It's bad, but much worse in Britain

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, June 23, 2011
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Has Il Belpaese turned ugly on the Jews? A recent initiative by the Milan municipality to run a two-week long set of cultural events called "Unexpected Israel" became the target of virulent attacks from the extreme left, which included calls for boycotts and antisemitic language. The exhibition went ahead with resounding success and the numbers of protesters was small and confined to the usual suspects.

Experts agree that Italy is better than most other European countries - the UK usually mentioned as the archetype of a Western democracy where antisemitism has gone viral. Numbers indicate that the rate of attacks is much lower - although a much smaller Jewish presence, rather than a lower rate of prejudice, may account for that.

In favour of Italy there is also a friendlier media and political climate for Israel - bilateral relations are strong and the call for boycotts have not moved from extreme-left political activists to mainstream labour unions, political parties and academia. Italy's president recently declared that "anti-Zionism is antisemitism", a view endorsed by many mainstream politicians in government and opposition.

Compared to 30 years ago, when a wave of antisemitism swept Italy during the 1982 Lebanon War, things are undoubtedly better - then, local and national authorities denied there was a problem and abandoned the Jewish community to confront isolation and attacks; today, authorities take antisemitism and the delegitimisation of Israel seriously.

Authorities take Jew-hate more seriously than before

Regardless, all is not well.

The internet is, as always, a powerful vehicle for the diffusion of antisemitism. According to the Milan-based Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, racist sites discovered by police doubled from 2008 to 2009 - and specifically antisemitic sites have multiplied.

Then, there are episodes that highlight a broader problem - iconic intellectuals both on the left and the right have repeatedly and explicitly used antisemitic language with no consequence to their status or their ability to remain in the mainstream of public discourse.

And finally, there are worrying signs that campuses - much like elsewhere in the Western world - are turning against Israel in a way that borders on antisemitism.

Is this enough to suggest that Italy is an antisemitic country? Clearly not, and its levels of prejudice do not even come close to what one finds in Scandinavia or the UK. But there is a trend that shows that the balance for Jewish life is fragile and the tide could turn quickly.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 2:16pm, June 23 2011