Losing Our Illusions

Italy After Gaza

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a middle-class, northern Italian household.

Jews to the far-right. Nizza Millefonti, Torino.

Antisemitism was unthinkable, and support for Israel, if not taken for granted, was the position civilised, liberal people had to assume.

I had a Catholic upbringing but with strong secular values, particularly about the division between church and state.

As children, both my parents suffered terribly under the German occupation.

They witnessed the horror of Nazi and Fascist policies, so they sympathised with Jews and Zionism.

As far back as I can remember, Leon Uris’s books – Exodus and Mila 18 – were prominent in my father’s library.

Conversely, there was little interest in or sympathy for the Arab side of the conflict.

During the Six-Day War, my father was ecstatic and told me he thought Nasser got what he deserved.

It wasn’t just our family. For most of our friends, Antisemitism and a lack of support for Israel were equal sins.

This attitude culminated in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, which made understanding the Palestinian cause impossible for people like us.

It seemed natural that people like us – educated liberals – could understand the Middle East conflict. Only a fascist would take another position.

From then on, things got more and more murky and confusing.

Contact with members of the Jewish community, middle-class Italians indistinguishable from us, who did not support Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, came as quite a shock.

Especially after the 1982 Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

With the relentless horrors of the Sukkot War in and around Gaza after 7 October, I now understand that our politics back then was part of a more significant, more troubling assumption about just violence.

Real violence, seen and endured, had been part of my parents’ experience during WWII. Discourse about violence was if not common, at least taken as a fact of life when I was a kid.

It’s not like violence was condoned or ignored. But there was violence and antifascist violence.

Antifascist violence was considered sad, even dreadful, but unavoidable.

The doomed resistance of the Warsaw ghetto fighters against their German tormentors was something to be cherished.

On the other hand, violence from “the others” (right-wingers, fascists) was something to be feared and despised, no matter what.

There were sides, but the discourse was not about violence but who was doing it.

I understood the limit of this approach the first time I read Primo Levi’s final and most disturbing book, The Drowned and The Saved, published shortly before he died in 1987.

Levi, who came from a similar background to mine, was no pacifist.

The Holocaust survivor stated many times that, despite his tragic experience with armed resistance, violence against fascism and racial oppression was justified.

His only novel, If Not Now, When? dealt with the adventures of a small band of Jewish resistance fighters on the Eastern Front during WWII,

Levi was understanding of their need to resort to brutality. But still, in the 1985 novel, he made it clear how easy it is for victims to become butchers.

A deeply pessimistic and sad book, The Drowned and the Saved expanded on this theme.

In a controversial interview about the Lebanon War Levi did with the leftist Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, he said, “Everyone is somebody’s Jew, and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.”

The statement created a storm in Italy and abroad. But by then, Primo Levi’s criticisms of Israel’s political leadership were unequivocal.

To be expected, they’ve been misunderstood and misrepresented, particularly in the Anglosphere.

An article in the New Yorker, for example, attributes Levi’s views to being “the results of the depression and mental illness”, which led to his alleged suicide.

This was nonsense, of course. Levi had been cautiously then openly critical of Israeli politics well before 1982 and explained his reasons for that.

Levi sensed that from the 1970s onwards, Israel’s leadership had been infiltrated by people who had close ties with fascist and racist tendencies and that he profoundly loathed fascism and racism in any form.

But as he stated in The Drowned and the Saved, his dislike for absolutes on violence went deeper than that.

In one famous passage, he stated:

It has obscenely said that there is a need for conflict that mankind cannot do without it. It has also been said that local conflicts, violence in the streets, factories, and stadiums, are an equivalent of generalised war and preserve us from it, as petit mal, the epileptic equivalent, preserves from grand mal. These are captious and suspect arguments. Satan (the devil) is not necessary, there is no need for wars or violence, under any circumstances.

In 2023, to use Levi’s words, violence has become obscenely commonplace and increasingly acceptable.

Reactive or pre-emptive violence is not only tolerable but justified and deemed necessary. Violence has become normalised by a brutal return to nationalist and identitarian ideology.

If violence is helpful for my goals, I can always justify it as self-defence of my tribe. Anyone who disagrees with me is an enemy and a traitor. That’s the logic.

Thus, if you don’t accept Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, you’re an Antisemite, even if you’re an Israeli Jew who lives in Tel Aviv and served in the IDF.

Primo Levi warned against this and why we must remember his dissent. The fact that he was bringing to bear moral lessons from Auschwitz makes them all that more valuable.

Postwar Italy was never a violence-loving society. Two world wars and the trauma of the 1943-1945 period made the average Italian suspicious of martial rhetoric.

But even Italy cannot escape the violent logic undergirding the Sukkot War.

Italian politics is fraught with calls to dehumanise an imaginary enemy, in this case, migrants and refugees, the Jews of today’s far-right.

That Italy is a military ally of Israel and led by a racist government with fascist origins makes the need to understand this even more necessary.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.