ROME – Comic Beppe Grillo's populist tirades were seen as a benign outlet for popular anger in the days his protest movement was a sideshow in Italian politics. Now that he's one of Italy's most powerful figures, his views are coming under greater scrutiny — and a history of anti-Semitic statements has started to raise concern outside the country.
Grillo's 5-Star Movement captured a quarter of the votes in last month's national elections, making him the kingmaker in a ballot that left none of the mainstream parties in control of Parliament. Given that political clout, foreign observers have expressed alarm over comments Grillo has made about a Jewish lobby controlling information, about Jewish Hollywood producers out to get actor Mel Gibson and about how he finds Israel "frightening."
The statements have yet to create much of a stir in Italy itself, where anti-Jewish and other racial slurs can find a surprisingly high level of tolerance. But anti-defamation advocates say Grillo must now be held to account due to his new position of power.
"As an entertainer, he was only accountable to his public. Now, he's accountable to all of the people of Italy and his antics and ravings about Jews and Israel become a much more serious concern," said Michael Salberg, New York-based director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
"The expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment by someone who attracted nearly 25 percent of the vote is a matter of concern," Salberg said, while adding there was no indication that Grillo's popularity with voters was tied to anti-Semitism.
Last year, in an interview with Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot, Grillo claimed that a Jewish lobby controls all the information Europeans learn about Israel and the Palestinian territories. The anti-Semitic thread winds back years, with an entry Grillo made in his much-followed blog shortly after Gibson made derogatory comments about Jews during his arrest for drunken driving in 2006.
"The Hollywood producers of Jewish origin and even the others if there are any," Grillo railed, were threatening Gibson's career. If the actor "had said ...'Israel could cause the outbreak of the Third World War' perhaps they would have reopened Alcatraz just for him and then thrown away the keys," Grillo wrote.
Giving his own views, Grillo added: "Israel is frightening. Its behavior is irresponsible. There! I've said it! And I'm not even drunk."
A cell phone number for Grillo was no longer in service, and several calls to some of his movement's activists went unanswered. So did an emailed request for comment sent to a Movement member serving as a communications liaison to Grillo.
France's leading Jewish group, CRIF, published an essay last week in which author Yohann Taieb describes Grillo as "populist, controversial, racist, profoundly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist." Taieb expressed indignation that "neither the Italian political class nor Italian public opinion reacted to his anti-Semitic pronouncements."
So far Italian Jewish leaders have made no public comment on Grill's anti-Jewish, anti-Israel remarks. Jews form a tiny minority among Italy's predominantly Roman Catholic population.
Menachem Gantz, the Israeli journalist who conducted the 2012 Yedioth Ahronot interview of Grillo, said his quick rise and his strong election showing are "scary" and "dangerous" for Italy.
"The concern is not for the relationship between Israel and Italy, or for the Jews," Gantz said in a telephone interview in Rome, where he is based. "The concern is for Italy."
Grillo cannot become premier because of a manslaughter conviction for a 1981 auto accident that left three dead. He has also ruled himself out from being a lawmaker because of the conviction.
A Rome-based American journalist and a longtime observer of Italian society, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, also noted a strong racist and anti-Semitic streak among some of Grillo's supporters. She wrote this month for the web site of AJC, a worldwide Jewish advocacy organization, that the 5-Star Movement has "not yet taken an open stand against expressions of racism and anti-Semitism, regarding the content of his bloggers."
Palmieri-Billig conceded that Grillo has said that in the past he has asked the justice minister to take action against the "phenomenon of racism and Holocaust denial" embraced by many of his blog's followers. But, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, she said Grillo "should be challenged to define" his exact positions on anti-Semitism, and pressed about foreign policy as well.
"I would like him to say something about these inferences of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel (remarks)," she said.
With unemployment climbing, nearly daily revelations of political corruption and austerity measures eating away at family income, foreign policy got virtually no airing in the campaign.
The concerns being raised abroad about Grillo's anti-Semitic comments have gotten scant attention in the mainstream media.
Turin daily La Stampa became one of the few newspapers to examine the issue with an article this week headlined "American Jews in alarm: anti-Semites among the 5-Star" supporters. It cited the conservative publication American Thinker's warning that "dangerous times" lie ahead for Europe if a "Clown hates the Jews" — a reference to Grillo.
Asked why Italian society seems unperturbed by suspicions of anti-Semitism swirling about Grillo, Palmieri-Billig replied that it might be because "there is a section of Italian public opinion that follows this line (of) stereotypical conditioning."
Grillo's 5-Star lawmakers are all neophytes to politics, with such fresh faces as a 25-year-old unemployed Neapolitan woman who studied theater. By a show of hands, the Movement's lawmakers selected as their whip for the Chamber of Deputies a young Roman woman who in a blog posting a few weeks ago praised Benito Mussolini's fascist rule, saying it showed a "very high sense of state and protection for families."
"The whip praises 'good' fascism,'" Rome daily La Repubblica wrote in a headline on Tuesday. That same day, the whip, Roberta Lombardi, contended that her words about fascism were taken out of "historical context."
Only a few days after that January posting, Berlusconi, trying for a comeback in the election, drew outrage when he said on the sidelines of a Holocaust commemoration ceremony that, apart for Mussolini's anti-Jewish laws, the dictator accomplished "good things."
"There has been a revival of legitimization of neo-fascist ideas," said Palmieri-Billig. "And there's been a lessening of the taboo of anti-Semitism and racism. "
Reporter Verena Dobnik contributed from New York.