by Lisa Palmieri-Billig*
ROME – Beppe Grillo, a comedian as well as founder and leader of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), defended his use of the Holocaust, Auschwitz and Primo Levi as a launching pad for ferocious criticism against the president, prime minister and the entire Italian parliament.
Grillo’s blog published a photo of the infamous Arbeit macht frei (Work makes free) sign above the gates of Auschwitz, retouched to read “P2 macht frei.” P2 is a secretive – and, in the eyes of many, subversive – Italian Masonic lodge that counts many politicians among its members.
Grillo also paraphrased Primo Levi’s famous poem If This is a Man, renaming it “If This is a Country” and replacing Levi’s references to the Holocaust with references to the evils of Italy’s government.
The Italian Jewish community and opinion leaders of all origins were outraged.
Renzo Gattegna, president of the Italian Jewish community, said Grillo’s words “are an obscenity against which we cannot remain silent.
They provoke attitudes of anti-Semitism by straddling the popular discontent that increases during these times of crisis.”
Gattegna accused Grillo of “criminal desecration of the value of the memory of millions of innocent victims.”
Asked by the media whether he would apologize to the Jewish community, Grillo replied that he had nothing to apologize for, saying the community’s president was “stupid, ignorant, not very intelligent and harms the community,” adding that he should be replaced.
“When you touch the powerful, these things surface, these lobbies, lobbies of business. It is they who hide behind certain tragedies,” he said. “Who is behind [Carlo] De Benedetti [an Italian Jewish industrialist], who is behind the banks, behind the finance?” This financial power, Grillo added, “causes Holocausts once a year, once a month, once a day…. Rwanda, the gas in Syria… the financial and banking systems cause thousands of deaths every year.”
Grillo’s blog often indulges in conspiracy theories that obliquely refer to Jewish power without saying so by name. In the past he accused the Mossad of being behind MEMRI, a media watchdog group that, according to him, purposely “mistranslated” statements by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Grillo’s political and business partner, Gianroberto Casaleggio, a network strategist who edits the blog, has produced apocalyptic videos foreseeing a future of virtual “Internet democracy” by the survivors of a predictable global war. Blog commentators often indulge in anti-Semitic fantasies.
According to recent surveys, Grillo’s prospective voters have risen to 25 percent of the electorate. The rest of the country is concerned that his populist, anti-European Union rhetoric will win him seats in the May elections for the EU parliament and make M5S Italy’s second-largest political party, paralyzing a future government.
*Lisa Palmieri-Billig is the Jerusalem Post correspondent in Rome. This article appears on the Jerusalem Post