Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s defence of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini at a Holocaust memorial ceremony was just one of several pieces of bad news for Italian Jews over the past ten days.
It has emerged that two of the ten far-right activists arrested in Naples last week on charges of causing grievous bodily harm and unlawfully possessing weapons had been recorded talking about raping a Jewish student and setting fire to a Jewish-owned jewellery store in the city.
It also became apparent that most of those charged were members of burgeoning far-right movement CasaPound.
Founded in Rome ten years ago and named after Ezra Pound, the US intellectual who migrated to Europe and embraced Italian Fascism and German Nazism, CasaPound today has over 2,000 members, and its Facebook page has 34,000 fans.
Several Italian right-wing politicians sympathise with the movement, and the son of the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, is a member. He embarrassed his father when images of him doing a fascist salute were released on the same day as the funeral of the Sonderkommando survivor Shlomo Venezia, who died last November.
“The Naples investigation is a studied attack to discredit our movement,” said Simone Di Stefano, CasaPound’s candidate for prime minister in the upcoming Italian election. Meanwhile, CasaPound’s Facebook page carried an appeal to supporters to send letters of solidarity with Giuseppe Savuto, one of those arrested in Naples.
The president of the Naples Jewish community Pierluigi Campagnano called for vigilance and co-operation from everyone who cherishes the values of a democratic society. Chief Rabbi Shalom Bachbout told Neapolitan paper Il Mattino: “We are not surprised about the … violence coming from certain environments. What is really disturbing is the fact that certain organisations are allowed to run for parliament.”
CasaPound, meanwhile, is being courted by some of Italy’s major political parties.
Beppe Grillo, the populist leader of the Five Star Movement, which is polled at receiving 15 per cent of the vote, invited CasaPound members to join him, saying: “Your ideas can be shared, more or less.”
Mr Berlusconi, leader of the People of Freedom party, has also sought to peel off some of CasaPound’s supporters by choosing far-right candidates such as Francesco Storace. Some opponents have argued that Mr Berlusconi’s praise for Mussolini last Sunday — telling reporters that while the fascist dictator’s 1938 antisemitic laws “were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader”, in other respects he “did good things” — was an attempt to court the far-right.
Mr Berlusconi made the remarks at the inauguration of the new Holocaust Memorial in Milan, which is built on the very same platform where, between 1943 and 1945, thousands of Jews were loaded onto trains, bound for death camps.
The president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Renzo Gattegna said Mr Berlusconi’s comments were “superficial and devoid of moral and historical sense”. Mr Di Stefano, by contrast, backed the remarks.
Although CasaPound defines itself as a “non-violent fascist movement”, it is always very careful to reject the accusation that it is antisemitic or racist. The organisation’s main campaign platforms include quitting the euro, fighting the banking system and cutting public funding of political parties. But the private conversations of its members are another matter.