dominant tendencies – which still seem to characterise their general situation today: a purely Italian bloc, often more secular and integrated, for whom the supreme political value to be defended in the public space is anti-fascism (with as a historical corollary the memory of the Shoah and the defence of the rights of all minorities), and a bloc of more varied origins, rather religious, for whom the supreme political value to be defended and promoted is the support to Israel (with as a corollary a general preference for more conservative policies). However, the landscape of Italian Jewry should not be seen as a football field with two teams: there is osmosis and nuances, with both “camps” valuing the other’s main concern. But the fundamental divide exists and it is along these lines.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the only actors that could offer an answer to those Italian Jews looking for political options “other” than the three big families considered anti-Israeli were small actors such as the Republican Party, the Liberal Party or the Radicals. Everything changed from 1993-94. The collapse of the political system of the First Republic brought to light the new “plastic” party of Silvio Berlusconi: modern, optimistic, liberal, devoid of any ideological conditioning, it appeared to millions of Italians – and to a significant part of the Jewish population – as the much sought-after novelty. Since then and until today, the political beast created by Berlusconi – who also defended a strong pro-American and pro-Israeli position during his years in government – has represented a viable political option for a part of Italian Jews. On the other hand, the demise of the PCI and the PSI and the emergence in their place of a modern centre-left, which over the years has adopted an increasingly balanced line on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has allowed a serene “return” of a good part of the progressive Jewish vote.

Mussolini’s tomb in Predappio, where between 80,000 and 100,000 people nostalgic for fascism visit every year, Wikimedia Commons

How much does it cost to cut bridges?

More delicate and complex is the case involving Gianfranco Fini, the leader of Alleanza Nazionale, who was the protagonist of the most significant political turn of the Italian Right. Having joined Berlusconi’s camp in 1993 (when he ran for mayor of Rome), Fini staked everything on the gradual ‘normalisation’ of the Italian Right. In 1995, he led the party to the famous “Fiuggi turning point”, which turned the old MSI into the new Alleanza Nazionale, based – at least theoretically – on the denial of fascism as a historical error. Fini wanted to orient his party towards a modern conservative right. Italian Jews remained cautious, unconvinced of the authenticity of the ‘conversion’ – not least because the contradictions and nostalgias within the party remained evident. But for Fini, who openly aspired to take over the leadership of the Italian centre-right once Berlusconi’s leadership ended, the completion of the normalisation process became the central objective of his political action. In 2001, after having obtained the almost supreme position of Deputy Prime Minister, he gave a new form to his “conversion” by personally investing himself in building new relations with the representatives of the Jewish community (the president of Ucei was then the leftist doctor, writer and intellectual Amos Luzzatto) and with the Israeli authorities. The cornerstone of his long operation of historical reshaping and political legitimisation was his trip to Jerusalem in November 2003. After his visit to Yad VaShem, Fini pronounced a historic and “definitive” abjuration of fascism as “absolute evil”.

Today, as it was then, this turn of events divides Italian Jews. There are those who recognise in it the long-awaited point of maturity of the right, to the point where some can vote for the Alleanza Nazionale and even commit themselves to it personally. There are others who feel they must sound the alarm at what they see as a purely “formal” move by Fini, linked to his political trajectory, and which the party would not really follow.

The news about Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia is ultimately, for better or for worse, rooted in these same convulsions of the post-fascist right. For ‘worse’, because when in 2012 Meloni and former top leaders of Alleanza Nazionale founded this new party, it was quite explicitly to win back a right-wing electorate nostalgic for ‘patriotic’ ideals lost through an excessive shift towards the centre. Voters and party cadres who had never swallowed Fini’s modernist turn, including his total abjuring of fascism, could find a political home represented in Parliament. This explains the thousand ‘local’ obstacles that the new normalisation sought by Meloni is blatantly encountering. But it is also, in a way, part of the “better” path opened up by Fini, so to speak. After opening her election campaign with a video in three languages condemning Mussolini’s suppression of democracy and the ‘famous’ racial laws, Meloni closed it by answering yet another question about her relationship with the legacy of Fascism with the words, “I was inside the Alleanza Nazionale when Fini defined it as ‘absolute evil’, and I have not changed my position.”

Giorgia Meloni and Gianfranco Fini

Vote of confidence

Is it enough for the young future Prime Minister and her party to avail themselves of this political shield? The question of the “digestion” of the political result of the last election by Italian Jews is posed in these terms. And the resulting divisions. “All Giorgia Meloni has managed to do is to refer to other speeches of the Italian right, proposed by Gianfranco Fini when he was secretary of Alleanza Nazionale : ‘but it was Fini, many years ago in charge of another party, and not she, today in charge of Fratelli d’Italia, who made those speeches and therefore may have taken account of that past’, David Sorani, professor of history and philosophy in Turin and former director of the left-wing Jewish magazine HaKeillà, recently wrote in Pagine Ebraichces. He concludes that “the problem of fundamental ignorance and lack of a genuine sense of repentance towards the long-term historical reality of the fascist regime and its significance is still present today, because the attitude on this issue shows a smugness, as if it did not concern the leader and her party at all, whose representatives – starting with herself – are all too young to be directly responsible and therefore seem naturally exempt from evil. But this is not true, because the connivance with pro-fascist circles remains in certain sectors of the party, as does, stubbornly and “we don’t know why”, the symbol of the tricolour flame as a reminder of the dark past it claims to have repudiated.

Before the elections, Ester Mieli, journalist and former spokesperson of the Jewish community in Rome, candidate (and now elected) to the Senate in the ranks of Fratelli d’Italia, had expressed a very different opinion to Corriere della Sera: “The next Parliament will be elected on the founding values of our Constitution, born of the Liberation. I trust Giorgia Meloni because she is consistent”. Walker Meghnagi, the president of the Jewish community of Milan, gave political credit to Fratelli d’Italia, although “involuntarily”.  Although he refused to attend a party conference to which he was invited in his city last spring, he wrote in a personal message to the party’s leaders that he was “following with attention the evolution of the Italian political right, which has never failed to side with Israel in foreign policy and is in the forefront of condemning the Shoah and the horrible racial laws”. He added that he was pleased “to know that we share a common love for the value of freedom and a common look towards the future, while knowing how to preserve the traditions and identity that distinguish each people”. When the letter was published in the press, it caused a storm, bringing the community to the brink of a political crisis. Meghnagi then claimed the message was private, stressing that he was convinced that “although it shows closeness to the State of Israel and has made progress in its awareness of the history of the Shoah, [the right] still has a great need to get rid of its dangerous extremist fringes.”

It is clear that part of the Italian Jewish community – that multifaceted reality described above – gives credence to Giorgia Meloni’s reassuring words and does not fear Fratelli d’Italia’s arrival in government, perhaps even seeing it as a decisive step towards a greater normalisation of the Italian Right. Meloni’s prolonged efforts to reassure this electorate in recent months can be seen as a partial success in this sense.

The repeated tirades of the post-fascist right about their “passing the history test” are not about to stop, neither with the Jewish public nor in general. But clear answers will soon have to be given, which concern the concretisation of the Fratelli d’Italia credo in the current European political context. “Giorgia Meloni is a competent and prepared politician, and I do not see any risk to the preservation of democratic institutions in her appointment”, Daniele Nahum, a Milanese city councillor from the PDD, told K. He has closely observed the rise of the leader, as president of the Union of Young Jews of Italy, in the years when Meloni was Minister for Youth. He adds that “the crucial question she faces is rather how she will be able to reconcile her posture of multiplying ‘guarantees’ vis-à-vis the EU and especially the United States with her closeness to the ideas of Viktor Orbán, the Poles of Pis or the Spaniards of Vox. On the rights of minorities, not only Jews, and on the strict respect of the rule of law, what line will the next Meloni government choose? On this point, clear answers will soon be given. Italian, and European, Jews will be the first to take notes.

Simone Disegni


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