The wood-burning oven set into a corner of the Italian ambassador’s garden in Ramat Gan glowed hot, ready to produce hundreds of crispy pizzas to feed over 1,400 guests.
The reception, organized every year by Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talò to celebrate the Festa della Repubblica (Day of the Republic), is always a hit — Italian, Israeli, and dual Italian-Israeli citizens from all over the country come to enjoy the best that Italy has to offer: pizza, wines, and refreshing gelato artigianale, or artisanal ice cream.
Guests at the June 2 event are eager to celebrate not only the Italian national holiday, but also the strong bond between Italy and Israel. Indeed, as was made clear by all authorities speaking from the podium, including Israel’s Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz, relations between the two states have never been stronger.
To that end, the Italian representatives decided to mark the celebration with a special main course: their absolute rejection and condemnation of what Israel deems one of the most threatening phenomena the country is currently facing, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
“In these troubled times, I see bad feelings toward Israel rising in many European countries. Italy is against BDS, which is wrong in principle and wrong in practice,” said Italian Minister of Education, Universities, and Research Stefania Giannini, delivering her speech at the reception. Giannini is a member of the center-left Democratic Party.
Since taking office in 2014, Giannini has visited Israel three times. On this current visit she brought along a delegation from the Conference of Italian Universities Rectors (CRUI) who took part in several academic conferences in an initiative that, in a conversation with The Times of Israel, the minister described as the “most concrete and effective response to BDS.”
“Italy is the only country which has affirmed its position regarding BDS in such a clear and unambiguous way,” Giannini said. “When 300 scholars signed a petition to boycott Israel, the Conference of Italian University Rectors and the scientific community reacted strongly and clearly, unlike what happens in other countries.”
‘Going against Israel means going against ourselves, because Israel is part of our identity’
“I think that the best way to state the Italian view on the matter is to repeat what Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said speaking at the Knesset last year: that going against Israel means going against ourselves, because Israel is part of our identity,” she continued.
The minister noted that, from her Western perspective, on the one hand Israel seems to be in a calmer situation than 10 years ago, but on the other hand there are other alarming issues, including BDS.
“Ten years ago, it was impossible to imagine departments within American universities advocating for the boycott of Israel,” she noted. “Maybe Israel’s enemies are less evident than in the past, but the growth of a widespread sentiment against Israel is not a good sign.”
Echoing the minister’s words regarding BDS was the rector of the Polytechnic of Turin, Marco Gilli.
At the end of 2015, his university signed a cooperation agreement with the Technion in Haifa, which prompted the latest call to boycott Israel signed by 300 scholars.
“I would like to stress that my school has over 800 professors, and only one or two of them actually signed the appeal. If we consider Italy overall, only 100 out of 50,000 professors supported it,” Gilli said.
“Yet, however marginal it may have been, we have strenuously opposed the appeal for an ethical reason: scientific and technological research must not know any barrier,” Gilli told The Times of Israel at the reception. “To prevent a university from cooperating with any other university in the world is absurd and wrong, even more so with a university such as the Technion, which is multicultural and multi-ethnic.”
The rector emphasized how the Polytechnic of Turin has recently opened an office of technological transfer to patent and market the results of the university’s research modeled on the one of the Technion.
“The results so far are pretty good,” he said.
The year 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of the signature of the Italian-Israeli Agreement on Scientific, Technological and Industrial Collaboration. Minister Giannini stressed how Israel is a very important partner for Italy in scientific research and innovation, especially in fields such as nanotechnology, robotics, and start-ups, a sector “that is well-advanced in this country, and not so much in Italy.”
Speaking at a conference celebrating the anniversary of the agreement at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, Fabio Rugge, rector of the University of Pavia and delegate to international relations for the CRUI reinforced the commitment.
‘Ten years ago, it was impossible to imagine departments within American universities advocating for the boycott of Israel’
“[During our visit] we met men and women engaged in the very same endeavor we are engaged in,” Rugge said. “We have the same enthusiasm, the same devotion to the cause of scientific research, the same confidence that our work can serve the well-being and, indeed, the happiness of the entire world.
“Nothing will separate us, against our will, from such men and women, whether they live in Israel or in any other country. Universities were born before the nation states; they have reasons that overcome any raison d’état,” said Rugge.
Minister Giannini was accompanied by the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Renzo Gattegna. During her visit to Israel, she also met her Israeli counterparts Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Science Minister Ofir Akunis.
She visited Ben-Gurion University as well as the grave of David Ben-Gurion himself, and the Jewish-Arab School Hagar in Beersheba. She also presented the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud translated into Italian to President of Israel Reuven Rivlin.
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Giannini emphasized the importance of the project of translating the Talmud.
“It is the first example of this kind of research which employs technologies especially developed for this purpose, and it is completely publicly funded,” Giannini stressed, adding that in the last budget vote, the Italian government allocated a new grant of one million euros to the project, which brings the budget up to the five million allocated five years ago.
A copy of the tractate was also donated to the emeritus president of Israel Shimon Peres, during a meeting on the sidelines of the conference held at the Peres Center for Peace.