ROME — Thousands of young people paraded peacefully through the streets of Rome and other Italian cities Monday to protest a spate of anti-Semitic incidents roiling a nation whose tolerant, modern democracy is founded on anti-fascism.
Demonstrators wore yellow stars emblazoned "Never Again." Non-Jewish marchers carried placards reading, "We are all Jews." In the largest of marches planned in 30 cities, Roman demonstrators chanted, "Watch out, Nazis, ignorance kills."
The marches drew up to 30,000 demonstrators, most of them students, in the heart of old Rome and about half that many in Milan by police count. The protests answered a week of tension and anti-Semitic vandalism in the Italian capital. They also marked the 54th anniversary of \o7 Kristallnacht\f7 (Crystal Night), when Nazi mobs in Germany shattered shop windows at the start of their pogrom against that country's Jews in 1938.
Most of Italy's 40,000 Jews live in Rome, where a Jewish community has kept its faith in sight of what is now Vatican City since long before the birth of Christ. During World War II, however, about 8,000 Jews were sent to Nazi death camps.
Now racial and religious tensions normally are less noticeable in Italy than in other major European countries. But anti-Semitic incidents have made headlines since last week, when the magazine Espresso published a poll in which 10% of respondents said Italy would be better off without Jews. Its accuracy is now in question. But about that same proportion of Italians vote for neo-fascists and other right-wing parties.
Last week, vandals in Rome scrawled yellow stars and signs saying "Out of Italy, Zionists" on shops owned by Jewish merchants in half a dozen middle-class neighborhoods. Police blamed groups of extreme right-wing youths who call themselves "Naziskins."
Jewish youths struck back, drawing immediate criticism from the same Italian officials and Jewish elders who lamented the anti-Semitism. About 100 militant young Jews ransacked the Rome headquarters of one of the tiny Naziskin groups Thursday night.
Since then, the Italian press has been riveted by scattered anti-Semitic gestures that would have drawn more modest attention a few weeks ago: an Israeli flag burned at a soccer match in Rome; anti-Jewish slogans painted on shops in the Alban hills south of Rome; 16 Jewish tombs among 150 graves vandalized at a Sicilian cemetery.
Renascent anti-Semitism has brought an avalanche of support for Italy's Jews. The president, the prime minister, the Pope, leaders of every major party and the big labor unions have all condemned the alarming echoes of fascism.