column

Elly Schlein’s Etruscan nose

There is a great deal to unpack here, most obviously the newly elected politician’s determination to deny that she is Jewish in the same breath as condemning antisemitism.

Elly Schlein in Turin, Italy, February 2023. Credit: Mike Dotta/Shutterstock.
Elly Schlein in Turin, Italy, February 2023. Credit: Mike Dotta/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

“Then the Lord God said to Moses/All the Jews shall have long noses.”

This spiteful playground barb has been leveled at Jews in one form or another for centuries. While antisemitism typically involves defamatory claims about Jewish behavior—dual loyalty, financial domination and similar themes—the hatred has also extended to the supposed Jewish physiognomy, with its attendant stereotypes of enormous, hooked noses, high-pitched, excitable voices and stunted, corpulent bodies.

Many of the caricatures of Jews distributed by the Nazis accentuated these supposed features. Like the other tropes about Jewish financial and political power, those that trade on Jewish physical ugliness have persisted throughout the postwar era. They are dangerous for the same reason that other expressions of antisemitism are dangerous, in that they transmit not just a message of sinister Jewish otherness but the notion that Jews are somehow less than human. And for the Nazis, of course, the claim that Jews were subhuman, untermenschen, was the key to their ideology.

Yet in keeping with the trajectory of postwar antisemitism, assertions about Jews that many hoped had been junked with the defeat of the Nazis have persisted, turning up in the most unexpected places.

Like a press conference given in early February by a woman who, last week, was elected to lead the Democratic Party (PD), Italy’s main center-left opposition.

Elly Schlein is a 37-year-old U.S.-Italian dual national whose mother is Italian and whose father is an American Jew. In 2008 and 2012, Schlein worked as a volunteer in Chicago for former President Barack Obama’s election campaigns. In 2013, she moved to Italy, joining forces with a far-left insurgent group that sought to unseat the party’s centrist leadership. Last Sunday, they succeeded, when Schlein unexpectedly defeated her establishment rival Stefano Bonaccini with 54% of the vote.

Given that Italy is governed by an ultranationalist party, the Brothers of Italy (FdI), it is reasonable to assume that a country whose recent history neatly illustrates the perils of polarization is fated to continue along this path with Schlein’s election. The most obvious parallel for the PD is the five years that the British Labour Party spent under its far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected in 2015 and whose term came to an ignominious end with Labour’s overwhelming defeat in the 2020 general election.

What marked out the Corbyn period were the serial accusations of antisemitism in Labour’s ranks on a near-daily basis. Whether Schlein will force a similar set of obsessions upon the PD is still an open question, but the portents are worrying.

Which brings me back to that press conference. Schlein was asked about the disgraceful abuse she had received online, targeting her because she has a female partner, because she grew up in an affluent home and because her father is Jewish—and therefore the source of her long, arched nose.

Schlein began her remarks by denouncing the “army of haters … who start from my nose and my surname to express vile antisemitic sentiments.” But, she went on, “as proud as I am of the Jewish side of my paternal family, I am not Jewish, because as you know, that is passed down through the matrilineal line.”

Then she turned to the insults that invoked her nose. “But the craziest thing is the debate over my nose,” she told the assembled reporters. “Why is it not a ‘Schlein Jewish nose’ that I inherited from my father, as racists write on the web? It’s a typically Etruscan nose.”

There is a great deal to unpack here, most obviously Schlein’s determination to deny that she is Jewish in the same breath as condemning antisemitism.

Technically, of course, she is correct: In terms of halachah, Jewish religious law, she is not Jewish. But under the definition of a Jew outlined in the infamous Nazi racial laws, she most certainly is—and would be entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Israeli Law of Return as a consequence.

Given that the context of this discussion was antisemitic incitement and not an academic seminar on Jewish identity, the Nazi definition was certainly more pertinent than the halachic one. Had she wanted to condemn the antisemites without distancing herself from her Jewish origins, Schlein might have said: “While I’m not considered Jewish under religious law because my mother is a non-Jew, as far as the antisemites are concerned, I am very much a Jew, and equally a victim of the prejudice and bigotry that Jews have suffered throughout history.” Those words, or something similar, would have had the benefit of being both truthful and a resounding declaration of solidarity with the victims of antisemitism.

Yet the phrasing of Schlein’s objections suggested that the antisemitic barbs she faced didn’t really make sense because she’s not Jewish after all, and that’s what bothered her. The implication here is that these would be more understandable if they were directed at an individual with two Jewish parents.

Then there is the description of her nose as “Etruscan.” The Etruscans were an impressive civilization that dominated the northern Italian peninsula prior to the Roman Empire. Among their contributions that have survived was the “fasces,” a bundle of rods wrapped around an axe that became a Roman symbol and, much later on, a fascist one. The Etruscans were also known for their ornate sculptures, depicting facial features with almond-shaped eyes and pronounced noses.

Hence the visual evidence for Schlein’s “Etruscan nose” claim.

But there is something more sinister here at work; essentially, she is saying that while she does indeed possess a large nose, it’s an organically Italian one, rather than a foreign Jewish one. What is implicit here is not a protest against antisemitism but a complaint about being lumped in with Jews.

That is why Schlein’s past comments about Israel—while fairly standard from someone on the European left—give rise to an extra layer of concern. The core challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she insists, is its “asymmetrical” nature, with the Israelis holding all the power and the Palestinians none. As a result, she declared in a May 2021 statement during the 11-day conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, the Jewish state is guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” and the world community must insist on a solution based upon “the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people by ending Israel’s illegal settlements and occupation.”

To hear these words from a leading politician who also believes that there is such a thing as a “Jewish nose” is unsettling, to put it mildly. If Schlein doesn’t want to get labeled as an Italian Jeremy Corbyn—and perhaps she does—then she needs to reverse course now.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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