ROME — An 89-year-old Italian woman who survived the Holocaust has been placed under police protection after withstanding a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse online.
Liliana Segre, who was sent to Auschwitz at the age of 13 and is a senator for life in the Italian Parliament, became a target after she proposed establishing a commission to combat intolerance, racism, anti-Semitism and hate speech.
The proposal was approved by the Senate on Oct. 31, but all 98 senators from Italy's right-wing coalition abstained from voting and did not stand up for or applaud Segre like the rest of the Senate.
“Social media is full of racist and anti-Semitic messages, so I am not surprised anonymous people are attacking Mrs. Segre," said historian Anna Foa. "What really surprised me and worries me is the stand by right-wing politicians against an old woman who survived the Holocaust as a child.”
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
After the vote, Segre has reported receiving 200 hate messaged per day on social media. On Thursday, Italian authorities considered the threats against her to be serious enough to assign the senator two policemen to escort and protect her at all times.
“This is a turning point in a process of institutionalization of racism and anti-Semitism that started two years ago when Matteo Salvini came into power,” said Foa, referring to the right-wing politician whose nationalist League party is Parliament's biggest opposition force. “The fact that he has been able to use freely racist remarks, without condemnation nor regret, has led to people and political parties to speak out openly and violently about things they wouldn’t dare say in the past.”
Salvini, who was Interior Minister until August, has become famous for his hard-line stance on immigration. Despite being branded a racist by his detractors, polls show that the League has become the most popular party in Italy.
Ruth Dureghello, the president of Rome's Jewish community, said the attacks against Segre are part of a worrying trend.
“We have been lamenting a worsening in the climate of hatred for a while now, but when this happens in Parliament, and on top of it against a woman who survived the brutality of the Shoah, it’s shocking,” Dureghello said.
“We have seen anti-Semitic banners in stadiums, writing on walls, and organised gatherings in Predappio, where Benito Mussolini is buried. We in the Jewish community are worried, but not resigned. We have the antibodies against this kind of discrimination, and we know how to recognize the warning signs," she added. "This is not a problem only for Jews. Anti-Semitism is usually of a much wider tendency to discriminate minorities, including foreigners, Muslims, or homosexuals.”
Asked about Segre’s ordeal, Salvini on Thursday told Italian media: “I also receive threats. Threats, whether they are against Segre or Salvini, are unacceptable.”
Salvini was widely criticized for the comparison.
Claudio Lavanga is Rome-based producer and correspondent for NBC News.