I thought they were Arabs. “Where are you guys from?” I asked in Hebrew, as we waited to get off the plane. “Non parla Ebraico,” the oldest of the group replied in Italian. Switching to English, I apologised and carefully said, “You’d easily pass for Israeli.”
Of course, I didn’t qualify what kind of Israeli. The Berlin to Tel Aviv flight is one that is decidedly more diverse than other commutes. In the place of the Haredim, one finds on flights from the UK and the US, you get Mizrahim and Israeli Arabs. I assumed the family I was standing behind was the latter.
En route to passport control, I expressed my concerns about Italy’s March election results and the fact that there was still no government two months later. “It was bound to be hard,” the Italian replied, reassuringly. “We have to do something about the Muslims. Not everyone likes the Lega.”
Even though I knew he was Italian, it was still hard to digest that someone who looked so local could speak so negatively about Arabs. Sporting a gold belt buckle and studded wrist watch, he trafficked in the same couture as my father’s former business partners from Nazareth.
I came to regret my assumptions, as I knew better, and it betrays some of the preconceptions that I carry with me as a white Jew, of partially Italian origin. Mizrahi Jews, after all, can be just as Islamophobic and anti-Oriental as Askhenazis. Why not the Italians?
Southern Italians, to be precise. Though my fellow passenger didn’t end up telling me where in Italy he’s from, it was obvious he was originally southern and was of mixed Mediterranean background. No doubt he had Arab, perhaps North African ancestors, like many Italians.
I didn’t go any further. Syphoned off to the Israeli passport holders line, I wished him well and lost myself in thought as I waited to get through to baggage claim. Italian politics had become such a parody of Israeli politics, it was impossible not to mistake the EU member state for the Holy Land.
At least as far as its ethnic politics appear to be evolving. Nothing reinforced that feeling more than one of the Lega’s most incendiary election campaign proposals: to repatriate 500,000 refugees currently calling the country home. Did the party ever think about historical precedents?
I, for one, could not help but think about the Palestinians. Up to 800,000 were exiled in the 1948 war, during the Nakba, so the 500K figure cuts uncomfortably close to home. Similarly, it is a proposal for ethnic transfer, which is all too common to Israeli rightists, who often speak of transferring the country’s Arab population as part of a final peace agreement.
Though Italy will in all likelihood never rid itself of such a large number of persons, the idea, in itself, has no regional corollaries since WWII. As a proposal, it is revolutionary, albeit revolting. The idea that a leading Italian party feels free to propose such, without fear of censure, speaks reams about how much Europe has changed. It would be an act of ethnic cleansing.
Indeed, there is no small hint of self-hatred to the worldview. That should not be surprising, given the state that Italy is in economically, and how much Italians bear responsibility for the crisis, not the EU or the euro, though there are indisputable problems with both entities.
That’s the power of scapegoating. Attacking refugees and migrants, because of their skin colour and religion, is an obvious tactic of displacement. When you don’t want to take responsibility, you blame someone else. That much is obvious. It’s the ethnic connection that’s not.
Few European countries feel the stigma of being in the south more than Italy. Not just its south, but Italy itself. Part of feeling southern is feeling Middle Eastern. It is inevitably associated with the Levant. That’s why Italy’s right is so Islamophobic. It’s their only way of feeling European.
In mistaking the Italian for an Arab, I unconsciously repeated this stereotype. However doing so in Israel, as a Jew, my error didn’t carry the same connotations. Rather, it helped open up what is so contradictory about the ways we understand being Italian.
That’s not to say that there aren’t clear cultural differences, because there are – a lot of them. But, when it comes to matters concerning race and citizenship, these two countries, situated at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, couldn’t seem any closer.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.