Italy Suddenly Gets Ugly for Jews

Anti-Jewish graffiti in Rome has little to do with Israel and Gaza, and everything to do with Europe’s ugly history of anti-Semitism.

Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

ROME — There is still a faint black stain in the shape of a swastika on the Jewish memorial plaque along the Via Lungara near the Vatican in Rome. The plaque marks the spot where Rome’s Jews were held until they could be transferred in cattle cars to Auschwitz, and the inscription says simply, poignantly: “The 16th of October 1943 whole families of Roman Jews dragged from their homes by the Nazis were concentrated in this building and deported to the extermination camps. Of one thousand persons only sixteen survived.”

Someone tried to scrub the October 16 plaque clean, but over the past few nights across Rome more than 70 disturbing hate messages were scrawled with black and red paint on Jewish businesses and throughout the so-called Jewish Ghetto around the city’s main synagogue. Phrases like “Anne Frank Was A Liar,” “Dirty Jews,” “Jews your end is near,” and “Israel executioner” were written in spray paint alongside Celtic crosses and rows and rows of swastikas.

“It’s like 1933,” Riccardo Pacifici, the head of Rome’s Jewish community, told reporters. “This morning Rome woke up in the worst possible way. Its walls have been defaced by dozens of graffiti praising neo-Nazi hatred towards Jews.”

Rome’s streets are the latest in Europe to become bulletin boards for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment. But unlike hate events in France, which have become violent and often involve the children of immigrants with Muslim backgrounds who claim Palestinian sympathies, Italian anti-Semitism is being blamed on Italians of European descent. Italy’s counterterrorism law enforcement agency DIGOS (Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Speciali) says that the extreme right and extreme left wings of the Italian political spectrum have joined forces to spread the hate, issuing an alert warning, “There is new solidarity between the opposite extremists.”

Police will be studying footage from surveillance cameras that captured many of the anti-Semitic perpetrators in the act. According to a report by DIGOS published in the Italian press, most appear to be young men.

In Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, a group of elderly ladies sitting on a park bench near the synagogue lamented the surge in hatred. “These aren’t people with real political beliefs,” Michela Pavoncello, 68, told The Daily Beast. “These are opportunists looking for a reason to attack us.”

Many Italian cities have hosted pro-Palestinian sit-ins since the current conflict got underway, including a well-attended protest on the Rialto Bridge in Venice in mid-July. Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo di Segni, warns that the surge in anti-Semitic violence is not in line with pro-Palestinian sentiment. “These are groups that take advantage,” he said, making it clear they are “bolstering the neo-Nazi right.” At the same time, said Segni, “The left in Italy that supports Hamas must also reflect on their actions.”

Rome has the oldest Jewish community in all of Europe and one of the oldest continuous settlements in the world, but the country still struggles with its anti-Semitic past. There have been a number of attacks against Jewish interests over the last few years. In 2012, more than a dozen Italians belonging to the group “ultras” were arrested after attacking Jewish fans of England’s Tottenham football club in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori. They wielded baseball bats and knives, yelling “Jews, Jews, Jews” as they carried out the attacks.

Police have also closed down a number of white supremacist private clubs in Rome, which reportedly were decorated with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans associated with “Blocco Studentesco,” which is the youth movement of Italy’s Casa Pound, which shares sympathies with Italy’s historic radical right-wing extremist parties.

Even popular politicians harbor old prejudices. Just last week Gianni Vattimo, a former European Parliamentarian and self-described Marxist philosopher, told Italy’s state radio station that “Israel is a bit worse than the Nazis,” and that he’d “like to shoot those bastard Zionists.” He also called upon the European community to pool resources to “buy Hamas some more rockets.”

Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, expressed his solidarity with Rome’s Jewish community. “The anti-Semitic graffiti that appeared today in different areas of the city are a disgrace and an insult to all Romans,” he said. “Rome wants and needs to be a capital of dialogue and peace, not a barbaric battleground.”