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Poll Shows Italian Teens Harbor Racist and Anti-semitic Attitudes

July 3, 2003
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Racist attitudes are increasingly prevalent in Italy, where more than one-third of teenagers may harbor racist views toward Jews, Muslims and immigrants.

So says a new poll sponsored by the umbrella organization of Italian Jewry under the auspices of Italy’s president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

“What we are seeing are new forms of creeping racism that do not present themselves as such,” said Enzo Campelli, a sociologist at Rome’s Sapienza University, who conducted the survey on behalf of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “We are also seeing that some forms of racism have become socially accepted.

“Things that would have caused a scandal 20 years ago no longer do so. We are getting used to them, the barriers that existed before are down,” he said. “A certain form of racism is becoming part of the daily language of a large part of society.”

This means that racism and anti-Semitism may be less virulent, but in fact are more widespread in society, Campelli said.

“If we look at it as a triangle,” he said, “the peak of the triangle is lower but the base of it is much broader.”

Campelli spoke at a public presentation of the survey at Rome’s City Hall days before Italy was to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1. The results also will be presented formally to the Italian Senate.

“We must carry out a rapid examination of our conscience,” said Amos Luzzatto, president of the union. “What impact will these attitudes have on Italy as a part of Europe?”

The poll, believed to be the most rigorous and detailed survey of its type in Italy, was carried out last year among more than 2,000 young Italians between the ages of 14 and 18 in 110 locations across the country.

“We wanted this survey at a time that politically is not all that positive for Jews, for Muslims and for other minorities,” Luzzatto said. “The media daily emphasize the Middle East conflict and threats of terrorism from immigrant radical Muslim imams in Italy. There is a growing emotional climate that is not favorable to minorities.”

Nearly 8 percent of respondents could be classified as harboring a “very high” level of racism, nearly 11 percent had a “high” level and nearly 21 percent had a “medium high” level, according to the poll.

More than 9 percent showed a “very low” level of racism, 15.5 percent showed a “low” level and nearly 18 percent a “medium low” level.

The highest levels of racism were seen among teenagers who lived in northern Italy, who were deeply religious or who were politically right wing.

Northern Italy is the base of operations of the anti-immigrant Northern League Party, which forms part of the ruling center-right coalition. The issue of how to deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe and the developing world who enter Italy each year has been a heated topic in recent years.

Many respondents held negative views of immigrants in general. These included nearly 48 percent who said immigrants make cities less safe. Nearly 51 percent said they foster prostitution, and more than 46 percent said immigrants eventually might outnumber native Italians.

“This is an example of what can be called the ‘invasion’ or ‘siege syndrome’ form of racism,” Campelli said.

Negative views of Muslims were even more widespread: Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that even if they had lived in Italy for many years, Muslims “are loyal only to the Islamic world.”

More than two-thirds of respondents felt that for Muslims, “women don’t count for anything.” More than 56 percent believed Muslims “have cruel and barbarous laws,”and more than 52 percent felt Muslims in general support global terrorism.

Anti-Semitic stereotypes also were prevalent: Nearly 35 percent of respondents agreed that “the financial power in the world is mostly in the hands of Jews.” More than 17 percent believed that reports of the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust are “exaggerated,” and 17.5 percent believed that Italian Jews should “return” to Israel.

“We deliberately used this term, ‘return’ to Israel,” Campelli said. “By agreeing with that, the respondents show their feelings that Jews are outsiders and do not have the right to stay here.”

Jews have lived in Italy for more than 2,000 years. The present Jewish community numbers about 35,000, out of a total population of 60 million.

Taken together, the results indicate that racist attitudes have become embedded in mainstream Italian society in new and worrisome ways, Campelli said.

They reveal changing forms of racism that are far more complex than classic models — and harder to pinpoint because they are not necessarily overt.

These new forms of racism go beyond fear or prejudice directed at a “biological” group, he said, to encompass anyone considered “different.”

“We are breathing a climate that is gray, pervaded by prejudices, by the acceptance of cliches, tempted by a racism that is socially acceptable and which is more marked politically on the right, but present also on the left and in the center,” Campelli said.

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