Italian Jews divided on new Berlusconi government


ROME, June 12 (JTA) — Italian Jews are sharply divided over the new center-right government headed by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi that includes two controversial politicians with far-right links.

Berlusconi, whose Freedom House coalition swept the center-left from power in general elections last month, was sworn in Monday as prime minister of Italy’s 59th government since 1945.

“Like Italians at large, Italian Jews voted for both sides,” said Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Italian Jewry’s umbrella organization.

In part, Jewish voters were torn between concern over Israel and domestic issues such as racism and anti-fascism.

On the one hand, Berlusconi’s new administration probably will be the most pro-Israel government in Italy in years. Defense Minister Antonio Martino, for example, is vice president of the Italian Friends of Israel association.

Many Italian Jews also were drawn to Berlusconi’s promise of lower taxes.

On the other hand, in addition to his own business-oriented Forza Italia Party, Berlusconi’s coalition includes political forces that many Jews deeply distrust.

These include the National Alliance, which has its roots in neo-fascism, and the Northern League, which once aimed to separate northern Italy from the rest of the country and is known for its overt anti-immigrant policies.

National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini is now Berlusconi’s deputy prime minister, and the Northern League’s hot-tempered leader, Umberto Bossi, renowned for his vulgar language and rabble-rousing behavior, is a cabinet minister in charge of reforms.

Political divisions in Italian Jewry are personified in the conflicting views of two of the country’s most prominent Jewish leaders: Luzzatto and Cobi Benatoff, a Milan businessman who once headed the Milan Jewish community and now is president of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

As chief lay leader of all 35,000 Italian Jews, Luzzatto, a scholar and doctor, did not specifically urge Jews to vote for a particular party during the campaign.

In his statements before the election, however, he stressed what he called “strong moral values” that voters should bear in mind, including minority rights and the need to combat racism while dealing with immigration issues.

Luzzatto’s personal sympathies clearly are with the left.

In particular, he manifests a strong distrust of National Alliance leader Fini despite the fact that, for years, Fini has tried to shake off his party’s neo-fascist associations and turn it into a mainstream right-wing force.

“I’m sorry to say that the National Alliance has not yet completed its transition,” Luzzatto said.

“I need to hear from Fini explicit words that recognize the moral and political responsibility of fascism in the extermination of the Jews,” he said. “When he does that, I’ll even shake his hand.”

Bossi, he said, was just as much of a concern — maybe more so.

Among other things, Luzzatto noted that members of the Northern League have close relations with far- right Austrian politician Jorg Haider.

“Haider is spending more and more time in Italy,” Luzzatto said. “What does he want here?”

Israel, meanwhile, will not protest the inclusion of far-right parties in the Italian government, as it did when Haider’s party joined the Austrian government last year.

“We have a lot of friends in this government,” said Amos Vidan, currently in charge of the Israeli embassy in Rome. “Democratic elections were held, and we do not intervene in the process. The party of Bossi is a legitimate party in Italy, and we do not boycott it.”

Sources in Israel said they could not rule out the possibility that Fini would be offered an invitation for an official visit — depending on the European Union’s stance on Fini’s role in the Italian government.

“Israel should not be the first to host him, but he should not be rejected off-hand, and the matter should be considered seriously,” Vidan said. “Fini is not a product of the fascist era, and we believe that there is room to view him in a different light.”

Likewise — and in contrast to Luzzatto — businessman Benatoff welcomes the new political lineup.

“I have a lot of hope in the new government for a change of attitude vis-a-vis Israel,” he told JTA. “The people in power have a more sympathetic approach to Israel, especially Berlusconi himself.”

Benatoff criticizes the attitude of Luzzatto and other Jewish leaders toward Fini and feels that Jews should accept the National Alliance’s overtures in good faith.

“I do not believe that the National Alliance is an anti-Semitic party,” he said. “The National Alliance is on the road to normalization and is keen to normalize its relations with the Jews. At some point, they may not want to do this anymore.”

These types of political divisions among Italian Jews mirror divisions in the country as a whole.

A recent incident, however, has raised concern that other potentially explosive rifts are developing.

An article by Giorgio Gomel, a well-known Jewish peace activist, that was critical of current Israeli policy appears in the latest issue of the local Jewish magazine, Shalom.

Last week, as he was walking toward the Israeli embassy to attend a vigil in support of Israel, Gomel was accosted by other Jews who called him a “friend of Arafat” and tried to attack him.

“Nothing like this has happened in our community for years,” one member of Rome’s Jewish community said.

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