Italy: Holocaust survivor’s protection highlights rise in racism
The anti-Semitic threats to Liliana Segre are just the tip of the iceberg, say Italian analysts.
Rome, Italy – Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor and senator-for-life, has been put under police protection due to anti-Semitic threats on her life, the Italian police revealed last week.
Earlier this month, Segre found herself at the epicentre of international political controversy after promoting a Parliamentary commission against hate crimes.
“After so many years, I have the feeling that [this hate] has come back, I feel the tide rising around me,” she said in a news conference held to announce the initiative.
A few days before the approval, the newspaper La Repubblica revealed Segre receives insults and threats on social media daily.
According to the Milan-based Observatory on anti-Semitism, this is only the most recent testament to a resurgence of anti-Semitism, a ghost that Italy hoped it had left behind in the years of the fascist regime.
“In the long run, we see episodes of hate increasing,” the Observatory’s Betti Guetta told Al Jazeera. “And this [long-term] rise goes beyond the [short-term] peaks of the neo-Nazi groups.”
In October, public prosecutors revealed the existence of a private WhatsApp group named “Shoah party”, in which teenagers exchanged insults against migrants and the Jewish people, hailing Hitler and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) – as well as sharing child pornography.
The Observatory has documented 190 cases of “hatred” between the start of 2019 and November, a significant rise from 197 in the whole of 2018 and 130 in 2017. Most of these attacks happen online, especially on social media.
On November 2, for instance, the account, Fra-fra-fra, posted a meme of Liliana Segre on Facebook, in which the senator appeared saying “we are establishing our government over the world, and every Jew will have 2,700 slaves at their disposal”.
Old stereotypes, new media
According to the “Antisemitism in Italy – 2018” report, individuals belonging to a variety of social groups and political ideologies all share anti-Semitic content online.
Old conspiracy theories are often conveyed in these messages, portraying Jews as a dominant and global sect that controls governments, media and banks such as Goldman Sachs and Edmond de Rothschild.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent document drafted by the Russian secret police at the very beginning of the 20th century, still inspires most of these 21st-century posts.
Dehumanising offences against Israeli people are also often shared, and a minor but conspicuous amount of messages deny, downplay or trivialise the Holocaust.
External events often trigger the start of such attacks, which pop up when news breaks of the latest Israeli military abuse of Palestinian human rights, or during particular memorial days, such as the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
According to the Observatory, Facebook remains the most popular channel for the distribution of anti-Semitic content, but, they say, most violent and virulent has found a home in the Russian social media network VK.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this report by the time of publication, but VK sent Al Jazeera the following statement by email:
“VK is always intolerable to calls for violence, nationalist and extremist propaganda. Any person can report illegal, offensive or unreliable content with the help of the ‘Report’ button. We review all reports without any exceptions and react as fast as we possibly can. Content that violates our rules or the law gets deleted and the violators get banned.”
The Observatory’s most recent report also underlines how these messages have resonated with supporters of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement, though the party has never officially backed such sentiments.
On January 21, Senator Elio Lanutti posted an article about the Elders of Zion and the 13 families who allegedly control the world. His post went viral, leading to a strong reaction from Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, who distanced himself from his senator.
Lanutti publicly apologised a few hours later, saying “sharing an article does not mean endorsing its content”.
“Years ago, we could identify different approaches: we had neo-Nazi websites denying the Holocaust or left[-wing] activists attacking Israel,” Guetta said. “Today, the same topics or images are shared among different groups.”
Hostility against any minority
“Since I created a public account on social media, I systematically receive comments from people calling me ‘dirty Zionist’ or suggesting I should move back to Israel or Lebanon,” journalist Gad Lerner told Al Jazeera.
Lerner is well known in Italy, hosting TV programmes on several national channels.
He was born into a Jewish family in Beirut, who settled in Palestine before the declaration of the State of Israel.
“I receive attacks because I pay special attention to the discrimination against Muslims, migrants and Roma people,” Lerner said. “There is this new narrative of the Jews endorsing immigration as a means to erase the religious and cultural roots of Europe.”
In 1991, Lerner wrote a television programme named Deep North, documenting the creation and the rise of the Northern League, the far-right political party now known as The League which was in coalition government with the Five Stars until recently.
Since the documentary was broadcast, Lerner has reported on the party’s development, fiercely criticising its stance against migration.
This year, he attended the annual League rally near the northern town of Pontida.
In footage published by the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, he wanders around, followed by a noisy choir of disapproval. Then a man comes forward and tells him that he is not Italian, but Jewish.
The footage circulated widely on national television, sparking a public backlash.
“Everyone in my house must be respected, but Gad Lerner spends his entire life insulting me,” Matteo Salvini, League leader, said the following day in a TV interview.
Salvini has decried anti-Semitism in the past, “but this time, [neither] Salvini nor any other leader condemned the statement publicly”, Lerner told Al Jazeera.
Guetta believes that political discourse played an essential role in the resurgence of hatred. “Politicians speak recklessly,” he said, “and this weakens the public ethics.”
She is convinced that, in reality, anti-Semitism had never “gone away”, it simply resurfaces when public opinion will tolerate extremism.
But she also regards attacks on Jewish people as only the tip of the iceberg.
“Everyone who is considered somehow different – migrants, homosexuals, transexuals and even women – are treated either with mean irony or open hostility,” Guetta said.