As Berlusconi exits, a new report shows rising anti-Semitism in Italy

Silvio Berlusconi (left) toasts with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in February 2010. (Photo: Miriam Alster/FLASH90/JTA)

Crowds on the streets of Rome jeered and cheered when their long-serving, scandal-plagued prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, stepped down earlier this month. A choir even sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in front of the presidential palace as he handed in his resignation.

Italian Jews don’t expect Berlusconi’s ouster to have specific repercussions on their community or on Rome’s close relations with Israel. Indeed for many, these questions are largely secondary to deep-seated concerns over the general impact of Berlusconi’s exit as Italy struggles to regain financial footing and restore a tarnished international image.

“Will something change in respect to the Jews?” asked Laura Quercioli Mincer, a Jewish intellectual and university professor. “I didn’t even ask myself this.”

The lack of concern for Jewish welfare as Berlusconi leaves political life is a sign of the relative security and stability enjoyed by Italian Jews. However, a report released last month by the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism found mounting levels of anti-Semitism in the country.

The parliamentary report cited a 2008 study by Italy’s Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation showing that 44 percent of Italians express attitudes and opinions “in some way hostile to Jews” and that 12 percent are “fully fledged anti-Semites.” Of Italians aged 18 to 29, some 22 percent were found to be hostile to Jews. The figure was even higher among males in northern Italy, the heartland of the anti-immigrant Northern League party.

The report was the fruit of more than two years of work by the committee, which was chaired by journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, a parliamentarian for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. It also revealed a dramatic proliferation of anti-Semitic websites and social networks, and a level of hatred against Israel that the report says goes far beyond the limits of legitimate criticism.

The committee, instituted in 2009 by the president of the Chamber of Deputies, was composed of more than two dozen members of parliament from all political parties. Its work involved analyzing polls and surveys, holding hearings with experts and carrying out other investigations.

“We have been attempting to understand the new aspects of this phenomenon, which is as aggressive and genocidal as it always was, but it is presently hiding itself by assuming new forms,” Nirenstein said at the official presentation of the report.

Berlusconi’s resignation Saturday came after the Italian parliament passed emergency austerity measures to tackle the country’s debt crisis. President Giorgio Napolitano immediately appointed Mario Monti, a respected economist, to head a new government expected to consist of non-political technical experts.

A flamboyant billionaire media mogul who has dominated Italian politics since the mid-1990s, Berlusconi, 75, long had been a divisive figure in a highly polarized country. He was elected in 2008 to his third (though not consecutive) term as prime minister at the head of a center-right coalition that included his People of Freedom party and the Northern League.

In general, Jewish attitudes toward Berlusconi echo mainstream right-left political divisions.

“The Italian Jewish community is a mirror of the country as a whole,” said Daniele Nahum, vice president of the Milan Jewish community, which, with more than 6,000 members, is the country’s second largest after Rome.

Jewish political figures occupy prominent positions on both the left and right. They include Emanuele Fiano, a member of parliament for the leftist Democratic Party, and Nirenstein, a Berlusconi ally.

In a recent interview with the Israeli daily Israel Hayom and reprinted on Nirenstein’s website, Nirenstein called Berlusconi “a brilliant person.”

“In a period when Italy was entirely in the hands of the Communists and the Catholics, he took Italy and ushered it into the era of modern economy,” she said. “All the rest is less important to me.”

Berlusconi has had a complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with the Jewish world.

He was notorious for telling “Jewish jokes,” making tasteless references to the Holocaust and committing other gaffes on Jewish matters.

But his staunch support for Israel won him and his center-right government backing from many of Italy’s 30,000 Jews and plaudits from groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Italy and Israel cooperate closely in a variety of fields, and Italy is among Israel’s top economic partners in Europe.

“I’ve heard many times people say that this is why they voted for him,” Nahum said.

Nahum said that he found this particularly true among the thousands of Jews who had settled in Italy in recent decades after being forced out of Libya and other Arab states.

Berlusconi and his allies also won support from Italian-born Jews who were alienated by the strong pro-Palestinian bent of much of the left.

Still, many Italian Jews remain firmly opposed to Berlusconi and his political allies, and they deplored the backing Berlusconi had received from some far-right politicians and his alliance with the Northern League.

“We here in northern Italy sense the influence of the Northern League more vividly than in the south,” Venice University professor Shaul Bassi, an active member of the Venice Jewish community, told JTA.

“In my opinion, it’s racist,” he said. “It’s been a surprise how Berlusconi could ally himself with a party that uses the same type of rhetoric that the Nazis used against foreigners.”

Even some critics who praised Berlusconi’s relationship with Israel described it as ambiguous.

“Berlusconi was a very, very loyal friend of Israel,” said political commentator David Parenzo. “But he also was a friend of Muammar Gadhafi, who pitched his tent in Rome when he visited. There are always two roads open.”

Nahum said, “Berlusconi’s relationship with Israel was positive. But then again he retained close ties with the dictatorial Arab regimes. The failure of this policy could be seen during the Arab Spring.”

The financial crisis that brought Italy to the brink of default was the immediate trigger for Berlusconi’s downfall. But it came in the wake of years of sex and corruption scandals, revolts by former political allies and international concern over his close relations with questionable international figures. Last year, WikiLeaks revelations quoted U.S. diplomats calling him a mouthpiece for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Gad Lerner, an influential leftist Jewish TV host and political commentator in the national media, celebrated Berlusconi’s downfall. He described Saturday as a “day of liberation.”

“What happens next is uncertain,” Lerner wrote on his widely read blog. “But the shame of being represented in the world by a man like that is now behind us.”