Op-Ed: Football and Fascism in Contemporary Europe
Lazio football club has been charged over the alleged anti-Semitic behavior of its supporters during last November’s controversial Europa League draw against Tottenham Hotspur, which has a strong following from the Jewish community in North London.
Uefa, which represents football associations in Europe, has opened disciplinary proceedings against Lazio in relation “to the alleged racist behaviour of Lazio supporters during the Italian club's 0-0 Uefa Europa League Group J draw against Tottenham Hotspur FC in Rome on 22 November 2012.”
The match between Lazio and Tottenham Hotspur (known as Spurs) was marred by anti-Semitic chanting and shouts of “Juden Tottenham.” A huge banner saying Free Palestine was also unfurled at the match.
The head of the Italian football federation, Giancarlo Abete, apologized in a letter to English Football Association chairman David Bernstein, blaming "mindless thugs" who hold "racist and anti-Semitic views.” The World Jewish Congress has called for Lazio to be suspended from European soccer if they fail to take action against anti-Semitic supporters.
The match followed a shocking outburst of violence perpetrated 24 hours earlier. According to reports, more than fifty masked thugs, armed with clubs, rocks, gas canisters and knives, launched themselves at Spurs supporters at the Drunken Ship pub in Rome, shouting “Jews.”
Rome police believe hard-core hooligans from Lazio and rival team AS Roma got together to attack the Spurs supporters. It is well known that a significant number of Lazio fans hold far-right sympathies. Italian sports blog Il Pallonaro stated that “from initial investigations carried out by the police,” it appears that the attackers wanted to hit the “Jewish origins of the club.”
Raffaele Ranucci, a senator in Italy’s Democratic Party, said the attack was laced with “anti-Semitic, racist and fascist connotations.” And Israeli ambassador to Italy Naor Gilon told reporters the attack on Spurs supporters, stemmed from "a new trend of anti-Semitism in Europe."
So is anti-Semitic football hooliganism confined to the sport or is it emblematic of a wider problem in European society?
According to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League, one in four Italians harbor strong anti-Semitic views, with four in ten believing that Jews have too much power in international financial markets. Against this backdrop, there is a lot of neo-Nazi activity in Italy. At the end of October, hundreds of far-right activists went to Mussolini’s birth town to mark the 90th anniversary of his so-called “march on Rome.” And in November, several hundred far-right activists from the Euro-Rebellion European Social Movement chanted slogans and carried symbols that are supposedly banned by Italy’s hate crimes and anti-fascist laws.
Italy is a founding member of the EU and is at the heart of European unification. But it seems the pan-European project, conceived in the years after World War Two with the express aim of submerging nationalist politics and realigning state-based economics, is on the rocks following the banking crisis and the possible collapse of the euro. A spate of reports show that across Europe the Far Right is exploiting the current unrest and playing to the lowest common denominator by blaming Europe’s ills on “foreigners” and “Jews.”
In Greece, which has suffered the most from the European financial crisis, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn won 7% of the vote in last May’s national election. The party now has the support of somewhere between ten and fourteen per cent of the Greek population. (The party boasts that two-thirds of its support comes from police officers.)
Golden Dawn is anti-Semitic, racist, extremely violent, and venerates Hitler and the Nazis. Unfortunately, the party is now also operating on Italian soil and plans to field candidates in Italy’s forthcoming general election. In response, Italian lawmaker Emanuele Fiano has launched an online petition in an attempt to ban the party. The petition begs Italians not to be indifferent to the “increasingly aggressive and arrogant recurrence of neo-fascist movements, neo-Nazis and racists in our country.”
Jewish leaders in Italy and elsewhere are seriously worried about the state of affairs in Europe. The last thing Europe’s Jewish population needs is a resurgent Far Right. The unending rhetorical assaults against Israel coming from the Left, plus the countless physical assaults perpetrated by Muslims against Jews, are bad enough. But a triangulation of hatred in which the Left, the Right and Islam are focusing their hatred against the Jewish people is the stuff of nightmares.
The European Jewish Congress is urging European governments to tackle the growing Far Right movement and anti-Semitism. For example, Vienna's Jewish community, which suffered terribly under Hitler, is experiencing a new wave of anti-Semitic abuse. Oskar Deutsch, who represents the interests of Vienna’s Jews, told the Kurier newspaper that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Austria has doubled in the past 12 months. But it’s not just Austria. Deutsch labelled Norway, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Greece and France as the EU countries where Jews are most under threat.
Meanwhile, Israel's chief rabbis are urging the EU to investigate the growing wave of European anti-Semitism. Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar have sent a letter to European Council President Van Rompuy, urging him to create a task force to analyze and solve what they call the “existence of a rooted problem.”
"The memories of the victims of the Holocaust in Europe have not abated,” state the rabbis. “One can no longer remain silent while Jewish blood is spilled. As a leader of the united European committee, we see you as the most senior official who can work to eradicate the lesion and restore the peace and quiet to European Jews."
Whether Van Rompuy takes the rabbis seriously remains to be seen. But in the meantime, let’s hope Europe’s soccer leadership comes down hard on clubs whose fans shout anti-Jewish and other racist slogans. Lazio will have to explain itself to Uefa officials at a disciplinary meeting on 24 January.
Fining Lazio is not enough. Suspending the club from European soccer, however, would be a minor but symbolic strike against anti-Semitism.