Italy’s leader denounces antisemitism; pro-Palestinian rally is moved from Holocaust Remembrance Day

ROME — Italy’s president on Friday denounced rising antisemitism and delivered a powerful speech in support of the Jewish people as he commemorated a Holocaust Remembrance Day overshadowed by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and a rise in anti-Israel acts here.

In a ceremony at the Quirinale Palace attended by the premier and leaders of Italy’s Jewish community, President Sergio Mattarella called the Holocaust “the most abominable of crimes” and recalled the complicity of Italians under Fascism in the deportation of Jews.

Also Friday, Rome’s police chief ordered pro-Palestinian activists to postpone a rally in the capital that had been scheduled for Saturday, the actual day of Holocaust Remembrance. Israel’s Jewish community has complained that such protests have become occasions for the memory of the Holocaust to be co-opted by anti-Israel forces and used against Jews.

Palestinian organizers said they would protest nonetheless, saying the potential for conflict with police was a small price to pay given the toll of Palestinian deaths in Gaza.

Mattarella’s tenure as president has been marked by strong affirmations in support of Jews, and he continued that Friday. He said the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel were “a gruesome replica of the horrors of the Shoah.”

But Mattarella also expressed anguish for the mounting Palestinian death toll in Gaza as a result of Israel’s military campaign and called for fundamental human rights to be respected everywhere.

“Those who have suffered the vile attempt to erase their own people from the land know that one cannot deny another people the right to a state,” Mattarella said.

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Antisemitic episodes in Italy hit an unprecedented high last year, with 216 incidents reported in the last three months of 2023 following the Oct. 7 attack, compared to 241 in all of the previous year, the Antisemitism Observatory reported. Overall, 454 incidents of antisemitism were reported last year, the biggest-ever increase.

“The dead of Auschwitz, scattered in the wind, continually warn us: Man’s path proceeds along rough and risky roads,” Mattarella said. “This is also manifested by the return, in the world, of dangerous instances of antisemitism: of prejudice that traces back to ancient anti-Jewish stereotypes, reinforced by social media without control or modesty.”

Mattarella also strongly condemned the Nazi-Fascist regimes that perpetrated the Holocaust. Sitting in the audience was Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots but who has strongly backed Israel and supported Italy’s Jewish community.

Mattarella said it must never be forgotten that Italy under Fascism adopted “despicable racist laws” which barred Jews from schools and the workplace. He called the laws “the opening chapter of the terrible book of extermination.”

Referring to Benito Mussolini’s final government in the Nazi puppet state in Salò, northern Italy, he added that “members of the Republic of Salò actively collaborated in the capture, deportation and even massacres of Jews.”

Significantly, he quoted Primo Levi, the Italian-born Auschwitz survivor whose memoir “If This is a Man” remains a standard work of Holocaust literature. Just this week, Italy’s Jewish community denounced that pro-Palestinian protesters had cited Levi in a flyer promoting Saturday’s planned protest, but in reference to Gaza, not the Holocaust.

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It was one of several instances of pro-Palestinian advocates using the memory of the Holocaust against Israel and Jews. On Friday, nearly 50 small bronze stickers appeared on the sidewalk in front of the offices of the U.N. refugee agency in Rome with the names of Palestinians killed in Gaza. They were copies of one of the most potent symbols of Italy’s remembrance of the Holocaust: the bronze memorial plaques affixed to cobblestones around Rome in front of the homes of Jews who were deported during World War II.

Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of the Jewish Communities in Italy, said such a demonstration offended the memory of Holocaust survivors and diminished their particular suffering and stories.

“Palestinians should invent other quotes, other writers, other forms of art,” she said.

The organizer of the sticker protest, who refused to be identified by name citing security concerns, defended the use of the same symbols as evidence that “something very serious is happening” to Palestinians.

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