Italian Jewish leader assails Israeli policies in speech attended by Netanyahu

Noemi di Segni says alleged ministerial support for attacks on Arabs has made it ‘impossible’ to be a proud Jew; urges changes to judicial overhaul and death penalty bills

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sara Netanyahu, with Noemi Di Segni (left) and Rome's chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni (right), during the prime minister's visit to Rome, March 10, 2023 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sara Netanyahu, with Noemi Di Segni (left) and Rome's chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni (right), during the prime minister's visit to Rome, March 10, 2023 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

The head of an umbrella group for Italian Jews spoke out sharply Thursday against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, settler violence and societal disunity during a speech attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rome.

Among other things, Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, 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.

“The pride we feel toward Israeli institutions must continue. It cannot become a thing of the past,” Di Segni said during an event at the Spanish Synagogue beneath Rome’s Tempio Maggiore.

Di Segni appeared to refer to increasing settler violence in the West Bank amid a wave of Palestinian terror attacks. Last week, extremist settlers responded to a terror shooting in which two brothers were killed by rampaging through the Nablus-area town of Huwara, setting homes and cars on fire. One Palestinian was shot dead and several were badly hurt.

In an interview days after the riot, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he believed the town “needs to be wiped out.” On Wednesday, he apologized for the comments, but not before sparking international outrage and a protest by dozens of Israeli Air Force pilots.

It was not clear how much of Di Segni’s speech Netanyahu heard. As she spoke, aides informed the prime minister that an attack had taken place in Tel Aviv. Throughout her speech, Netanyahu appeared distracted as he received updates about the terrorist shooting, in which three people were injured, one critically.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being informed of the terror attack in Tel Aviv while in a synagogue in Rome, March 9, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

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.

Netanyahu had to be helicoptered to Ben Gurion Airport for his flight as protesters against the government’s plans conducted a nationwide “day of resistance,” creating huge traffic jams to prevent him from getting there.

Di Segni also urged “careful examination” of a bill under discussion in the Knesset that would allow courts to impose the death penalty on those responsible for deadly terror attacks.

“In the fight against fundamentalist hatred, the proposal on the death penalty touches the deepest chords of the reason for life,” she said, noting Italy’s post-World War Two abolition of capital punishment, and Talmudic discussions on the subject.

After Netanyahu departed the synagogue, some members of the community shouted at Noemi Di Segni for expressing concern over the judicial overhaul in her speech.

Israelis protest against the government’s controversial judicial reform bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“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.

Netanyahu’s trip faced setbacks when El Al was initially unable to find a crew to staff the prime minister’s flight — an issue blamed on crew shortages but that may have also been affected by growing public anger at the government as it pushed forward with efforts to weaken the justice system.

On Friday, Netanyahu is set to hold a meeting with Italian businesspeople, then later with his Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, during which he is expected to push Italy’s hard-right leader to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Meloni, whose right-wing coalition won national elections in September, has made several gestures reaching out to the Jewish community amid questions about her party, which has its roots in the post-World War II neo-fascist Italian Social Movement. She has repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism and met with members of the Jewish community.

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