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Is Meloni too right for Italian Jews?

By Simone Somekh

ROME — The success of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party in Italy’s national election last month means the country is poised to have its most right-wing government since WW II, when Italy had a fascist government.

Giorgia Meloni holding a placard quoting ‘Thanks Italy’ in a press room in Rome, Sept. 26, 2022. (Valeria Ferraro/SOPA/LightRocket via Getty)

The prospect has unnerved many Italian Jews, even as several of their leaders appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach, refraining from making public statements about the results.

Only after the installation of the new parliament in mid-October, and after both chambers elect their respective presidents, is Meloni likely to be appointed by Italy’s president to form a new government and appoint its ministers.

The number of Italian Jews is estimated to be around 24,000, the majority of whom are concentrated in Rome and Milan.

“Faced with the prospect of a prime minister that is affiliated with a party that ideologically is the heir of the Italian Social Movement, a good part of Italian Jews are concerned,” David Fiorentini, president of Italy’s Jewish Youth group, said.

Meloni’s first stop in politics was in the youth movement of the Italian Social Movement, known as MSI, a neofascist party founded in 1946 by people who had worked with Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader, 1922-1943. Brothers of Italy is closely tied to the group, even housing its office in the same building where MSI operated and using an identical logo, a tricolor flame.

Fiorentini also cited as causes for concern “the party’s bombastic tones,” “unfortunate episodes at the local level” and the revelations last year that party leaders were closely tied to a convicted fascist and his followers.

“As long as the party does not distance itself from these factors, it is only natural that many Jews don’t feel represented,” Fiorentini said.

The party does boast some Jewish supporters and members.

One of the party’s newly elected members of parliament, Ester Mieli, is a former spokesperson for the Jewish community of Rome and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. Mieli says that “each candidate represents themselves and not the community to which they belong.”

Meloni’s sharp rise — her party got 26% of the vote, compared to 4% four years ago — reflects the rightward shift across much of Europe.

Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Hungarian Civic Alliance have been notable examples. In Sweden, too, a far-right party looks poised to lead a government coalition.

In part by tamping down some of the extremist rhetoric from within the party, Brothers of Italy was able to persuade more moderate right-wing parties to enter a coalition.

Together with the right-wing coalition, Meloni received almost 44% of the overall vote, enough to form a government, which she is likely to lead as Italy’s first-ever female prime minister.

The Brothers of Italy’s motto is “G-d, homeland, family.” It espouses anti-immigration and Eurosceptic views.

Meloni’s rallying cry during the electoral campaign became a quote from a speech, in which she declared, “I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m a Christian.”

Her party opposes same-sex marriage and adoptions, abortion, euthanasia and the legalization of cannabis.

Unlike some of her ideological counterparts in other countries, Meloni has come out in support of Ukraine and NATO against Russia.

In 2014, one of Meloni’s party’s newly elected members of parliament published a Facebook post praising Adolf Hitler as a “great statesman.”

After the Italian press unearthed the post last week, Meloni’s party distanced itself from the candidate, but it was too late to remove him from their ballot.

Stefano Jesurum, author and former board member of the Jewish community of Milan, said some Italian Jews are willing to overlook the fact that far-right leaders are “intrinsically fascist,” focusing on their parties’ championing of Israel.

“To these voters, the important thing is that the [far-right parties] say that they are unconditionally aligned with Israel,” Jesurum said.

Meloni visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, in 2009, when she served as youth minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s last government.

She cited the visit as “a conscience-shaking experience” in a recent interview with Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper.

Meloni says, “Israel represents the only fully-fledged democracy in the broader Middle East, and we defend without any reservations its right to exist and live in security,” she told Israel Hayom.

“I believe that the existence of the State of Israel is vital, and Fratelli d’Italia will make every effort to invest in greater cooperation between our countries.”

Meloni has not always portrayed herself as a staunch supporter of Israel. In 2014, she praised Hezbollah for defending Christians in Lebanon. She also lamented “another massacre of children in Gaza” that year on social media, an apparent criticism of Israel though she did not mention it by name.

For now, some Italian Jewish leaders — including the president of the Jewish community of Rome Ruth Dureghello and the president of the Jewish community of Turin Dario Dario Disegni — declined to comment.
So did Noemi di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. In her official Rosh Hashanah message, published on Sept. 25, before the election, she offered a plea to the victors of the looming election.

“We ask [our elected leaders] to address the issue of hatred and anti-Semitism in a united manner. You don’t pick a piece of ‘Jewish hatred’ or ‘Israeli hatred’ and defend it with a flag of political prowess,” Di Segni wrote.

“The memory of the Shoah, the responsibilities of Fascism, and the existence of Israel as a light among the nations are one and the same; they are not isolated issues that can be discussed as if the rest were superfluous or could be denied,” Di Segni wrote.

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