Rome's Jews back 'Facist' city mayor

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, May 23, 2008

Since assuming office last month, Rome’s first right-wing mayor since the Second World War has made strenuous efforts to demonstrate support for Israel and concern for Jewish sensibilities.

Within days of his election, Gianni Alemanno met local Jewish leaders and honoured Holocaust victims and the victims of a 1982 Palestinian terror attack at Rome’s main synagogue.

Gianni Alemanno (far right) with Rome community president Riccardo Pacifici (centre) after visiting a shul

Mr Alemanno also made clear that he would maintain the city’s extensive Shoah education programmes and current plans for a Holocaust museum.

While young extremists celebrated his election with the Fascist salute, it emerged that many Roman Jews voted for Mr Alemanno. The mayor, who got his political start in Italy’s post-war neo-Fascist movement and received backing from far-right political groups, is an ally of the newly-elected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose centre-right People of Freedom coalition trounced the centre-left in the general election at the end of April.

Calling the city’s Jews “the conscience of Rome”, Mr Alemanno said the synagogue and the Jewish community represented “an admonition to reject any form of racism, antisemitism, intolerance or violence”.

About 35,000 Jews live in Italy, some 15,000 in Rome. Mr Berlusconi is popular among many of them, in large part because of his unswerving support for Israel.  Two outspoken Jewish candidates won election to parliament on Mr Berlusconi’s ticket — journalist Fiamma Nirenstein and lawyer Alessandro Ruben who heads the Italian branch of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Alemanno has made many statements against antisemitism and in support of Israel,” Mr Ruben told the JC from Israel, where he was making his first official trip as a member of parliament to take part in Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations. “He even flew the Israeli flag on the Rome municipal building to mark the anniversary.”

Mr Alemanno is a member of the National Alliance, a post-Fascist party whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, distanced the party from Fascist ideology and fostered relations with Jews and Israel. Mr Alemanno partly rode Mr Berlusconi’s coat-tails into office, but his law-and-order platform — promising to crack down on crime, foster public security and curb illegal immigrants — also won favour with voters. His support from the community mirrored a general shift to the right among Rome’s Jews, linked in part to dissatisfaction with the pro-Palestinian stance of some leftist politicians. But it also represented a change in the Jewish political mind-set.

After the Second World War, it was almost unthinkable for a Jew to vote for any candidate with a neo-Fascist past, said Giorgio Gomel, a leader of the left-leaning group, Martin Buber Jews for Peace, which had called on voters to reject Mr Alemanno.

Now, however, “there are Jews for whom anti-Fascism is no longer a dividing line that would influence your voting behaviour”, said Mr Gomel. “They vote like ordinary Italians. The fact that they are Jews is immaterial, and that is quite unsettling in a way.”

What matters to voters, he said, “are the issues — public security, conservative values, material issues, Israel.

“The philo-Israelism of the right has a very strong power of seduction. It’s irresistible. The banner of anti-Fascism is no longer something that is truly meaningful,” added Mr Gomel.

Last updated: 9:22am, May 28 2008