ROME—When Liliana Segre, the face of Italy’s historical memory of the Holocaust, was named a senator for life last year, it was something of an honorary title for the 89-year-old grandmother. Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz at 13, No. 75191 tattooed on her arm, has spent her life speaking about her experience. She could easily have remained a figurehead in her new role. Instead, she has used her platform to speak up about minority rights in Italy in the face of rising right-wing populism. In the process, she has become a moral authority and a woman in a position of prominence, in a country that often lacks both.
Today Segre finds herself in the middle of one of the most intense national debates about anti-Semitism and intolerance in Italy in decades, at a time when the country’s right-wing League party has dominated the political conversation with an “immigrants out” rhetoric. Segre has been the direct target of thousands of anti-Semitic messages online, a center that monitors anti-Semitism in Italy said last week. On Thursday, she was assigned a police escort because of threats against her, and after neo-fascists unfurled a banner that read Antifa acts, the people submit near an event where she had been scheduled to speak. Two Carabinieri must now accompany her every move.
That anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, both online and in real life, and that Jewish sites and community leaders require police protection are, alas, nothing new. But the notion that an octogenarian Holocaust survivor is under threat and is now required to have a police escort stirred strong feelings in Italy and led the front pages of the country’s leading dailies on Friday. A headline on Wired summed up the response: “What Kind of Country Is This Where a Death Camp Survivor Needs a Police Escort?”
What’s at stake here is whether Italy, one of the pillars of the European Union, is capable of having a moderate political right, or whether the far right, with its “us versus them” attitude toward ethnic and religious minorities, has definitively absorbed the center.
Britain’s Labour Party has been convulsed by debates about anti-Semitism. In France, Islamist terrorists have singled out and killed Jews. In Germany, a leader in the Alternative for Germany party asserted that the Holocaust was a “speck of bird poop” in the country’s long history. Italy stands out in this landscape because the most vocal and agenda-setting politician in the country, the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, has been extremely ambiguous about his party’s stance on Italy’s fascist past. Salvini, who was the interior minister until August and who now leads the opposition, often cites Mussolini, has delivered a speech from a balcony where the fascist leader once spoke, and has held rallies in front of other fascist-era monuments. At a League rally in September, supporters shouted “Get out of here, Jew” to Gad Lerner, a prominent Italian journalist, and Salvini never addressed the issue.
That same ambiguity was on full display last week, when the League and the entire right-wing opposition abstained from a Senate vote on a committee that Segre had proposed to investigate hate speech, racism, and incitement to violence on ethnic and religious grounds. The vote passed and the committee itself is somewhat symbolic, but the abstentions were significant. Not only did the League abstain, but the once philo-Semitic center-right Forza Italia party, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, also abstained, as did the far-right Brothers of Italy party. Salvini said it was because he worried that the committee would restrict free speech, such as the League’s slogan of “Italians first.” After Segre was given a police escort, Salvini said he had one too—suggesting that this was no big deal for public figures—then later amended his comments to say anti-Semitism should be condemned.
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, said she didn’t think the committee would adequately address intolerance and anti-Semitism on the part of Muslims. She said that Salvini had denounced anti-Semitism, and that suggesting her party indulged in nostalgia for fascism was ridiculous. But she has also posed in front of a fascist-era monument, to endorse a descendant of Mussolini.
This goes beyond political posturing. The fact is, Italy’s right-wing parties draw support, both moral and electoral, from far-right elements. CasaPound, a far-right group that organizes the demolition of Roma encampments, has supported the League. Salvini hasn’t endorsed its support, but he hasn’t disavowed it either. Abstaining from voting for the committee fits in this pattern. “When you propose a parliamentary committee to investigate language which is useful for the League, it’s impossible for the League to vote for it,” says Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, the director of Milan’s Center of Contemporary Jewish Documents, which conducted the study into anti-Semitism that found Segre was a target.
“The direct and continuous attacks on Liliana Segre, in my view, is not haphazard anti-Semitism,” he told me. They are aimed at Segre “because she has started to do politics. And she’s doing it in a very weighty and direct and intelligent way.”
Segre proposed the Senate committee to monitor hate speech after speaking out this month about how she sometimes receives hundreds of anti-Semitic messages a day. (According to the study, the slurs include: “professional Jew”; “jerk”; “senile old lady”; “senator with no merits who profits off the Holocaust.”)
In a recent interview, Segre said that she thought her online attackers were troubled people who needed treatment. “They’re serial haters who need to hate someone,” she said. “Wasting time writing to wish death on a 90-year-old, anyway nature will soon take care of that.” “I don’t forgive,” she added about her experience at the hands of the Nazis. “I don’t forgive and I don’t forget, but I don’t hate.”
The populist right today in Italy and elsewhere derives much of its power from anger and hate, especially toward immigrants. The attacks on Segre are part of a broader wave of intolerance here. Last weekend, fans shouted racist slurs and made monkey noises at Mario Balotelli, a soccer player for Brescia and a star of Italy’s national team. Balotelli, who was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents and raised by Italian foster parents, has emerged as a critic of Salvini, and has spoken out against the racism he has faced.
Late Friday, Italian media reported that Salvini met with Segre that afternoon at her home in Milan. What words the two exchanged aren’t yet known. Salvini didn’t post anything about the meeting on his active Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. Last weekend, Segre told Corriere della Sera that “if he comes, I’ll offer him tea, cookies, a coffee, but certainly not a mojito”—a reference to Salvini’s appearance last summer shirtless at a beach club, drinking his cocktail of choice. How Salvini and his allies respond to Segre publicly will determine what kind of country Italy wants to be: one that reckons with its fascist past, or one that celebrates it or banalizes it for political gain.