AJC Analysis: Quo Vadis Italy? (And Where to Grillo?)

Lisa Palmieri-Billig
April 15, 2013

Italy is at a crossroads, facing unchartered territory.

A wave of populism, reflecting widespread discontent, frustration and anger, has swept the country, altering its political landscape.The ubiquitous corruption that permeatesall the established political parties, the squandering of funds and specialprivileges for the ruling class, Italy’s worst economic crisis since World War II—with no hope in sight for the mounting number of jobless, especially amongst the young—propelleda surge of votes for Beppe Grillo and his “5 Star Movement” (M5S).

The former satirical comedian and now leader of a new party refuses to enter into a coalition with other parties, since they, in his opinion, must be scrapped. His aim is to have “100%” of parliament.Many worry that this sounds ominously reminiscent of Fascist Italy, but others consider such uncouth outbursts merely “provocative,” not to be taken seriously.Meanwhile, the starry-eyed M5S parliamentarians are bound by oath not to grant interviews or make public statements without prior agreement.The locked out Italian media compare their closed-door meetings to a “sect,” while his site claims to function as a forum of “citizens’ democracy.”

Grillo’s anti-Semitic hints and anti-Israel slurs through the years have been hashed, rehashed, and perhaps unduly magnified by the Jewish and general media. His remarks are indeed gross and betray a total lack of intellectual responsibility. He cites the authority of his Iranian father-in-law to claim that all translations from the Middle East (including statements by Ahmadinejad) are biased, filtered and distorted by MEMRI, which he maliciously identifies with the Mossad. He does concede that there are “also Israelis who don’t want a war.” When Grillo was still just an entertainer he compared Adolf Eichmann to the former executive of an Italian car company, and asked, “Who is the serial killer?Eichmann, who gassed 3 million people for a distorted ideal, or someone who gases millions of people for a bank account?” He spoke disrespectfully of Jewish Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini as “the one with spun-sugar on her head.”He seems to enjoy anti-American and anti-Israeli quips.He said, “It is not to be excluded that the CIA was involved in the 9/11 attacks. It is certain the U.S. Embassy knew much more than they admitted.” And, “Who shouted, ‘After me no grass will grow’?Attila.What does Israel say today?‘After us no Palestinians will grow.’”

Recently, however, Grillo has rejected any alliance with the far-right National Front in France (after contact was allegedly made by an M5S member), and denounced fascism, neo-fascism and racism in no uncertain terms.And after an M5S section proposed cutting regional appropriations for the trips of high school students to Auschwitz, Grillo nixed the idea following widespread protest, and stressed their educational value.

His histrionics are now largely concentrated on an absolute refusal to come to terms with the “old” political parties, despite public pressure to form a working government coalition to meet Italy’s economic and political crisis. He has turned down offers by the parties of the center-left to work together on common projects that both support.According to a public opinion poll published on April 13 by Corriere della Sera, this is costing him support while the traditional parties of the center-left and center-right coalition have made proportionate gains. The national elections had awarded Grillo’s movement 25.6%, the center-left 29.6 %, and the center-right, led by Silvio Berlusconi, 29.2%. The newsurvey conducted by Italy’s most authoritative pollster, Renato Mannheimer, finds that 31.4% of Italians would now support the center-left, 31.7% the center-right, and 23.7%Grillo’s M5S ( a loss of 1.9%). Premier Monti’s “center” has dwindled to 8.7%.

Since Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano, will soon step down when his term ends, the parties must agree when they vote April 18 in parliament on a “neutral” and respected figure as his successor.If Grillo continues his tactics of refusal and the center-left and center-rightpersist in refusing negotiations with each other,new elections will have to be called, which could very wellproduce another hung parliament, given Italy’s dysfunctional electoral system, which everyoneagrees needs to be reformed.

Grillo has managed to split Italian Jewry as well.In an interview published by Haaretz, Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Rome Jewish Community, set off an international alarm about M5S’ alleged anti-Semitism, advising Italian Jews to pack their bags and have them ready for Aliyah before the real emergency occurs. Although he later tried to mitigate this statement, several councillors who serve on the Board of the Rome Jewish Community resigned in protest over his remarks, which they considered grossly exaggerated and expressed without prior consultation, as required by statute and by the board’s internal democratic process. They pointed to the harm his words caused by evoking a media storm that suggested that the situation in Italy was comparable to thatin Hungary or Greece – a comparison actually light years from the truth.

It remains true, however, that there is a widespread tendency to legitimize Italy’s Fascist past.

In a recent issue of his newsletter, James Walston, head of the American University of Rome’s International Relations Department, cited the following episodes: (1) The city council of the northern town of Brescia has proposed reinstalling “Bigio” (a 25-foot statue of a male nude, beloved by Mussolini, that stood in a central piazza from 1932-45) in an area adjacent to where a Fascist bomb killed 8 people and injured 100 in 1979. The statue would be named “The Fascist Era.”(2) Last year, in a town south of Rome, a mausoleum was built with public regional funds honoring Fascist Commander Rodolfo Graziani who was responsible for the murder of thousands of Ethiopians. (3) Last week, a Jewish high school student who was not feeling well went to the bathroom, and upon her return the teacher said, “In Auschwitz you would have been more diligent.”The girl burst into tears and her classmates rallied around her, but the teacher, supported by the school’s principal, “explained” that she was referring to the “order” in Auschwitz and didn’t mean to offend. (4) Veterans of the infamous “Decima Mas”– the brutal Fascist forces who hunted down partisans and ordinary civilians from 1943-45 – were permitted to organize conferences in Rome’s City Hall. Recently, at a rally organized at the Coliseum by the mayor of Rome in support of two Italian marines detained in India on charges of killing two Indian fishermen, the flag of the Decima Mas (XMas) was hoisted by the crowd alongside the San Marco Brigades banner and Rome’s city flag.

Periodically, Italian politicians praise the “good” aspects of Fascism as examples. Last January 27, during a commemoration at the Milan train station from where wagonloads of Jews were deported, former premier and center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi mentioned that Fascism did good things until the 1938 anti-Semitic “Racial Laws.” His choice of time and place were particularly ill-advised. Some observers commented that the purpose behind this seemingly spontaneous remark was to attract support for his comeback from extreme-right factions.

Roberta Lombardi, the spokesperson of the M5S in the Chamber of Deputies, also recently remarked that Fascism had a “strong sense of statehood before it degenerated.”

The solid anti-Fascist education that predominated in the immediate postwar years is gradually being supplanted by a kind of moral equivalence between Fascist Italy and the Resistance. Unfortunately, the Italian psyche seems to lack the capacity for objective, unbiased, historical investigation that would enable self-criticism by both the “Red” and the “Black” movements for their misdeeds.

And finally, inventing conspiracies by certain Italians, Americans and Jews aimed at crashing the euro to favor the dollar has become a favorite pastime on anti-Semitic websites and bloggers, even though there are no facts to suggest any such notion.

Gianroberto Casareggio & Associates provides financial backing for Beppe Grillo. Casareggio, known as Grillo’s “guru,” is a very successful IT businessman who largely organized Grillo’s election campaign. Enrico Sassoon, a Jewish businessman, was Casareggio’s partner until a couple of months ago, when he resigned because of alleged anti-Semitic harassment directed against him.

Several anti-Semitic bloggers and websites, however, insinuate that his resignation was fake and that Sasoon is still allied with Casaleggio, since Grillo allegedly enjoyed the support of Goldman Sachs (considered a “Jewish bank”) and has been called to meetings with the U.S. Ambassador to Rome, clearly a sign of American support.Moreover, Casareggio has participated in meetings of “Bilderberg,” an exclusive think tank run by political and economic leaders of the world, and considered by conspiracy theorists to be the epitome of occult power for economic domination. On the anti-Semitic “terra santa libera” site (www.holylandfree.org), Sassoon is presented as the “godfather” of Casaleggio Associates.Selected aspects of his family history are listed, such as their banking activities in India in the 19th century and their alleged help to Queen Victoria of England in financingthe Opium Wars against China.

There is unwitting irony in accusing the M5S movement of conspiring with Jews and Americans to ruin Europe, while at the same time the movement is under scrutiny for possible Fascist, anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic attitudes.

In any case, where Grillo stands on foreign policy is a mystery. His campaign concentrated on domestic issues, with one exception:the call for a referendum on whether the euro should remain Italy’s currency.

The Italian Jewish Community continues to watch and wait for the M5S to reveal its true intentions, while hoping that the other political parties will soon get their act together – for the good of Italy, of Europe and the world.

Lisa Palmieri-Billig is AJC’s Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See