Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro paid a visit to Rome’s chief rabbi Monday night to demonstrate his solidarity with the Jewish community in light of recent violence by Skinhead youths and other manifestations of anti-Semitism here and elsewhere in Europe.
“I am and will always be with you, as I always have been,” Scalfaro told Rabbi Elio Toaff.
“I want to express a clear condemnation of every resurgence of racism and anti- Semitism, which has already caused such great tragedy in Europe in this century,” he said.
The visit came hours after anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas were discovered scrawled on graves in the Jewish section of the municipal cemetery at San Remo, the resort city on the Italian Riviera.
“Six million were too few,” “Jews to the pyre” and “All Jews to the ovens” read the slogans scrawled on about a dozen tombs Sunday night or early Monday.
In a twist of irony, the desecrated tombs were those of Catholic families buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery.
Scalfaro’s visit to Toaff, at the rabbi’s office near Rome’s main synagogue, was a response to Toaff’s recent criticism of the government’s failure to condemn recent anti-Semitic incidents in France and Germany.
“There’s enough going on (in Germany) to allow for very dark predictions. I fear that something ugly may also happen in Italy,” Toaff told the daily Il Messaggero in a recent interview.
He said at the time that he hoped to meet soon with Scalfaro to explain Jewish concerns over recent racial attacks.
According to newspaper accounts, Scalfaro unexpectedly telephoned Toaff on Monday morning to arrange the meeting, saying, “It is not you who should come to me, but the opposite.”
Also present during the 25-minute meeting was Sergio Frassineti, the president of Rome’s Jewish community.
Toaff told Scalfaro, “I am grateful for your solidarity, but I am still worried.”
Toaff later said Scalfaro told him he “was as worried as we are about the upsurge of racist violence in Germany. But he stressed, and I agree with him, that here in Italy the situation is not so intense.”
But in a chilling echo of the neo-Nazi attacks against foreigners in Germany, gangs of young people have launched attacks on immigrants in the Rome area.
On the night of Sept. 3, 15 youths attacked a group of Polish immigrants in the seaside town of Ostia. The assault followed an attack the night before in the nearby town of Lavionio, where a group of toughs smashed windows at a cheap hotel housing Pakistani immigrants.
Over the weekend, violent clashes broke out between gangs, mostly based in poor, outlying neighborhoods, whose members often shave their heads Skinhead- style and scrawl swastikas and slogans such as “White Power” on walls.
But authorities said it was unclear how much of the violence is politically motivated and how much simply street brawling by thugs who model themselves on right-wing extremist Skinhead gangs.
“They are not (neo-Nazi) Skinheads,” a Rome police official, Marcello Fulvi, told reporters.
“These are aimless youths, neighborhood thugs, and if some of them shave their heads, they do it more for reasons of fashion than political conviction,” he said.
Jewish leaders in Rome expressed concern that the violence directed against foreigners in Italy and Germany could lead to a new wave of anti-Semitic violence.
“In the past, the danger (to Jewish buildings and institutions) came from the extreme left-wing fringe that was pro-Arab and anti-Zionist,” the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said in explaining the stringent security measures at the union’s offices.
“Now the danger comes from the right, from the so-called Skinheads,” Tullia Zevi told the Rome daily Corriere della Sera.
“It is a phenomenon that should not be overdramatized, but neither should it be underestimated,” she said.