To Be Absolutely Frank

Between Rome and Jerusalem

Italy is hardly the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Yet the anti-Israeli sentiment that prevails here often finds expression in the words and images of bigotry.

By 4.4.02

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On Easter Sunday, the Milan newspaper Corriere Della Sera ran a front-page editorial cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rifle in hand, sitting on a sarcophagus. The lid of the coffin is partially open and the fingers of a hand can be seen emerging from inside, trying to lift it further. In the background stands an angel, complete with wings and halo, looking on in bemusement. The caption reads: "Non resurrexit."

The words allude to the Latin Vulgate version of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (15: 14 : "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain."), but a more obvious association is with Matthew's account of the Resurrection, in which the Pharisees secure Pilate's permission to "make [Jesus's] sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch" lest the disciples steal their leader's body to create the illusion that he's risen from the dead. What happens, of course, is that God sends an angel to move the stone aside. "And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men." (Matthew 27: 62-66, 28: 1-4)

Now, the guards in the story are presumably Romans, not Jews, but they are working at the behest of Jews. Surely the cartoonist who cast Sharon in this role intended to portray him as a metaphorical Christ-killer.

Please forgive those three paragraphs of explication, but in Italy's current rhetorical climate, the Corriere cartoon actually strikes me as subtle. Yesterday the Turin paper La Stampa, another ultra-respectable establishment organ, ran a front-page cartoon showing a tank emblazoned with the Star of David pointing its gun straight at the baby Jesus, who tells the attackers: "Surely they don't want to kill me again?"

While anti-Semitic imagery is still rare enough in the mainstream Italian press to make it worth remarking on, the conventional wisdom is overwhelmingly and aggressively anti-Israeli. Why else would the popular TV host Bruno Vespa (a slightly more cerebral version of Larry King) dare ask the Israeli ambassador, a guest on his show: "Was this the way to repay the Holy Father's overture, sending tanks into the birthplace of Jesus?"

With all this talk about Jesus, you might think that this country -- with the world's lowest birthrate and a pervasive atmosphere of religious indifference in its cities -- was going through some kind of Catholic revival. A more reasonable suspicion is that faith is once again serving its age-old function as a veil for less exalted interests.

In fact, no group is more one-sidedly pro-Arafat than the anti-clerical Italian left, which continues to send representatives (including the Nobel prize-winning writer Dario Fo) to stand by the Palestinian leader's side. Their ultimate motivation, like that of the other European leftists who have flocked to Ramallah recently, is hatred of a global economic system dominated by Israel's ally the United States. To them, the Star of David stands for the Stars and Stripes, and dead Palestinians are more worth mourning because they die at the hands of the superpower's proxy state.

Meanwhile the post-Fascist right, eager for international respectability, has been comparatively friendly toward Israel. When Italian Jews held a demonstration on Tuesday (during which they were hooted and insulted by passing motorists), they chose to protest outside the offices of the Communist Refoundation party.

On this matter, though, the position of Italian Communists is not noticeably different from that of the Vatican, which has apparently decided that Israel bears more responsibility for the war than do Palestinian terrorists or their sponsors.

"Terrorism" is of course a dirty word almost everywhere, especially after 9/11, but many are prompt to draw distinctions. As the Catholic statesman Giulio Andreotti, seven-time prime minister and a pillar of the post-war Christian Democratic regime, put it to La Stampa: "I don't morally accept placing the millionaire Bin Laden ... on the same plane as that poor girl who immolated herself with a bomb. If I spent 50 years in a refugee camp, with my family and my children, I certainly wouldn't need the help of Iran or anyone else to be desperate ..."

Never mind that suicide bombers aim to do rather more than blow themselves up. Wouldn't a more valid comparison be between Bin Laden and the cold-blooded leaders of Hamas, who don't even feign pity for their suicidal pawns, let alone for their Jewish victims?

Italy is hardly the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. There has been no pattern of violence here like the recent wave of synagogue-burning and cemetery-desecration in France. (Though admittedly, there aren't nearly as many Jews here to attack.) Nor does Italian sympathy for the Palestinians, or even for Arafat, necessarily indicate anti-Semitism. Yet the anti-Israeli sentiment that prevails here often finds expression in the words and images of bigotry. It's especially troubling when that bigotry emanates from the most respectable quarters.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.