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Italy's Jews alarmed by rise in anti-Semitism

VENICE, Italy (CNN) - Italy's Jewish community is ringing the alarm bell about what it says is a rise in racist and anti-Semitic violence.

Speaking to CNN only a few days after a vicious attack on a teacher in northern Italy, the chairman of the Union of Jewish Communities, Amos Luzzatto, said Europe must take action against "cultural hate."

While racist and anti-Semitic violence have again made headlines in Germany and Austria recently, Italy is experiencing the same problems, says Luzzatto.

Louis Marsiglia was attacked by masked youths wielding iron bars
Louis Marsiglia was attacked by masked youths wielding iron bars  

The latest racist attack took place Monday night in Verona, a rich industrial city in the northeastern region of Veneto. Louis Marsiglia, a 43-year-old Catholic of Jewish descent, was attacked by three persons wearing crash helmets and wielding iron bars.

Marsiglia said the three young attackers shouted at him: "You dirty Jew, get out from Verona."

Do you think that Italy is one of the European countries at risk as far as cultural intolerance is concerned?

I have no doubt that the answer is yes. I don't think that this trend is limited to German-speaking countries. I believe that it would be a big mistake to think that the rest of Europe is not affected by xenophobia, racial hatred and anti-Semitism. It's simply not true. Even in Spain, there have been demonstrations against North African immigrants. There's no doubt that it is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout Europe. And the reason for this is that the economical, social and cultural roots of racism and anti-Semitism have not been eradicated.

What do you think about the European Union's decision to lift diplomatic sanctions imposed on Austria last February, when the extreme right-wing party of Joerg Haider joined the government?

In my opinion, it would have been better to think about it a little bit more. I think that such measures were absolutely justified and they were meant to be a warning about a certain past. Still, on these measures, there was a deadline and we cannot be under the illusion that avoiding Germany and Austria the rest of Europe could be safe. We have our racists in our own peaceful beautiful Italy and we cannot forget that the first big anti-Semitic demonstrations took place in Paris at the end of the 19th century. This is not something we can exorcize by making it a problem of German-speaking countries. That is not the way to exorcize it. We have to face the question of racism and analyse it from its roots. The seed is in the cultural roots of all European countries

Verona is one of the richest cities in northeastern Italy, where it is easier to see instances of intolerance and where there are more followers of radical righ-wing and anti-Semitic groups, such as skinheads. Also, the Northern League racist slurs are tolerated. What is the relationship between political intolerance and anti-Semitism?

I would warn against pointing the finger at just one political movement, because there also are very deep cultural roots. One can offer political messages against blacks, against foreigners, against Jews, but they won't go very far unless they fall on cultural ground already prone to prejudice. It is not just by accident that Marsiglia was accused of being a Jew: "Out of Verona," shouted the aggressors. Which is like saying: "Someone who's not pure should not live in our city."

Is this something that has to do with ignorance about the existence of Nazi Germany's death camps, oris it simply a perverse culture?

It's not just ignorance. There is also a culture that in thousands of different ways promotes hate for everything that is not "ours." You can see it in films and in newspapers, where journalists write "a Moroccan thief" or "a Senegalese killer." The adjective does not change the nature of what happened. In school textbooks one may find the battle of Poitiers or the battle of Lepanto described as great successes that saved the Western world from the Muslim menace. What does that mean? How can anyone say that this "saved" anything? It could also have "damned" the Western world. Why should the foreigner be Satan and the neighbour a saint?

Do you think that governments have done too little to prevent these forms of anti-Semitism?

Yes, they did precious little. I'm happy I was in Stockholm in January for the International Forum against Racism and anti-Semitism. But I had to realize that there still doesn't exist a European vision that acknowledges the existence of other "valid" cultures outside the Western world. It is about time to change this.

What kind of initiatives would you suggest?

I would begin with the schools, with a joint effort by the education ministries of Europe. Then, I also think that in Brussels and Strasbourg one should begin to build a pluralistic conscience in Europe.

There are cultural, political but also theological roots to anti-Semitism. A few weeks ago, pope Pius IX, the pope who locked the Jews back in the ghetto, was beatified. Last week, cardinal Giacomo Biffi suggested that Catholic immigrants should be preferred over Muslims to maintain a national Italian identity.

Do you think that the Catholic Church takes an ambiguous approach to anti-Semitism and racial intolerance?

It certainly is ambiguous. There are different and contradictory positions. On the one hand, you have the Second Vatican Council that made Catholics aware that they should follow another route. Sometimes it's possible to see this approach even at the highest echelons of the Church . The visit of John Paul II at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was very moving, because in that moment I felt he was very close to us. At the same time, however, there are contradictions: The beatification of Pius IX, the "Dominus Jesus" document published by cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the statements by cardinal Biffi, all go in a different direction. The Church is a human organization, and just like all human organizations, it has in itself several groups and different policies. Some are very progressive, some are very conservative. During transition periods, these contradictions are more evident. We should try to help the more open and progressive forces within the Church.

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