Yachts against populism. Delivering refugees, 2018.

Sunk by a Sailboat

Salvini and the Open Arms

It’s not every day your father’s prized possession is at the top of news. But wherever I turned that hot August morning in Turin, from The Guardian to La Repubblica, to Rai 1, there it was.

The item in question was a vessel the European press dubbed the Open Arms (real name: Astral), a 30-metre long motorsailer, which, in my father’s twilight years, he’d bought to slowly ease into retirement on the Mediterranean.

Carrying 164 refugees aboard, the Open Arms had found itself in the eye of Italy’s refugee storm, as the then-Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, had refused to allow it to dock.

Salvini had held the refugees hostage at sea for three weeks, to try and get the rest of the EU to take them. His uncompromising stance both enthralled and horrified Italy.

I never anticipated a connection between Salvini and my father. But, there it was, a former pleasure yacht, that Elie had named Luis Ginillo, after the Jewish treasurer of the Spanish monarchy who financed Columbus’ discovery of the Americas.

Built in Sweden in 1970, the Ginillo was a tough sea-going vessel, that had traversed both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, under my father’s Israeli ownership.

The fact that it had become a refugee ship was a welcome surprise. As a member of the Haganah, the Jewish underground, Elie had smuggled Jews from Europe to Palestine, both before and after WWII, when he became head of the organisation’s ocean transport command.

Why not the reverse commute, in defiance of a similar politics of displacement, that would leave entire countries on the brink of death. If only my father would have been alive to have seen this.

Truth be told, I’d hated the Ginillo. Never a sailor, I’d spent my fair share of time hanging over the side on summer vacations, seasick, while my more nautical big brother, David, held me in place.

Thus, when my father finally sold the boat, in 2009, I was relieved. By the time Elie parted with it, it had grown too expensive to maintain. Better to put it in someone else’s hands, someone who ideally would see to its upkeep and use it.

That someone else turned out to be Livio Lo Monaco, a Milanese latex mattress mogul. A longtime fan of the yacht, he made repeated attempts to buy the Ginillo from my father before Elie finally gave in.

Out of sight, out of mind the boat was, until one day, in 2016, a year after my father had passed away, I received a call in Berlin, from La Sexta, a Spanish television news channel

They wanted to talk to me about the Ginillo, as well as the contact information for my stepmother, in Tel Aviv. I was surprised by the request and asked what was so important.

The Ginillo, I was told, had been donated to a Spanish NGO, Proactiva Open Arms, and would be used to rescue asylum seekers from the MENA region, fleeing the wars in Libya and Syria.

I had a brief conversation with someone from the program and tried to elaborate what was significant about the donation, given my father’s story. But the reporter wasn’t interested.

Even though I explained I’m a journalist, who covers refugee issues, they just wanted to reach my stepmom, who, as it turned out, refused to speak to him.

I let it go. Still, in mourning for my father, the news was its own positive ending. Elie was an extremely complex person and this would be his last story. I savoured the closure it provided.

It wasn’t until 14 August last year, when a Sicilian judge overruled Salvini’s banning of the Open Arms from Italian waters, that I’d thought about the Ginillo.

Sensing a similarity between the Open Arms’ hull and my father’s sailboat, I went through my email and found the original contact request from La Sexta. It was indeed the same ship.

Carrying its rescued migrants on board, the vessel had spent 21 days in rough seas attempting to dock in Lampedusa. Salvini had used the time well, to broadcast his inhumane agenda.

Watching the minister visit talk show after talk show, and publish resolution after resolution on his Facebook feed, it was as though he welcomed the Open Arms arrival. It was the perfect foil.

Seeking to bring his coalition government down, and reconstitute it under his leadership, my father’s former yacht’s timely appearance would allow Salvini to finish his trip to the top.

The Open Arms wasn’t so much a humanitarian vessel, he argued, but an expression of a “political objective to bring migrants to Italy”, Salvini continually repeated to the press.

Refugees, as Salvini told TG La7 in July 2018, are a tool of George Soros “to fill Italy and Europe with migrants” and turn “Italy [into] a giant refugee camp because he likes slaves.”

In denying the Open Arms access to Italian waters, the minister was defending Italian sovereignty against those seeking to undermine it: A Holocaust survivor and starving Africans.

The twin bugaboos are not without precedent in Europe’s political imaginary. All Matteo Salvini was doing was seizing upon the old stereotypes and rebooting them for his purposes.

Watching the media and politicians from centre-left parties attack Salvini from all sides, it wasn’t hard to imagine he could be disciplined. Still, his high poll ratings were scary.

But, Matteo Salvini lost the battle, and his place in government not long thereafter, booted out in favour of his centre-left rivals in the Partito Democratico, who took over from the Lega.

The Lega chief went back into the opposition and spent the entirety of the last year slowly going down in the polls. Now edging towards the PD, Salvini’s decline is entirely deserved.

Compounded by a failure to convincingly spin the Coronavirus crisis (he blamed it on migrants), and failures by his party to manage it (the virus’ epicentre, Lombardy is run by the Lega) it’s been a year of steady comeuppance.

There have been other losses. These are just some of the most pertinent failures, in terms of humiliation, for someone who so resolutely proclaims his competence on the backs of outsiders.

But the one that hurts the most, is the return of Open Arms, to Salvini’s metaphorical shore, a year after losing the battle to keep my father’s former yacht from docking in Lampedusa.

On 31 July, two weeks shy of the first anniversary of its arrival, the Italian senate moved to remove Salvini’s immunity. It was the second time this year it had been lifted.

But this time, it was to allow for the filing of kidnapping charges against the senator, for refusing to allow the Open Arms to disembark. His trial will commence in October, in Catania.

Elie and I had many conversations about Italian politics over the years. Particularly after my wife and I first moved to Milan, in 2009, and Salvini was an outspoken local politician.

Showing my father a story in the newspaper, about how he wanted to segregate local transport, and have migrants sit in the rear, Elie’s response was unusually harsh.

“I know who he is,” he said. “The Americans failed to eliminate his kind after the war. Just remember that if there weren’t any Arabs around, he’d just as well make you sit in back instead.”

Screenshot courtesy of Proactiva Open Arms. All rights reserved.