Where is my country heading? Italy, hate speech and Liliana Segre

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Roar writer Elena Siniscalco on recent controversies in her native Italy, where a senator and Auschwitz survivor has been attacked for a law proposal against hate speech.

I’m usually proud of my native roots. I’m usually amused when people ask me about my accent, make a joke about how amazing Italian food is, or tell me about their last holiday in my country. I’ve been living in Italy for eighteen years of my life, and although I’m not a fan of everything about the country, I’ve always considered myself lucky to have been born there.

But recently, that has changed. Now, if anything, I’m angry at my country. A few weeks ago, something appalling happened. Liliana Segre, an eighty-nine-year-old Auschwitz survivor, lifelong senator and strong advocate of human rights and freedom of speech, was given police protection because of fears for her safety. Segre received more than 200 hate messages online per day and a sign saying “Sala orders; antifascists act; the people suffer” has appeared outside the theatre where she spoke on the 4th of November.

The sign refers to Guiseppe Sala, Milan’s mayor, who is openly in favour of inclusionary policies, and against fascism. The sign, put up by right-wing party Forza Nuova, is thus hinting that anti-fascism measures make the people suffer – but who exactly is suffering when inclusionary policies are implemented? Forza Nuova describes itself as against abortion and in favour of patrolling and CLOSING the borders (it was in capital letters in its political manifesto). Apparently, their members are suffering because of a moderate left-wing mayor and his mob of antifascist fans. In my opinion, this speaks volumes about the political situation of my country.

Neither the hate messages directed at Segre nor the sign appeared out of nowhere. A few days before, Segre made a public address in the Italian Senate calling for the creation of a special committee to work against racism, antisemitism, intolerance and hate speech. Italy has witnessed increasingly high levels of hate speech and online-hatred – over half of the Italians surveyed in a recent poll have said that racist acts were either sometimes or always “justifiable”. Addressing this at a policy level is a necessity.

According to Amando Cristofori, Global Ambassador of the World Speech Day, Italy is at the bottom of the list on the hate speech barometer. Last year, Cristofori went as far as arguing that “resentment and hatred circulating on social networks are re-exposing deep divisions that until recently remained dormant int the country and their vehemence is coming close to dangerous thresholds.” Segre’s proposal on countering hate speech was approved with 151 votes in favour, but not with unanimity. And while most senators greeted Segre’s proposal with a standing ovation, senators from the centre-right parties Forza Italia, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, refused to do so and remained seated without clapping.

It is not a legal duty to give someone a standing ovation, nevertheless the choice to remain seated sent a strong political message. Liliana Segre is one of the most influential personalities in our country when it comes to antisemitism. Her powerful and brave testimony of the Holocaust is one of the strongest, most tangible reminders we have of what happens if our societies succumb to fascist ideologies. Thus not only refusing to vote for her proposal but also refusing to greet her presence in the room is a long step back from inclusion and decency.

Milo Hasbani, president of the Hebrew Community in Milan, said that it’s sad that someone like Segre needs police protection. I think it is not only sad but also despairing. Until the situation improves, I’m a little less proud of being Italian.

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