‘We’re very worried by rise of Nazis in Europe’

Jews in Italy have seen walls smeared with swastikas and had pig's heads delivered to their doors in recent months, but the head of the Jewish Community, Riccardo Pacifici, insists Italy remains a much better place to be Jewish than many other European countries.

'We're very worried by rise of Nazis in Europe'
Riccardo Pacifici is the president of Rome's Jewish Community. Photo: Jewish Community of Rome

His grandparents perished at Auschwitz and his father spent months oscillating between life and death after being seriously injured in a bomb attack on a Rome Synagogue in 1982.

Riccardo Pacifici has also endured years of threats against him – including a thwarted bomb plot – and in January he was the recipient of a pig’s head.

Against the backdrop of an anti-Semitic revival across Europe, the 52-year-old president of Rome’s Jewish Community has leapt to the defence of Italy’s Jews as they face persistent hostility, mostly from right-wing extremists, whether in the form of swastikas being daubed on walls or as the target of online hate speech.

The harassment is also prevalent in football: SS Lazio hooligans have long been notorious for making Nazi salutes and unfurling anti-Jewish banners during games, while late last year they emblazoned stickers across Rome showing Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, wearing an AS Roma shirt in a bid to ‘taunt’ their rivals.

The memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust – January 27th – is also a time for extremists to make their feelings known: this year, boxes containing a pig’s head were also sent to Rome’s Israeli embassy and synagogue while anti-Jewish slurs cropped up on walls across the city in the days leading up to the anniversary.

In February, a human rights report by the US State Department revealed that 26 percent of Jews in Italy experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the 12 months up to November 2013.

READ MORE HERE: US report slams Italy over anti-Semitism

Yet despite all of this, Pacifici insists that Italy is “an island of happiness” for the country’s 30,000 Jews.

He is remarkably defiant, telling The Local that the only group that should be living in fear are the “Nazis” fuelling the hatred.

Jewish people in Italy “may never be able to sleep completely soundly” but in comparison to some of their European counterparts, they are safe, he adds.

“Jewish Italians are safe compared to those in places like Greece, Hungary, France and even Belgium,” he tells The Local.

In France, especially, tensions between the country’s large Muslim and Jewish communities have worsened in recent years, mainly as a result of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the most deadly attack since a 1982 assault on a Paris kosher restaurant, a French Islamist killed a rabbi, his two sons and an eight-year-old girl outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, a city in south-west France, in 2012.

Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old French Jew of Moroccan descent, was also kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006 by a group called the Gang of Barbarians.

“French Jews are in danger,” says Pacifici.

“In Paris and the south of France, in particular, if you walk around wearing the Jewish skullcap, you endanger your life….and France refuses to accept that this danger exists.”

Though Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, which made considerable gains in the first round of French local elections last weekend, has tried to distance the party from its previous anti-Jewish leanings, Pacifici is concerned about the party’s ascent, as well as the prominence of far-right parties in the upcoming European elections.

The groups are gaining strength off the back of Europe’s moribund economy.

Over the next week, Pacifici will meet counterparts in Vienna and London to discuss the issue.

“We’ve reached a point where we’re very worried about the rise of Nazi parties and extremism in Europe. We will be watching the EU elections very closely.”

So what makes Italy such a safe haven?

The Italian Jewish community is one of the oldest in Europe, and numbered 50,000 in 1938.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, there was thought to have been very little anti-Semitism in Italy, with Jews holding prominent positions in parliament, the military and the media. They were also allowed to joined the National Fascist Party.

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, having joined forces with Adolf Hitler, led the country to war alongside Germany in 1940. Jewish people living in Italy were then sent to camps including Campagna and Ferramonti di Tarsia.

READ MORE HERE: 'Ferramonti was not a death camp'

Italians refused to cooperate with the Nazis in sending Jews to German concentration camps, but this changed when, in 1943, Italy joined the Allies.

Thousands of Italian Jews then perished after the Germans invaded and sent them to Nazi death camps that year. Among them was Pacifici’s grandfather, also named Riccardo, and his grandmother, Wanda.

Pacifici also almost lost his father in a bomb attack on Rome’s main synagogue in 1982, in which a two-year-old boy was killed. The revival of Jewish hostility was sparked by the Israeli war that summer.

Since those dark times, Pacifici has noticed “deep changes” in the treatment of Jews in Italy, and for the better.

“Even from before I was involved in the movements, I’ve noticed lots of changes – it’s also evident in daily gestures,” he says.

The small size of Italy’s Jewish population, and with the majority living in Milan and Rome, means it’s relatively shielded compared to France’s community of 600,000, Pacifici adds.

“It might sound like a joke…but the possibility of meeting a Jew in Italy is much less, so this reduces the chance of attack.”

The popularity of Pope Francis has also made life for Jews easier, he adds.

“The influence of the Pope’s words carries a very heavy weight…people hear about ‘respecting others’ from him, through the media, and from their own priests; these words tend to resonate. France is also Catholic but there, the Pope doesn’t have as much influence, or as much media coverage, as in Italy.”

In addition, the condemnation of the attacks against Jews from the Italian authorities and the public outcry, as well as punishments of the perpetrators, has brought comfort to the community.

Last April, four members of the anti-Semitic group Stormfront were convicted for posting lists of Jews and Jewish-run businesses on a neo-Nazi website, while authorities have also shut down sites responsible for anti-Jewish material.

Meanwhile, seven extremists from the Militia Movement, who are accused of condoning fascism and smearing the walls of Rome with anti-Jewish graffiti, are currently on trial.

Italy’s education ministry is also making efforts to combat prejudice by funding training courses for teachers and launching an anti-Semitism course at Rome’s La Sapienza University.

“It’s evident that this path of respect has grown alongside public opinion, and the messages that come from the Vatican,” Pacifici says.

While Jewish people have left Italy in recent years, Pacifici insists that this is down to the country’s stifling economic situation rather than fear.

He said that among those who leave, most go to Israel, where the economy is thriving off the back of a technology boom.

“The economic situation has especially hit the middle class, and the situation for a Jew not being able to find work is much worse than for everyone else,” he explains.

“For example, if they’re forced to live on the outskirts of Rome, they will not find the things they need to lead a Jewish lifestyle, for example a synagogue, a Jewish school or a place to buy kosher food.

“For Jews, the Jewish way of life is very important. They would prefer a life of poverty than to lose this.”

Referring again to his description of Italy being an "island of happiness", Pacifici warns that this does not mean Jews no longer need to be vigilant.

"If you go online, especially, you see many things," he says.

"But there's a big difference today: nobody can make anti-Semitic statements, it's against the law. There is only a minority of people in Italy who hate." 

"I am absolutely not worried about the Jewish community," he adds. "The group that should be worried are the Nazis."

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Jewish leaders warn Pope off anti-Semitic ‘Pharisee’ stereotype

Pope Francis is being urged by experts to take greater care when referring to "hypocritical" Pharisees, a stereotype that fuelled centuries of bad blood between Catholics and Jews.

Jewish leaders warn Pope off anti-Semitic 'Pharisee' stereotype
Pope Francis (R) meeting with members of the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Photo: Handout / Vatican Media/AFP
Catholic-Jewish relations blossomed after the Second Vatican Council — which in 1965 finally urged respect for Judaism — and Francis is a clear friend of the Jews, insisting the Church continue to seek pardon for anti-Judaism.
But for centuries, Jesus's Jewish origins were obscured and the Jews were held collectively responsible for his death. And the pontiff's tendency to quote directly from the New Testament, where Jesus slams members of the small religious and political group as “hypocrites”, has been troubling rabbis concerned about anti-Semitism.
Some 400 Jewish and Christian bible scholars gathered in Rome last week to exchange research notes on the Pharisees, a group which little is known about historically but which came to represent all Jews.
The image of the treacherous Pharisees appears down the centuries in dictionaries, academic articles, films and Protestant and Catholic preaching, with the word “Pharisee” becoming a synonym for hypocrite in the West.
“They lacked life. They were, so to speak, 'starched'. They were rigid… The people didn't matter to them: the Law mattered to them,” Francis said of Pharisees in a homily in October.
The 110-year-old Pontifical Biblical Institute, headed by Jesuits, organised the conference and helped write a speech Francis delivered to the participants Thursday, in which he acknowledged the dangers of quoting the bible without context.
“The word 'Pharisee' often means 'hypocritical' or 'presumptuous' person. For many Jews, however, the Pharisees are the founders of Rabbinic Judaism and therefore their spiritual ancestors,” the Argentine pontiff wrote.
“History has favoured negative images of the Pharisees, despite there not being any concrete basis in evangelical narratives”, he said, describing the stereotype as “one of the oldest and most damaging”.
Francis asked the experts to carry on with their research in order to arrive at a “more accurate vision of this religious group”, which will contribute to “combating anti-Semitism” and “overcoming old prejudices”.
He also admitted the Pharisees should be addressed “in a more appropriate way in teaching and preaching”.
According to Rabbi David Rosen, director of interfaith affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), merely mentioning the word Pharisaic “does not make somebody an anti-Semite”, but “it is definitely a component of 
People should “put it in context, or at least use 'those Pharisees' or 'those Jews',” he told AFP.
“We've raised the issue” with the pope, he said, adding: “I don't think he will use things in quite the same cavalier manner”.   
Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend of the pope, said Francis would now know “how to present the Pharisees”.
“We had already talked about it, but he replied 'I'm quoting the New Testament',” he told AFP. “The pope has so many things on his mind,” he said, but insisted: “It is both a small and a big detail at the same time”.
Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament and Jewish Studies professor, said it was important to “translate scholarly findings into how Christian leaders preach and teach about the Pharisees”.
Skorka, who has known Francis for years and often corresponds with him by email, said the aim was “to polish the areas of friction in Jewish-Catholic relations”.