Gianfranco Fini, the president of the Italian Parliament, is facing a firestorm of controversy after saying that the May 1 burning of Israeli flags in Turin by far-left protesters was "much more serious" than the savage beating of a 29-year-old that same day in Verona by a neo-Nazi gang. The victim of the beating, Nicola Tommasoli, died late Monday after several days in a coma. Five young fans of the Verona soccer team have been arrested for the murder.
Comparing two such crimes on a television talk show would be fraught with trouble for anyone, but perhaps for no one as much as Fini, 56, whose rise from leader of a small post-fascist party to public respectability has been one of the most stunning political transformations in postwar European history.
To fulfill his big ambitions, Fini understood in the early 1990s that he had to distance himself from his past. Eventually, he came to believe that the shortest path from marginal Mussolini nostalgic to mainstream political power was unwavering support for the state of Israel. The decisive moment came when Fini traveled to Israel in November 2003, declaring his affection for the Jewish state and his "shame" for Italy's racial laws under fascism. The following year, Silvio Berlusconi made him foreign minister, where the longtime leader of the National Alliance party stood out amongst his European partners for his pro-Israel policy.
With Berlusconi's return to power last month, and Fini's own protégé, Gianni Alemanno sweeping to victory in the race for Rome Mayor, Fini was sworn in last week at the helm of the Italian Parliament, hoping his extremist past was definitively behind him. But now, Fini is again on the spot over fascism, a victim of his own zeal to defend Israel.
Fini's comments were quickly criticized by his center-left opponents. Former Social Affairs Minister Paolo Ferrero called them "incredible and unworthy of someone holding such an important institutional role." Having earlier criticized the flag burning in his city, Turin Mayor Sergio Chiamparino said Fini's "ranking of ignoble acts" was a serious mistake. "You end up justifying what cannot be justified."
Fini tried to explain himself by noting that he had prefaced his remarks by stating his "zero tolerance" for the neo-Nazi violence, but argued that the attack which apparently began when the gang demanded Tommasoli's pack of cigarettes was non-ideological in nature. He said the burning of Israeli flags, on the other hand, was evidence that "the radical left is a widespread political movement that gives life to political-religious prejudices."
But Fini and his allies, who have succeeded over the past decade in getting many Italians to forgive their radical right pasts, may still not quite get it. During Alemanno's ultimately successful run for mayor, the candidate responded to questions about certain allies who still proudly tout their fascist origins by noting that they had "visited Israel before Fini."
But having "Israel" stamped in your passport and publicly condemning anti-Semitism cannot alone remove lingering doubts about extremist tendencies. Mussolini's fascist ideology was all-encompassing, nationalistic and occasionally deadly well before he adopted racial and anti-Semitic laws following Hitler's example. After his victory in Rome, Alemanno said all the right things about bringing the city together, but several of his supporters cheering him at the steps of city hall flashed the fascist Roman salute. He has made public safety his top issue in a city that statistics suggest is relatively safe, vowing to arm municipal police and close down makeshift encampments of Roma immigrants (more commonly referred to as gypsies). He has even indicated he wants fewer foreign movies at Rome's annual film festival.
Ultimately, the issue that Europe's extreme right is focused on now is not Israel or Jews, but immigrants. During Berlusconi's last government, Fini was coauthor with rightist Northern League ally Umberto Bossi of a series of severe anti-immigration measures, including instant deportations and requirements that foreigners must have a fixed job to remain in the country. The next time fascist nostalgics or neo-Nazis attack a defenseless man on the street, there is a high probability it will be an immigrant. Such assaults in the past have indeed been aimed at immigrants. And that too is part of Mussolini's legacy.