Romana Rubeo & Ramzy Baroud
CounterPunch / October 16, 2020
A Zionist-led war on a Palestinian cultural festival in Rome has exposed the fragility of the Italian political system when it comes to the conversation on Palestine and Israel. The sad truth is that, although Italy is not often associated with a ‘powerful’ pro-Israel lobby as is the case in Washington, the pro-Israel influence in Italy is just as dangerous.
The latest episode began on September 24, when the Palestinian community in Rome announced plans to hold ‘Falastin – Festival della Palestina’, a cultural event that aims at illustrating the richness of Palestinian culture in all of its grandeur. The idea behind it is not to simply humanize Palestinians in the eyes of ordinary Italians, but to explore commonalities, to cement bonds and to build bridges. However, for Israel’s allies in Italy, even such unthreatening objectives were too much to bear.
The festival, sponsored by II Municipio of Rome – one of the administrative subdivisions of Rome central municipality – found itself at the center of a major – and ludicrous – controversy.
On September 25, an odd pro-Israel post appeared on the Partito Democratico II Municipio – the center-left Italian political party that controls that particular subdivision. Without any context or marking any specific occasion, the post, which displayed the Israeli flag, celebrated the friendship between the Democratic Party and Israel while condemning the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS).
The haphazardness of the post and the strange timing suggested that the Democratic Party is under attack for its sponsorship of the Palestinian festival. Overwhelmed by angry comments on social media, the Party’s Facebook page abruptly removed the anti-Palestinian post without much explanation.
But clarity followed soon when, on September 30, the Jewish Community of Rome issued a statement expressing outrage at the II Municipio for allegedly sponsoring ‘an anti-Semitic festival’. Taking advantage of the deliberate distortion between anti-Semitism and the legitimate criticism of apartheid Israel, the Community’s representatives raged on about BDS and the alleged boycott of Jewish businesses.
The statement, part of which we translate here, claimed that “… the BDS Movement will attend the initiative (The Festival), and this is unacceptable and dangerous (because) the boycott movement denies the very existence of the state of Israel and it is linked to the terrorist groups of Hamas and Fatah.”
Aside from the unsubstantiated – more accurately, completely fallacious – claims, the statement referenced the ‘IHRA definition of anti-Semitism’, further explained below, which was accepted by the Italian government as well as the French and Austrian parliaments. Based on that logic, the statement concluded that, one, “the BDS movement is anti-Semitic” and, two, “the II Municipio is legitimizing anti-Jewish hatred”.
In a clearly coordinated move, the Wiesenthal Center, which often poses as a progressive organization, also went on the attack. On the same day that the Jewish Community of Rome released its statement, the Center dispatched a letter to Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, also recounting the same false claims of BDS’ alleged anti-Semitism, the IHRA definition and so on.
The Center stooped so low as to compare the BDS movement to Germany’s Nazi program. It claimed that the Palestinian boycott movement was, in fact, inspired by the Nazis’ boycott of Jews, referencing the slogan “Kaufen nicht bei Juden” (Do not buy from Jews).
The fallout was quick and, judging by the typical gutlessness of European politicians, predictable as well. II Municipio councilor, one Lucrezia Colmayer, abruptly declared her resignation, “distancing” herself from the decision of II Municipio President, Francesca Del Bello, for sponsoring the Festival.
“With this gesture, I want to renew my closeness to the Jewish Community of Rome, with which I shared this important cultural and administrative path,” Colmayer wrote.
Del Bello soon followed with her own statement. “I apologize if the sponsorship of the II Municipio to ‘Falastin – Festival della Palestina’ … offended the Jewish community and led a councilor to resign,” she wrote, rejecting Colmayer’s resignation and inviting her to return to the Council.
Fortunately, despite all obstacles, “the Festival was a great success,” Maya Issa, a member of the Palestinian Community of Rome and Lazio, told us.
The Festival “was a way for people to learn about Palestine and to see Palestine under a different light. The atmosphere was magic – Palestinian colors, scents, food, Dabkah, art and literature”.
The good news is that, despite the well-coordinated Italian Zionist campaign, the Palestinian Festival still went ahead and, according to Issa, “many Italian politicians understood our message and they decided to participate”.
Now that the Festival is over, the pro-Palestinian groups in Italy are ready to counter the false accusations and the defamatory language lobbed at them by the pro-Israel camp.
“We will respond with the truth and we will refute all the false claims, especially the lies about the BDS Movement,” Issa said, adding “we, the Palestinian community, must resist, along with all those who support true democracy and freedom”.
There is no doubt that the Palestinian community of Italy is more than capable of achieving this crucial task. However, two important points must be kept in mind:
First, the “IHRA definition of anti-Semitism”, also known as EUMC, has been deliberately misused by Zionists to the point that a genuine attempt at curbing anti-Jewish racism has been transformed as a tool to defend Israeli war crimes in Palestine, and to silence critics who dare, not only to censure Israel’s illegal actions, but to even celebrate Palestinian culture.
Of particular significance is that the very person who drafted that ‘definition’, US attorney Kenneth S. Stern, has condemned the misuse of the initiative.
In a written statement submitted to the US Congress in 2017, Stern argued that the original definition has been greatly misused, and that it was never intended to be manipulated as a political tool.
“The EUMC ‘working definition’ was recently adopted in the United Kingdom, and applied to campus. An ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ event was cancelled as violating the definition. A Holocaust survivor was required to change the title of a campus talk, and the University (of Manchester) mandated it be recorded, after an Israeli diplomat complained that the title violated the definition,” he wrote.
“Perhaps most egregious,” Stern continued, “an off-campus group citing the definition called on a university to conduct an inquiry of a professor (who received her PhD from Columbia) for anti-Semitism, based on an article she had written years before. The University (of Bristol) then conducted the inquiry. While it ultimately found no basis to discipline the professor, the exercise itself was chilling and McCarthy-like.”
A second point to also consider is that Italian politics has reached the point that, on many issues, it has become difficult to easily distinguish between supposedly progressive parties and the populist ones. Palestine, in the new Italian political discourse, especially that of the Democratic Party is, perhaps, the most obvious case in point.
This is particularly disturbing, considering that Partito Democratico was, itself, the ideological culmination of parties that existed during the era of Italy’s First Republic (1948-1992), which were known for their strong stances in favor of Palestinian rights and self-determination and strong opposition to Israel’s violations of international law.
This is no longer the case, as the party’s stance on Palestine now hardly deviates from the stifling mantra, “Due popoli due stati” – “Two people two states”.
The new era of Italian politics makes it possible for the likes of Lia Quartapelle – a Democratic Party MP – to pose as a human rights defender on the global stage while referring to Israel as “an extraordinary exception, a plural democracy in a region that fed sectarian and fundamentalist policies”. Her statement is not only wrong and deluding, it also embodies a deep-seated form of anti-Arab sentiment, if not, arguably, outright racism.
The attempt at shutting down the Palestinian Festival is a microcosm of Italy’s foreign policy agenda in Palestine and Israel, where Rome offers Palestinians nothing but empty rhetoric, while practically remaining subservient to the chauvinistic and racist right-wing agenda of Tel Aviv.
Italians must understand that this is no longer just a conversation on Palestine and Israel, but one that directly affects them and their democracy, as well. Italy is a country that brought, then fought and defeated fascism; allied with, then fought and defeated Nazism. Once more, they are presented with the same stark options: siding with Israeli racism and apartheid or upholding the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom.
Romana Rubeo is a freelance translator based in Italy. She holds a Master’s degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and she is specialized in Audiovisual and Journalism Translation. An avid reader, her interests include music, politics, and geopolitics
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara