Italy's Jewish community fears rise of the far-Right

·6-min read
The Ghetto, the historic Jewish quarter of Rome - Steve Bisgrove
The Ghetto, the historic Jewish quarter of Rome - Steve Bisgrove

In the heart of Rome’s historic Ghetto quarter, Alberto Taschera is preparing to serve the lunchtime crowd at a Jewish trattoria.

The sun is shining and there are fresh artichokes on the menu, but the waiter’s mood is dark.

“It seems to me incredible that in 2021, there are still fascist parties in Italy,” he said. “It seems like we’re going backwards, not forwards. There is a climate of tension right now. It feels like a critical moment.”

More than 75 years after the downfall of Benito Mussolini and the end of the Second World War, the spectres of fascism and anti-Semitism are again stalking Italy.

The historic Jewish Ghetto quarter in Rome - Steve Bisgrove /Telegraph
The historic Jewish Ghetto quarter in Rome - Steve Bisgrove /Telegraph

On Wednesday, it emerged that the Right’s candidate to become the next mayor of Rome had praised Hitler and the Wehrmacht during a radio programme that he hosts.

Enrico Michetti expressed admiration for the efficiency and “capability” of the Wehrmacht and said that if a country “slides into chaos, then you need a strong man to restore order”, according to a broadcast unearthed by the newspaper La Repubblica.

He made the remarks on a station called Radio Radio, with a fellow presenter warning him: “Now they’ll call you a fascist, just like me.”

Earlier this week, Mr Michetti had to apologise after another segment of his radio programme emerged in which he said that the memory of the Holocaust was kept alive only because Jews had immense political power and “control the banks”.

The radio presenter and lawyer is heavily backed by the far-Right Brothers of Italy party in a second-round mayoral vote that will take place on Sunday. He got the most votes in the first round but tactical voting may hamper his chances of winning.

A protest in Rome against the 'green pass', a certificate proving a person has been vaccinated or has recently tested negative to Covid-19 - Shutterstock
A protest in Rome against the 'green pass', a certificate proving a person has been vaccinated or has recently tested negative to Covid-19 - Shutterstock

Meanwhile, Brothers of Italy, the heirs to Italy’s fascist movement, is doing well in the polls and according to some surveys is now the country’s most popular party.

It is accused by mainstream political parties of either flirting with neo-fascists or at the very least refusing to condemn their actions.

At the weekend, thugs from the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party fought running battles with riot police in the streets of Rome during a protest against coronavirus vaccination passes.

They attacked the headquarters of a Left-wing union in the capital and rampaged around parliament.

“The criminals, the extremists, are not in this piazza, but in the corridors of power,” said Giuliano Castellino, one of the leaders of Forza Nuova, as he stirred up the crowd.

He was subsequently arrested, along with Roberto Fiore, the founder of the fascist party.

Pamela Testa, 39, who wore a sweatshirt bearing a famous quote by Mussolini, was among the protesters who were injured in the clashes.

“Before, I was just a working mother who always paid her taxes, but now I’m a terrorist who will fight for liberty,” she told Italian media, her face streaming with blood.

Pamela Testa, a protester, was injured in clashes that broke out in Rome at the weekend - Reuters
Pamela Testa, a protester, was injured in clashes that broke out in Rome at the weekend - Reuters

Andrea Orlando, a government minister, said he was alarmed by parallels with “what happened in Italy in 1921” – an allusion to the rise of the Blackshirts led by Mussolini, who came to power in 1922.

“One hundred years ago, a bloody and ruthless dictatorship started out by attacking unions,” he said.

A century on, groups with “fascist inspirations” were taking advantage of the “social tensions” caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the labour minister said.

The violence in Rome “takes us back to the darkest and most dramatic moments of our history,” said Valeria Fedeli, a senator from the centre-Left Democratic Party.

Protests against Italy's green pass, proving vaccination against Covid-19, turned violent last weekend - EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Protests against Italy's green pass, proving vaccination against Covid-19, turned violent last weekend - EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the Ghetto, Mr Michetti’s remarks about the Holocaust deeply offended many Jewish people.

“Michetti is an imbecile. But imbeciles can be dangerous,” said Bruno Di Veroli, 80, who was soaking up the sunshine on a wooden bench just a few yards from the medieval palazzo where he was born.

“The extreme Right is an ugly thing. After all these years, it should no longer exist,” he said.

Everywhere you look in the Ghetto, a tangle of cobbled lanes, kosher restaurants and bakeries, there are memories of the dark days of October 1943 when the SS rounded up more than 1,000 Italian Jews and sent them to death camps.

A chilling plaque commemorates a Jewish man named Settimio Calò who came home one day to find that his wife and nine children had been deported to Auschwitz. He never saw them again.

“His whole family was destroyed by anti-Semitic hate,” the inscription reads. Another plaque commemorates newborns who were deported and murdered. “They had not even started to live,” it says.

After the clashes on Saturday between neo-fascists and police, Rome is bracing for more trouble.

It could come as early as Friday, the day on which all Italian employees, in both the private and public sector, will have to show a “green pass” – a certificate showing either that they have been vaccinated or have tested negative to Covid-19 within the past 48 hours.

Forza Nuova and other fascist groups like CasaPound have tapped into anger among some Italians over the green pass, without which they will not be able to work.

Although 80 per cent of Italians over the age of 12 are now vaccinated, around three million have refused the jab.

There are growing calls for Forza Nuova and other fascist movements to be banned outright by the government. But in the meantime they are gearing up for more trouble this weekend.

Demonstrators and police clash in Rome during a protest over anti-coronavirus passports, October 9 - AP
Demonstrators and police clash in Rome during a protest over anti-coronavirus passports, October 9 - AP

On a “No Green Pass” chat group on the messaging app Telegram, which has nearly 30,000 followers, one activist wrote: “They want war and they will have war.”

Another wrote: “We need to play dirty - put kids and old people at the front of the demonstrations.”

In the Ghetto, which lies a stone’s throw from the Tiber River, there is a mixture of concern and weary resignation over the menace of extremism.

“For us, it’s not strange that there are still fascists in Italy,” said Fiorella Di Segni, 82, who is Jewish. “We are battle hardened. We know what could happen, even 80 years after the war. We’ve been in a state of war since the deportations of 1943.”

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