Interview met Fiamma Nirenstein door Manfred Gerstenfeld


“It is not by chance that the radical shift in the European Union’s stance toward Israel occurred in a declaration at a 1980 conference in an Italian city, Venice. It was issued when the PLO still explicitly said that it wanted to destroy Israel. Nevertheless, the Venice Declaration demanded the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Fiamma Nirenstein is since 2008 a parliamentarian for Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom movement. Before she was a correspondent and columnist for the Italian daily Il Giornale and the weekly Panorama. She has written or edited many books and anthologies, most of which deal with Israel and the Middle East.

Nirenstein remarks: “Nineteen eighty-two witnessed another defining moment in the history of the Italian Left’s attitude toward Israel. On 9 October, a group of Palestinian and other Arab terrorists shot at and bombed the main synagogue in Rome, killing one-year-old Stefano Tach and wounding thirty-five others. The Jewish community refused to allow participation in the funeral to the anti-Israeli politicians who had inflamed the atmosphere. President Sandro Pertini, a socialist who had also condemned Israel, embracing the Palestinian cause, needed the intervention of Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini of the small Republican Party to be permitted to attend. Spadolini had earlier refused to receive Yasser Arafat when he was in Rome.”

Israel: An Instrument to Build Political Alliances

Nirenstein observes: “However surprising this may be, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been far from a marginal issue in Italian politics. A few decades ago the Italian Left started to use the conflict as an instrument to build domestic political alliances. The Communist Party, which in the 1990s reconstructed itself as Democrats of the Left (DS) with which most former communists affiliated, used its criticism of Israel as an opportunity for bridge building with the now-defunct Christian Democrats and with the Catholic pro-Third World movements. Until the early 1990s, communists and Catholics were Italy’s largest forces.

“For decades after World War II there was intense competition in Italy between the two major currents of the Left, the communists (PCI) and the much smaller Socialist Party (PSI). Pietro Nenni, who was the PSI’s leader and died in 1980, consistently took pro-Israeli positions. He saw in Golda Meir and her colleagues not only fellow socialists but also pioneers of socialism in a nonsocialist region.

“Bettino Craxi, who led the nowadays defunct PSI from 1976 to 1993, had been Nenni’s pupil and took over his party faction. Craxi became the most important socialist personality in the post-Nenni period. Over the years he distanced himself from the party’s traditional coalition with the communists and joined
a number of coalition governments with the Christian Democrats.

“These coalitions created a need for Craxi to show that he still belonged to the Left. To rebuild his credibility as a defender of human rights he formed an alliance with Arafat. To some extent the Palestinian terrorist leader became Craxi’s left-wing fig leaf.

“Over the past decade the Italian Left, which has been losing strength, has started to seek alliances with pacifist and other extreme left-wing movements. This coalition was partly constructed at the expense of Israel.”

A Confused Reality

Italian politics has been very confused over the past decades, including attitudes toward the Jews and Israel. Nirenstein notes that portraying the Italian political and also intellectual reality requires piecing together many fragments. “One episode that tells much about the origins of this confusion occurred when the Einaudi publishing house rejected the manuscript of Primo Levi’s book
If This Is a Man, which later became famous.

“This was an editorial decision by Natalia Ginzburg, another left-wing Jewish writer. She considered that Levi was giving an overly Jewish character to the battle between good and evil in the concentration camps. One of Ginzburg’s books,
Lessico Familiare, tells the history of a wealthy, Jewish, bourgeois family in Turin in the years before the racist laws that began the Jews’ persecution by Mussolini’s fascist regime.

“Ginzburg describes the family in a light and nondramatic way, as if Jewish identity is something minor and optional. Being a Jew, for her, is a bridge to a much more important larger identity, that of resistance to fascism. The linkage between the two was obvious at a time when the fascists promulgated racial laws. Ginzburg’s book, which totally denied Judaism’s essence, became an Italian literary icon.”

Criminalizing Israel

“Yet Primo Levi, who committed suicide in 1987, and Ginzburg found themselves together in criminalizing Israel. Ginzburg made the often-quoted statement: ‘To the sunburnt sabra, the Hebrew soldier with the weapons in his hand, I prefer the bent Jew who studies the Bible, the fragile, weak, and sick Jew.’

“Such remarks were typical for many Italian Jewish postwar intellectuals. Italian Jewry was looking for a home in the society. The Italian fascists’ complicity with the Holocaust meant this could only be found on the Left. In 1988 Ginzburg went so far as to define Israel as a fascist state in the communist daily

“Levi was more ambivalent. On many occasions he showed a great passion for Israel. His book La Tregua tells how, at the end of the Holocaust, its group of Jewish protagonists leaves for Israel.”

The Catholic Church

In one of her books Nirenstein notes that Italian Jewry is the oldest Diaspora community and that some even claim the Jews are the only true remaining descendants of ancient Rome. This Jewry’s history has had many glorious moments. Yet Nirenstein remarks, “It has one vice that sometimes has shown itself to be fatal: its desire to remain in the mainstream.”

She observes: “After the war the Jews did not have much choice regarding their political alliances. Italy has never fully apologized for its anti-Semitic racist laws. It is more correct to say that Italy has psychologically excised these from its conscience. It is a Catholic country, which means it gives itself absolution for its sins. The country’s historiography was partly changed by the historian Renzo De Felice. He portrayed fascism as something very different from National Socialism, as a kind of elite ideology. This is false, even if the Italians behaved less cruelly than the Germans and Hitler was much worse than Mussolini.

“Yet De Felice well demonstrates that fascism was a mass movement, built with a large Catholic population that widely supported anti-Semitism. The Italians still want to proclaim Pope Pius XII to be holy despite his misbehavior during the war. This fits the tendency of the Catholic mentality, historiography, tradition, and population always to absolve itself. These people are willing to consider the Nazis as criminals but not to think deeply about their own conduct.

The Polish Pope John Paul II initiated a very different attitude toward Israel and visited the country. On the other hand, he had a penchant for pacifism and other distorted ideas, such as failing to recognize how evil terrorism is.

“The present German Pope Benedict XVI realizes that the Catholic Church is under worldwide siege by Islam. The Pope knows he has to address this struggle. It is also quite possible that deep in his heart he thinks he is obligated to convert all Jews.”

Until 1967

Nirenstein explains that: “Until the Six Day War of 1967, the Italian Jews’ identification with the country’s Left was not problematic. Israel was perceived as a socialist country with emphasis on the myth of the kibbutz’s importance. This was reinforced by the deep impact of the Holocaust. This mindset well suited the communists as the Soviet Union could be represented as the great victory of good over evil.

There were other factors that reinforced this attitude. Palmiro Togliatti, the postwar leader of the Italian Communist Party, saw Israel’s 1948 war as a major anti-imperialist victory over the United Kingdom, which was philo-Arab. He viewed positively the return of the Jews from the Diaspora. Within the PCI a Jewish senator, Umberto Terracini, also played an important role. He tried to move the party toward a special relationship with Israel.

“At an anti-Nazi congress in Tel Aviv in May 1967, Terracini said: “In the twenty years of social and moral oppression by fascism the antifascist conscience of all Italians of today [has been created].”
3 Terracini mentioned the Soviet Union’s decisive contribution to Europe’s liberation from the Nazis. He added that the principles of socialism, resistance, and antifascism were equally valid for Italy and the Jewish people.

1967: The Turning Point

Nirenstein notes, however, that the 1967 Six Day War was the turning point for the Left. “A typical incident occurred at the communist newspaper
Paese Sera. Its editor in chief was Fausto Coen, a Jew. At the end of the war, he prepared the front page with the lead article carrying the headline ‘Victory.’ Unità’s offices were also in the same building. Alberto Jacoviello of Unità had given much space to the Soviet Union severing diplomatic relations with Israel. Later he also attacked Israel as having initiated a war with the Arab states.

“When Jacoviello came into the office of
Paese Sera he saw the headline in question, which was typeset in lead, the method used in those days. With the only arm he had, he threw the article to the floor. For a journalist such as Coen, this is the worst thing that can happen. Later he had to resign.

“Soon many communists were writing anti-Israeli articles in
Unità. The journalist Maurizio Molinari, author of an excellent book titled The Left and the Jews in Italy, 1967-1993, describes this very succinctly:

On 14 June 1967, Unità issued its hard and definitive judgment of Zionism: the birth of Israel was no longer the result of the Jewish resurgence in which such a big part was played by Marxists and socialists, but the result of a technocratic and rationalist movement strongly supported by American banks, full of high-class pioneers, born conquerors, which was invading the Middle East.

“In the following months it was clear that the die had been cast. Anti-Israeli articles multiplied in
Unità. Romano Leda asserted that Israel’s Jewishness precluded coexistence with the Arabs. Piero della Seta, a Jewish communist, saw no other solution than to replace Israel with a binational state. Jacoviello characterized Israelis as foreign conquerors, while Arminio Savioli embraced the Fatah movement’s official statements about Israel’s destruction and replacement by a Palestinian state in which every reference to Israel would disappear.4

“Molinari also explains how Enrico Berlinguer, then secretary-general of the PCI, adjusted its position to that of the Soviet Union, which sought to reinforce its links with the Arab and Muslim world.

“In every crisis the Italian Left opposed Israel’s actions. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, which was initiated by Egypt and Syria, found them on the side of the Palestinians and Arabs. In 1974 Lelio Basso, then a PSI member who later joined the small extreme-Left party PDUP, called to expel Israel from UNESCO. In 1976 when an Air France plane was hijacked to Entebbe, Israel freed the hostages. The Italian Left protested this as a severe aggression against Uganda.

“After the mass murder of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila camps in 1982, Arafat visited Italy for the first time. He came to the entrance of the parliament with his revolver in his holster, but the guards stopped him. In 1984, Craxi went to visit Arafat in Tunis—even though Arafat was then already wanted by the Italian justice system for supplying arms to the Italian Red Brigades terrorist organization.”

A Personal Story

Nirenstein illustrates these developments with a personal story. “As a young girl I was sent by my family in 1967 to Kibbutz Neot Mordechai in northern Israel. It was a leftist environment. The North Vietnamese were these kibbutzniks’ heroes, and they even made donations to them. I spent the Six Day War there. I was then both a communist and a Zionist, like so many other Italian Jewish youth.

“I didn’t see any contradiction in this. When I returned to Italy, I found that I was no longer accepted as a Jew because I was unwilling to submit to the new rules and definitions of the Left. I had suddenly become a rebellious, repressing, occupying Jew. In other words, I had been transformed into an imperialist. Many other leftist Jews had a similar experience.

“Around 1968 and the student revolution, Third World sympathies exploded on the campuses. There were also many Palestinian students at Italian universities and their propaganda efforts were very successful. Often Italian students not only had a keffiyeh around their neck but also around their brain. That is still true of many of them.”

Lecturing at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in February 2006, Nirenstein said:

In 1982 I signed a petition calling for the Israeli army to leave Lebanon. I was no longer a communist. I had already left the party in 1967 because of the emergence of the Red Brigades’ left-wing terrorism. That signature torments me until today. It reflects the false idea to which I had succumbed after tens of years of propaganda that Judaism is leftist. Many other Jews had been affected by that misconception. Among the 150 other signatories were [Natalia] Ginzburg and Primo Levi, as well as the Jewish Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini.

There were some non-Jewish left-wing intellectuals who distanced themselves from the pro-Palestinian positions. Among them were the author Italo Calvino as well as the moviemaker Federico Fellini and the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. The latter said once after an attack on Israel in
Unità that he felt the same pain as if he had been reading the most stupid bourgeois paper. His left-wing position was very clear also in saying that to be true friends of the Arab people one had to help them understand the political stupidity of Nasser’s policies.

These were exceptions, however. The intellectual mainstream was that of Eugenio Scalfari, a left-wing liberal who was the founder of the important weekly
Espresso, which always took anti-Israeli positions. At a certain point he fired the journal’s Jewish editor in chief, Arrigo Benedetti.

The New Right Confronts an Anti-Israeli Bloc

“In the Italian Catholic world there is an important left-wing camp that is also Third Worldist. Officially the Catholic Church has revised its position toward the Jews. It has removed the expression ‘perfidious Jews’ from its prayers.

“Yet also for the (Catholic) Christian Democrat Party, Israel became a long-term political instrument. For the left wing of the Christian Democrats, it had to pay the price of their ideology. Israel was branded as imperialist, anti-Palestinian, and anti-Arab. It became part of the capitalist, modernist, globalized world that the Church strongly dislikes.

“In this complex way a compact but large anti-Israeli bloc took shape in Italy that went from the extreme Left deep into the Christian Democrat sphere. It was only in the early 1990s, with the fragmentation of Italian politics after a spate of huge corruption scandals, that major forces supporting Israel emerged. These were and are led by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, then leader of the Forza Italia party that was formed in the early 1990s. Berlusconi’s movement is nowadays called
People of Freedom.

The other important politician in that movement is Gianfranco Fini currently president of the Chamber of Deputies. In 1995 he reestablished the Italian neofascist party as the conservative party Alleanza Nazionale. In that process he eliminated many extreme fascist members and publicly condemned fascist anti-Semitism. Fini finally was received by the Israeli leadership in 2003 as a sign that his neofascist past no longer made him taboo.

“The new Italian Right has to a large extent relegitimized pro-Israeli positions in Italy. Yet almost the entire Left and large parts of the Catholic world retain their anti-Israeli views. These also are shared by liberal intellectuals. It is a tragic phenomenon that intellectuals can no longer cope with reality. Probably never before, not only in Italy but throughout whole Western world, has the intellectual elite so totally abandoned its supposed role of leading the people in understanding events.”

Future Governmental Anti-Israelism

Nirenstein does not rule out that Italy may again take extreme anti-Israeli positions. She mentions her contacts with the former communist leaders first recycled as left-wing Democrats (DS) and nowadays as Democrats. “Piero Fassino, formerly the DS party’s secretary – the Italian term for party leader – came to Israel in the last period of Arafat’s leadership and stayed at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I met him and we hugged each other as Italians do. Though we now have very different worldviews, we are old friends from the same generation of politicians and journalists who grew up in the communist youth movement.

I asked him: ‘Why are you going to see Arafat? You know that he is a major terrorist. Not meeting him is the only way to show your disapproval of terrorism.’ He said: ‘Not meeting Arafat is impossible.’ Fassino said it with a twinkle in his eye, adding, ‘I know that the Israelis are basically right and that they have constantly been attacked since 1948. But we belong to the Left, and we are Italian, and that means drawing logical consequences connected to our main political line: two states for two peoples, land for peace. Meeting Arafat is necessary.’

“Former DS leader Massimo D’Alema was one of the strongest opponents of Israel when he was prime minister from 1998 to 2000. I think he really strongly rejects – even if he tries to suppress it – the Jewish state.

If he were to read this, he would say: ‘I hate Israel? Are you crazy? Who could hate Israel?’ Yet he cannot be fair: he will always as an ex-communist side with the Gerstenfeld_bad_news

Palestinians, whom even today he imagines to be innocent, oppressed, and exploited.

As soon as in 2007 the new Palestinian unity government of Fatah and Hamas was formed, he called for resuming relations with the Palestinian Authority. I think he knows deep in his heart that Israel is right and the Palestinians are wrong. Anybody who knows Italy realizes how illogical this double-tongued approach is. It is an attitude of: ‘We are Italians, not Americans, we do not have to be logical.’ It is a sort of traditional refusal of responsibility: you do something wrong, go to the church, confess it, and you’ll be absolved.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

Fiamma Nirenstein, born in Florence, became in 2008 a Member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies for Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Movement. Before she was a correspondent and columnist for the daily Il Giornale after many years at La Stampa. Nirenstein also wrote a column for the weekly Panorama and is the author or editor of many books and anthologies, most of which deal with Israel, the Middle East, terrorism, anti-Semitism, and Judaism. These include Israele siamo noi (Israel Is Us). Her book Terror: The New Anti-Semitism and the War against the West has been translated into English. For several years she has taught an annual course in Middle Eastern history at Luiss University in Rome, and she also taught a doctoral-level course at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca. She is a member of the board of the Rome-based Magna Carta Foundation, an associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and an associate member of the Hudson Institute.

1 Maurizio Molinari, La Sinistra e Gli Ebrei in Italia, 1967-1993 (Milan: Corbaccio, 1995), 131. [Italian]
2 Fiamma Nirenstein, L’Abbandono: Come l’Occidente ha tradito gli ebrei ( Milan: Rizzoli, 2002). [Italian]
3 Quoted in Molinari, 33.
4 Ibid., 34.

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