Tension remained high in the Italian capital over the weekend after dozens of young Jews staged an attack on the headquarters of a skinhead group in retaliation for anti-Semitic incidents.
Roman Catholic church officials issued statements strongly condemning anti- Semitism, and anti-racism demonstrations were scheduled for Monday in cities throughout Italy.
Police called in at least six Jewish youths for questioning Saturday as security remained tight around the main synagogue and other Jewish buildings, offices and shops for fear of skinhead retaliation timed to coincide with the anniversary Monday of the 1938 Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews.
Security measures also were taken around the skinhead group’s office.
A 26-foot-long banner bearing the slogan “Death to Jews; You will never win; Long live Christ the King” was found near the Rome exit of a superhighway Saturday, and two right-wing extremists in Naples were detained while handing out anti-Semitic leaflets.
Police received anonymous phone calls threatening to attack Jewish meeting places, the newspaper La Stampa reported.
Police and Jewish community leaders condemned acts of violence, called for calm and urged that the actions of extremists not be overly exaggerated.
But some members of the Jewish community applauded the raid on the skinhead headquarters Thursday night as a necessary act of self-defense. And even Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said she understood the motivation behind the attack.
“I know that in a democratic state, citizens must not, or should not, take upon themselves the problem of carrying out justice,” she said.
“But these boys reached a level of exasperation which, in a certain sense, explains the decision they took,” she said.
Asked whether the state could do more to combat violence, she said, “Yes, the state must apply its laws. There are precise laws against the formation of the fascist party, against hooligan activities, against the apology for genocide. Let these laws be applied.”
The cycle of violence and tension began on the morning of Nov. 2, when it was discovered that big yellow Stars of David bearing the slogan “Out with the Zionists from Italy” had been affixed to the shutters of more than two dozen Jewish-owned stores, most of them in one district of the city where many Jews live.
It was also revealed that a Jewish cemetery in northern Italy had been vandalized a week or so earlier.
Police in Rome questioned and then released a member of a far-right skinhead organization, the Political Movement of the West, who confessed to putting up some of the anti-Semitic signs after police found some during a search of his home.
Last Thursday evening, several dozen young Jews armed with crowbars rushed to the headquarters of the Political Movement of the West, located in a working- class district of Rome, and severely damaged the premises, touching off a street brawl in which several people were hurt.
The Jews brought back a trophy – a Political Movement banner bearing the group’s swastika-like symbol. Fearing reprisals, hundreds of Jews maintained a vigil outside the main synagogue throughout the night.
Security there was beefed up.
In a show of official support for the Jewish community and an attempt to calm the situation, Italian police chief Vincenzo Parisi and other top police officials met at the synagogue with Rome’s chief rabbi Elio Toaff. They urged that the situation not be overdramatized.
“Exaggerating the actions of the extremist groups gives them more importance than they have,” Toaff told a news conference. “The Italian people has never been anti-Semitic.”
The leaders of Italy’s main trade union organizations met with Zevi to express their solidarity with Italy’s 30,000 Jews.
Roman Catholic church leaders, too, issued messages expressing solidarity with the Jewish community.
“The attacks against Jews are attacks against the civilization of our country,” said Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian Bishops Conference. “They offend God and man.”
He added: “The entire Catholic community of Rome is conscious of the profound links which exist between Christianity and Judaism.”
The official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano wrote: “No pseudo- historical revisionism can exist that can cancel out the memory and testimony of millions of innocent people killed in Nazi extermination camps in World War II.”
Ironically, the tension and violence of the past week coincided with the opening Nov. 4 of a week of Jewish culture in Rome, highlighting the Jewish contribution to literature, publishing and other fields.
On Nov. 2, the newsweekly L’Espresso published a controversial survey, which it and other news media interpreted as indicating that one in 10 Italians was anti-Semitic and wanted to see Jews forced to leave Italy.
But the data, which reportedly found 10.5 percent of those surveyed believed the Jews should leave Italy, appeared to have been interpreted incorrectly.
The raw data showed that this response actually came from 10.5 percent of the 44.2 percent of those surveyed who said they believed that Jews were “different” from the rest of the population.
In interviews with the media, however, Maurizio Boccacci, the 35-year-old leader of the neo-Nazi Political Movement left little doubt where he stood.
Jews, he said, “want to dominate the world, and this is insupportable,” he told interviewers.
He added: “I exclude that there was ever a (Nazi) plan to annihilate the Jews. The genocide never happened. Germany’s only wrong was to lose the war,” he said. “I deny that Hitler was a madman with a phobia against Jews.”