Reporter's Notebook

Far from Tel Aviv, news of attack clouds Netanyahu event with Italian Jewish leaders

Prime minister receives updates on terror shooting from aides during speech by community representative, but attempt to show unity crumbles in face of judicial overhaul criticism

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being informed of the terror attack in Tel Aviv while in a synagogue in Rome, March 9, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being informed of the terror attack in Tel Aviv while in a synagogue in Rome, March 9, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

ROME, Italy — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Rome took a grave turn on Thursday night, as news of a terror attack in Tel Aviv reached the Rome synagogue where he was speaking to dozens of prominent members of Italy’s Jewish communities.

The first stop on his weekend trip to Italy’s capital was supposed to be a rather warm and non-controversial affair in a decidedly low-stakes jaunt whose highlight is a 45-minute Friday lunch meeting with the country’s right-wing premier.

The synagogue visit was an opportunity for the prime minister to put out a call for Jewish unity, obliquely portraying the demonstrators blocking Israel’s streets to protest his government’s judicial overhaul plan as responsible for causing dangerous schisms in Israel.

That was indeed Netanyahu’s message as he spoke from the podium in Rome’s Spanish Synagogue, in the basement of the Tempio Maggiore. Addressing the packed sanctuary, Netanyahu repeated the refrain that “We are all brothers and sisters.”

He even publicly praised Isaac Herzog’s mediation proposals, minutes after the president had blasted the government’s legislative package as “oppressive” and urged that it be scrapped immediately.

Despite intense handwringing over the push to curb the judiciary from many in the Diaspora, the Roman crowd received Netanyahu’s remarks warmly, and the prime minister settled into his seat next to his wife Sara to listen to Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

As she began her long remarks in Italian, a buzz ran through the assembled journalists, as initial reports of the Tel Aviv shooting reached them. A Palestinian man had opened fire on people outside a crowded cafe in the heart of the city, wounding three, in what police soon established was a terror attack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Rome’s Spanish Synagogue on March 9, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

As details filtered in, attention immediately shifted to the prime minister, who initially seemed unaware of the incident. Soon his spokesman Topaz Luk rushed into the room and handed him a note. Netanyahu’s countenance changed.

Luk returned minutes later and began speaking to Netanyahu’s chief of staff Tzachi Braverman. Eventually, the prime minister signaled to Luk that he should write his messages down and make sure nothing was overheard.

The scene in the synagogue became somewhat surreal: Netanyahu and his aides were focused entirely on the news coming in from Tel Aviv, while the speaker and her translator continued the speech as if nothing had happened. The Israeli journalists loudly shared updates with each other on the attack as Di Segni recounted happy memories of visits to Israel and her thoughts on Zionism.

It appeared that Netanyahu also missed the broadside Di Segni launched.

She alleged that ministerial support for revenge attacks on Arabs and other minorities in the name of Jewish identity had made it “impossible” to be a proud Jew or Israeli. Di Segni appeared to refer to increasing settler violence in the West Bank amid a wave of Palestinian terror attacks

“The pride we feel toward Israeli institutions must continue. It cannot become a thing of the past,” Di Segni said.

Di Segni also criticized the government’s headlong push to pass legislation that would radically diminish the judiciary, decrying the rift it had torn in Israeli society and calling for compromise.

“Of course, the elected majority proposes and promotes laws, but government responsibility means awareness of the centrality of these changes, even in the long term,” she said.

With Di Segni still speaking, Netanyahu’s Military Secretary Avi Gil came into the sanctuary and took a seat next to his boss. He whispered into Netanyahu’s ear for some 30 seconds before heading back out. Netanyahu also gave instructions to Braverman, who also exited.

Further notes reached Netanyahu as Rome’s chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni took the podium. He acknowledged the attacks, then went into his prepared remarks on the weekly Torah portion.

After the rabbi finished, Netanyahu rose once again to the podium. In Hebrew, then in English, he offered his well-wishes to the victims, then sent out a message of resilience: “We will continue to build our nation, we will continue to deepen our roots, and to build our common future. As brothers and sisters.”

At that, the attendees broke into a stirring rendition of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Netanyahu joined in from the podium, then left the synagogue, heading for his hotel where he would take part in consultations with Israel’s security brass.

With the prime minister gone, the spirit of Jewish brotherhood dissipated immediately. Members of the community began shouting at Noemi Di Segni for expressing concern over the coalition’s handling of its judicial overhaul move, and other Israeli government criticisms, in her speech.

“Shame!” fumed a former head of Rome’s Jewish community. “You are splitting Israel.”

“Israel needs unity!” he yelled, before storming out of the sanctuary, leaving Italy’s Jewish leaders to argue among themselves.

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