Anti-semitic Attack on Assisi Woman Stuns Italy’s Usually Secure Community

In one of the worst cases of anti-Semitic violence reported in Italy in decades, three youths this week slashed a Jewish woman in the face, tore off the Star of David around her neck and shouted anti-Semitic slogans at her.

The attack shocked Italians, particularly as it took place in Assisi, a site of religious pilgrimages that has hosted many initiatives aimed at peace and interreligious dialogue.

The attack took place Monday night against Myriam Geelmuyden, a Jewish writer from Norway, who has lived in Assisi for six years.

Geelmuyden told police that three men around the age of 20 seized her as she was returning home around 9 p.m. One slashed her face twice with a razor as she was held immobilized. They tore off the Star of David she wore on a chain around her neck, trampled on it and spat on it.

“Dirty Jew, go away from here,” they reportedly shouted at her. “Next time we’ll cut your throat.”

Geelmuyden said the three did not appear to be skinheads. She said she doubted if they were local Assisi youths, but thought they may have come from a nearby town.

The attack came less than a week after Italy’s labor minister, Clemente Mastella, blamed “the New York Jewish lobby” for the decline of the Italian lira.

Mastella, whose remarks triggered a firestorm of international criticism, met with Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, to try to calm Jewish fears.

‘DISTORTED WORDS’ PROVOKED ‘UNJUSTIFIED ROW’

“In a long and friendly conversation,” Mastella “clarified the sense of the words which, when distorted, provoked an unjustified row,” the Labor Ministry said in a statement following the meeting on Thursday.

Mastella had apologized earlier for his comments, saying he had only attempted to calm international fears about Italy’s right-wing governing coalition.

Toaff reportedly accepted the explanation, but voiced fears about increasing anti-Semitism in Italy.

The attack on Geelmuyden stunned local officials as well as members of Italy’s Jewish community.

“It is a very serious episode that demonstrates how racial, ethnic and religious discrimination have, by now, reached heights that were unthinkable up until not long ago,” said Giorgio Gomel, of the Martin Buber Jewish Association in Rome.

“Our communities have always had to deal with verbal violence, anti-Semitic graffiti, threatening letters, but we have never before come to this point,” he said.

“Now there needs to be a strong, energetic and immediate response by the authorities, otherwise I fear that someone will get it into his mind to repeat the operation,” he said.

Assisi, best-known as the hometown of St. Francis, is a small town of 3,000 people in central Italy’s Umbria region. During World War II, numerous Jews were saved by local people in homes, monasteries and convents.

The town is a major site of religious pilgrimages, prayer meetings, peace marches and other events fostering interfaith dialogue.

Fewer than 50 Jews live in Umbria, including foreigners like Geelmuyden.

“I am surprised and embittered,” said Sandro Sermoneta, of the tiny Jewish community in Perugia, the Umbrian capital. “Here we have never had any problems. There are so few of us that we can hardly ever find a minyan to organize services.

“I don’t believe that anti-Semitism can develop in our region,” Sermoneta said. “But we will watch out.”

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