The Union of Islamic Communities and Organisations in Italy, a non-governmental association, paid to publish a full page notice in a number of newspapers five days ago under the heading “Yesterday Nazi Massacres, Today Israeli Massacres”. The notice was prompted, according to the association, due to the widespread indifference to civilian deaths caused by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. A list of massacres in Palestine and Lebanon attributed to the Israeli army followed, from 1937 through to 2006. The notice ended with “Gaza = Fosse Ardeatine Marzabotto = Lebanon. Now no-one can say ‘I didn’t know'”. The Fosse Ardeatine and Marzabotto, commemorated annually in Italy, were two of the most infamous Nazi reprisals for attacks by Italian partisans during the Second World War, where the Nazis murdered civilians in a brutal collective punishment.
Comparing the Israeli army to the Nazi’s is provocative, and interior minister Amato felt duly provoked. Amato is responsible for the governmental consultation body established to maintain a dialogue with Italian Islamic bodies – a consultation body of which UCOII is a member. Amato said of the notice that it could potentially “produce hostility towards the Jewish community […] It violated one of the founding sentiments of Italian and European democracy, which is to say the abhorrence of the Holocaust, that extermination planned and lucidly carried out against anyone of the Jewish religion , for which that same event is incomparable to any other event in our time”. After consultations with the Union of Italian Jewish Committee’s President Renzo Gattegna, Amato is proposing to introduce a charter of values to which all members of the consultation body must sign up to. One of the values will be recognising the “uniqueness of the Holocaust”.
Let’s go back to the notice that kicked the controversy off. It’s interesting to note that the majority of the text of the notice makes no reference to the Nazis, or any effort to substantiate the claims of the screaming headlines above. While the notice is ostensibly addressed to Italians, no effort is made to substantiate the Nazi/Israeli claim – though human rights organisations across the world have independently produced reports left,right,and centre detailing Israel’s policy of collective punishment (which is contrary to the Geneva Convention, illegal, and something the Nazis practiced). This would lead one to assume that, in fact, the notice was more an internal pr move. There are various competing groups wishing to be the ‘voice of Italian Muslims’. A controversy pitting the establishment against the UCOII for defending fellow Muslims in Lebanon and Palestine can only boost the UCOII’s credibility amongst its own constituency. More polemic, P.R, and politics than a history lesson.
At the same time it’s important to notice that the notice makes no reference whatsoever to the Holocaust.
Amato’s response then is a strange one, focussing not on the actual historical comparisons suggested by the notice – mainly that the Israeli army is guilty of massacring civilians, just as the Nazis were in Italy – but rather on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Amato’s response is a non-sequitir, a response to a problem not posed by UCOII’s notice.
Prodi’s government are under heavy pressure to prove their philo-Semitic credentials, given that a slice of their left-wing government is vocal in its support for the Palestinians and highly critical of Israel. There is also the spectre of Italy’s recent history to contend with. In 1938 Mussolini’s Fascist government approved Nazi style racial laws, and many of Italy’s Jewish community during the war were deported to the death camps. It behoves any Italian government to be alert to the dangers of a resurgent anti-Semitism or attempt to diminish the Holocaust.
But there is no overt anti-Semitism in the UCOII notice, and not even the hint of a Holocaust denial or diminuition. The notice may be offensive to Israelis, but that is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic [despite the best efforts of the Israeli Government’s PR machine to convince us otherwise].
Changing the argument to the Holocaust is nothing more than a politically expedient PR move on Amato’s part. Rather than addressing the historical comparisons so carelessly flung out by the UCOII, and thus assessing their validity and acceptability, he’s changed the argument to one of Holocaust Denial/Diminuition. Let’s paraphrase the exchange:
UCOII: Israelis are Nazis, they kill civilians!
Amato: What? You’re denying the Holocaust? Get out!
In the process Amato has also introduced a piece of dogma that, while in vogue, makes little or no sense – that is that the Holocaust, being unique, must not be compared to other events. If anything, to understand something’s uniqueness one must compare it to other similar but different things. For example, to understand the unique nature of the Nazi concentration camp system, one by rights should compare it to the concentration camps set up by the British during the Boer war. To understand the unique nature of the genocide, one should compare it to other genocides such as the Armenian Genocide of 1915. These comparisons in each case do not trivialize the Holocaust, rather the opposite.
To say that one of the foundations of post-war democracy is the recognition of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the recognition that it cannot be compared to other events, is akin to saying that our democracy has little or no interest in studying the Holocaust further, and by extension that we have little or no interest in learning lessons from that barbaric period of history.
On Monday it’s expected that Amato’s list of values will be presented to all the members of the consultative body to sign up to. If UCOII fail to accept the ‘uniqueness of the Holocaust’ clause, they will automatically be ejecting themselves from the body. Amato will appear to be a moderate, not having expelled them directly. The Union of Italian Jewish Communities will appear to be moderates, not having called for the direct expulsion of the UCOII. Whether expulsion will harm the UCOII or add to its credibility remains to be seen.
And those historical comparisons will not have been refuted or substantiated, but simply silenced.
 “produttiva di ostilit