As It Happens

Italian senator and Holocaust survivor 'will not give up' because of threats: colleague

Holocaust survivor and Italian senator-for-life, Liliana Segre, has been given a police escort after receiving anti-Semitic messages and threats.

Liliana Segre, 89, under police protection after promoting a commission to fight racism

Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre has been the target of anti-Semitic threats after publicly promoting a commission against racism. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

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Liliana Segre never thought she would need police protection in her own country, says her friend and colleague Emma Bonino.

Segre, 89, was barely a teenager when she was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Her father died, but Segre survived the Holocaust. And today, she is a senator for life in Italy. 

Since being appointed to that Segre has been the subject of anti-Semitic messages. Her son told the New York Times that some have wished for her death.

After she promoted the creation of an anti-racism commission, things have escalated so much that officials have assigned her police protection in public spaces. 

Sen. Bonino spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about her colleague's plight. Here is part of their conversation.

What has Liliana Segre told you about how she feels now that she has a security detail guarding her?

She simply said, publicly by the way, that she never, never imagined to be put under escort in her own country.

So she's at the same time surprised, reassured also. But also in a very fighting mood. So I'm sure she will not give up.

But definitely what has happened, both in the Senate and then in the social ... have affected her very much.

Senator Bonino says there is a 'cultural mood' in Italy right now, which is 'bluntly racist.' (Domenico Stinellis/The Associated Press)

Why do you think that now the authorities have had to take the next step, which is to actually protect her?

I think that it's due to the fact that she went public promoting this special commission on racism.

The debate in the Senate was really a shame. And I think that she was known to small group of us, but she has become a public figure more recently.

And so the hate speech and the insults ... have increased exponentially in the last months.

That's why the minister of interior, after a meeting, decided that starting today, [officers] from Milan provincial forces will provide an armed escort to Liliana Segre.

That must mean that it's not just that these are horrible things being said to her — but there are credible physical threats to her safety. Is that what we're to understand?

Yes, that is what it does mean to put under an escort. I was put under escort years ago and it lasted a few years. It's not a good situation.

Can you tell us about this commission that Liliana Segre is spearheading?

I hope she will be elected the chairperson of this committee. The committee has a mission of hearings, collecting proof ... but it doesn't have any legislative power.

And what the commission can do ... [is] provide a final report on suggestions how to change, what to change, what are the measures to make a better coexistence in Italy.

And so, [it's] being understood, or misunderstood, by the right-[wing] political parties who abstained and didn't uphold the path of the commission.

But I think it was a political gesture much more than a gesture regarding the real power of the commission.

Thousands of protesters gather in Rome for a so-called 'Italian Pride' rally, which brings together the right-wing League of Matteo Salvini, the far-right Brothers of Italy of Giorgia Meloni and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

You mentioned that there were right-wing parties who abstained, who wouldn't support this commission. But these aren't fringe parties, are they? This is the party of [former prime minister] Silvio Berlusconi. This is the party of [opposition leader] Matteo Salvini. There are others as well. And they abstained, because why? What was the reason for not voting to support this commission?

They claimed that the commission could be, let's say, distorted.

I also think now they do apologize and I heard today that some leaders of the right coalition said today we will vote Liliana Sager as chairperson of this commission. 

But I think that they realize that they have gone too far.

Bonino says she hopes her colleague 'will be as courageous as always to stand firm' amid ongoing threats to her safety. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

One of the comments by Mr. Salvini is that he believed that this commission that would attempt to stop hate speech would actually curtail freedom of speech and the right to say "Italians first." What's your response to that?

That is just ridiculous. It's enough to read the motion that we approved. Really, it's ... fake news.

I don't know why people speak without reading what is exactly the text of the motion. And by the way, it's important in any case to have such a culture commission because the elements and incidents over racism are very [widespread] in Italy. 

There is a cultural mood, which is not only anti-Semitic on the Jews, but bluntly racist.

So that's why it's such an importance to have such a committee and I hope that Liliana will be as courageous as always to stand firm.

Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.