Italian Jewish leader: Jewish community must work with Salvini, nationalists

Matteo Salvini’s Lega party has inveighed against illegal immigration and other minorities, but strongly praised and supported Israel, creating dilemmas for the local Jewish community and Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, December 12, 2018 (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, December 12, 2018
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
The head of the umbrella Jewish community organization in Italy, Neomi Di Segni, has said Jews in the country must work with the right-wing nationalist Lega party and its leader Mateo Salvini and engage in dialogue with the group to advance Jewish concerns in the country.
Salvini was in Israel this week for a two-day visit, and was accompanied by Di Segni, as is usual for the head of the Union of Jewish Communities (UCEI) when a senior Italian politician visits the country.
Lega is an anti-immigrant party that became the third largest party in Italy in this year’s general election and is currently the second largest party in the governing coalition, with Salvini serving as Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
Israel has been growing steadily closer to several right-wing nationalist parties in Europe in recent years which has caused concern among some European Jewish communities as well as broader worries about the illiberal nature of such parties.
The Lega party has adopted a position of strident opposition to illegal immigration into Italy and removed protections from vulnerable immigrant groups since coming to office through the so called “Salvini decree,” in response to the large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers that have entered the country in recent years.
Salvini himself has said that Italy’s “culture, society, traditions and way of life are at risk,” from “Islamization,” and also called for a census of Roma people in Italy and the expulsion of all Roma who are not formally citizens, quipping “Unfortunately we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them.”
His brash political style has also seen him compare the former speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament, Laura Boldrini, to an inflatable sex doll. Doubling down in response to criticism of his comment, he said he would “deflate Boldrini.”
Nevertheless, he has expressed strong support for Israel, and during his recent visit denounced Hezbollah as “Islamist terrorists,” and said “those who want peace, need to support and defend Israel.”
In response to a letter by left-wing and liberal Italian Jews ahead of the visit calling on him to denounce antisemitism in far-right parties in Italy and Europe, Salvini said “It’s not that every time I go to Israel I have to say that antisemites are delinquents.”
The letter also criticized him for aggressive acts “against the Roma and Sinti communities, and of “racism against foreigners and migrants.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Di Segni said that she did not want to be drawn into a debate on Lega and Salvini’s policies and rhetoric on immigration, and insisted that it was important for the Italian Jewish community to engage with the party and its leader.
“I don’t want to make the equation [between Jews and immigrant minorities]. Jews have been persecuted, and are very careful and care about humanitarian and minority issues,” she said when asked about Jewish responsibility for other minorities.
“Jews have been persecuted all over, in Europe and Arab countries. Because Jewish people suffered, we are particularly following these issues. But we need to build the relationship with this government.”
Di Segni continued, “We need to work with him [Salvini]. He was democratically elected. He is the individual in the government responsible for the security of the Jewish people [in his role as Interior Minister], and as Deputy Prime Minister he is responsible also for other actions.”
However our proposals and considerations are addressed to all the institutions and relevant ministries.
She noted however that she had spoken out strongly against “racial intolerance, hatred and dangerous radicalization,” when Salvini floated his idea about a Roma census and threats to expel  Roma non-citizens back in June.
“When we need to, we speak out. Each situation is dealt with separately. Not everything needs to be shouted and written in the newspapers. Somethings are managed in meetings, and with different legislative proposals,” she said.
Di Segni also stated that it was crucial for the Italian government to understand the phenomenon of modern-day antisemitism, which she said is prevalent among Islamic extremist groups, radical right parties and also hard-left parties and the BDS movement.
“We need to work with this government and they need to know Jews are in Italy for 2,000 years, are a very structured and institutionalized reality in Italy, and that their heart is in Israel and we want to defend Israel but we need also to defend and promote Italian culture in Italy, undesrtand that antisemitism is also in the far right neo fascist groupings, and ensure that in Europe Jews can live freely and continue to develop their culture,” she said.
Di Segni said that she did not want Salvini’s visit to Israel and her participation in it to be viewed as the UCEI either “backing him or protesting against him,” saying that the purpose was to “build a dialogue together.”
But she expressed appreciation for the Lega leader for his comments while on his trip to Israel, saying “Not everyone has the courage to say these things,” and noting that while previous Italian prime ministers had also made positive comments about Israel at times, Italy had voted against the Jewish state in international forums during their tenure.
“We need to change this situation and this requires encouragement and engagement,” she said.
Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, director of the Foundation Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, a think tank for Italian Jewry and antisemitism, said that there was no clear data on Jewish support or opposition to Lega, but noted that the Italian Jewish community shares the diverse range of opinions of broader Italian society.
“There are many against his politics against immigration and some racist expressions, and there are also people who like him, Jews for Salvini openly in favor of his politics, who believe the fight against Islamic immigration is part of fight against antisemitism,” Luzzatto Vogher told the Post.
He said that by and large, the Lega party has not engaged in any antisemitic rhetoric or advanced policies counter to the interests of the Jewish community, and noted that Lega, along with the other major political parties, had backed the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism in a recent debate in the Italian parliament.
Luzzatto Vogher issued a note of warning though, stating that Lega was still evolving as a party and that it was not clear where it was headed. He added that some of Lega’s policies towards immigrants and Roma were “openly racist politics.”
Fiamma Nirenstein, an Italian-Israeli journalist, author and senior researcher for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said however that Salvini had “no hint of fascist or autocratic views” and praised his stance on Israel.
She also described criticism of the Lega leader by Jews and Israelis as “masochistic” given his support for the Jewish state, insisting that he was an ally of Israel and noting the political risk he took and the backlash he faced in Italy for his comments on Hezbollah.
Nirenstein conceded that Salvini’s rhetoric could sometimes be “vulgar” and “not pleasant,” and that he might reconsider the immigration issue “in a more elaborate way,” but argued nevertheless that immigration was a potent issue in Italy and that “you can’t allow just anyone to settle in your country.”
She insisted however that “Lega has never been an antisemitic party,” and said that the most trenchant antisemitism in Italy and Europe came from “Israelophobia,” the BDS movement and Islamic jihadists.