The Italian journalist Fiamma Nirenstein is the author of numerous books on anti-Semitism, Israel, and the Middle East conflict, including (in English) Israel is Us and Terror: the New Anti-Semitism and the War against the West.
In April 2008, she was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party. She is presently the vice-president of the chamber’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. In February, she accompanied Prime Minister Berlusconi on a three-day visit to Israel.
Stefan Frank spoke with Fiamma Nirenstein about Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, anti-Semitism on the left, European criticism of Israel, and the significance of Berlusconi’s recent visit.
Q: Jerusalem is presently the focus of a great deal of media attention. Some people say that by announcing the construction of new residential units in East Jerusalem, Israel has clouded the prospects for peace in the Middle East and angered the USA. Relations between the two countries are said to be in a deep crisis.
Fiamma Nirenstein: The 10-month freeze granted unilaterally by Netanyahu in December — which Obama welcomed enthusiastically — referred to West Bank settlements. East Jerusalem was never included. Jerusalem is an issue with which Israel and the Palestinians will deal only at the negotiating table. Most people are ignorant of the fact that what is commonly known as East Jerusalem was ruled by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Before then, the town had a Jewish majority for centuries.
In previous negotiations, like those between Arafat and Barak in 2000 or between Olmert and Abu Mazen in 2007, even the Palestinian side considered that many of the neighborhoods being called “settlements” by the newspapers, like Ramat Shlomo, could possibly be annexed to the Jewish part of the town in a final agreement. This is because most of these neighborhoods have been built either in deserted areas or in areas that had already been inhabited by Jews, who could not, however, live there under Jordanian rule because of the threat to their lives.
In short, the decision to build 1600 units was taken a long time ago. The Americans have seized on the bad timing of the announcement during Biden’s visit in order to push the peace process in the way Obama wants.
Q: You write a lot about leftist anti-Semitism. When and how did you discover its existence?
Fiamma Nirenstein: I made this discovery in theory and in practice. In 1967, as a young girl, I was a communist like all the other people of my age. My parents sent me to a kibbutz in northern Israel called Neot Mordechai. It was a leftist kibbutz, every week it dedicated one working day to the Vietcong. During the Six-Day-War, which broke out during my stay, I took care of the kids and brought them to the shelter.
When I came back to Italy after the war, I thought that my left-wing friends would be proud of me. But the reactions I faced were not sympathetic and friendly, but terribly anti-Israeli. Initially, I didn’t understand why. But all of a sudden I had to realize that it was about the Jews. It was a prejudice about the Jews conspiring with capitalism and imperialism against the poor people of the Third World — a category that included dictatorships like Syria and Egypt, which were allies of the Soviet Union. Slowly, I began to understand the powerful emotions underlying these reactions: the Jews were seen as something negative, something bad, and Israel was viewed as the collective Jew who was grasping for power.
Q: Let’s talk more about your experiences in 1967. Do you think that leftist anti-Semitism in Western countries had already been there, though in a latent state, and then suddenly found the occasion to come out into the open? Or was the year 1967 a psychological turning point, because many people were deeply disturbed when they discovered that Jews were not victims by nature, but were very well able to defend themselves and not afraid of doing so?
Fiamma Nirenstein: Absolutely, you got it right. People saw that Jews stopped being the Jews they liked to imagine: the poor Jews who live in a society as a despised minority, who seal themselves in their homes or their synagogues to pray, and who need permission from gentiles for anything they want. People saw that the Jews were strong enough to defend themselves against the attack of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and that they even managed to conquer some territory in a war that was actually intended to seal their fate.
This improbable turn of events drove them totally nuts. Everything was turning upside down. Unfortunately, there are still many Jews who want to present themselves as sheep going to slaughter. They are ready to sell out the image of a strong Israel and to make themselves as small as possible.
Q: In 2006, a member of the German parliament from the [post-Communist] Left Party declared that she was on the same side as Hezbollah. Is it just a coincidence that anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism provide a common ground between parts of the left and jihadist terrorists or are there stronger bonds underneath the surface?
Fiamma Nirenstein: They are connected by their rejection of modern democracy. Not everybody who is born in a democracy is a democrat. There is a lot of anti-democratic ideology in the democratic world, and the fact that it can be expressed is part of democracy. This is a contradiction we have to live with.
Anybody who says that they are on the side of Hezbollah, while knowing the history and ideology of this organization, should be ashamed of themselves. The ideology of Hezbollah is one of war-mongering. They always look for war, and they completely destroyed Lebanese democracy. Lebanon used to be one of the few countries in the Middle East enjoying a plurality of identities. The process of creating a flourishing democracy — something to which many Lebanese still aspire — has faced huge difficulties because of the presence of Hezbollah.
And although Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah continued its war against Israel and thus provoked a justified reaction. You cannot keep bombing Israeli towns and killing Israeli soldiers and suppose there won’t be a reaction. As for this woman you mentioned, I don’t think she would want to wear a chador.
Q: In February, you visited Israel as a part of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s delegation. Can you describe how the visit went?
Fiamma Nirenstein: It was very important that people in Israel felt that Berlusconi was not just visiting their country for diplomatic reasons, but because of his deep sympathy for the Jews. Israel is thirsty for love and sympathy, because it encounters so much hatred. When Berlusconi visited Yad Vashem, there was a guide who explained everything. When somebody told her to cut her explanations short, Berlusconi insisted on hearing everything.
Moreover, there was also the political aspect of the visit. In his speech to the Knesset, Berlusconi mentioned the Jewish state five times. There is nothing unusual about this expression, but most other politicians are afraid of using it because they fear that they might upset Arabs. Talking about the Jewish state means to recognize the Jewish nation. It is typical for anti-Israelis not to view the Jews as a nation.
Berlusconi also mentioned what Italy has done for Israel, and it is a lot. I’ve been part of it and I’m proud of it. First, we, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian parliament — the left as well as the right — voted against participating in what was called “Durban II:” the UN conference against racism, which was in fact a racist conference. Italy was one of the very few states that were absent.
Second, Italy voted against the Goldstone report. Furthermore, during the Gaza war we didn’t condemn a country that defended itself. Instead, the members of parliament — again the left and the right — and the president of the parliament held a rally together with people who were waving Israeli flags. That happened at a time when people in other European countries were burning Israeli flags and were shouting: “Hamas, Hamas, the Jews to the gas.” So Berlusconi could show the Israeli parliament that there were practical achievements.
Q: Berlusconi is not the only European politician who is considered a friend of Israel. Some people say the same about the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Sarkozy is at least less anti-Israeli than his predecessor Jacques Chirac. In Great Britain, the pro-Israel politician David Cameron may become prime minister soon. Can all of that combined challenge the old European order, which has always been fiercely pro-Arab?
Fiamma Nirenstein: There is a small chance that there could be a turning point. However, in the past the terrible propaganda of the Palestinians and their friends, which enjoy the backing of a huge media machine and a lot of money, has worked splendidly. It has conquered the press, the TV, the intellectuals and has generated numerous formulas designed to delegitimize the state of Israel. They speak about Israel as an “apartheid state” or as a state that purposely commits crimes. They have a machine of incitement and make claims about Israel harvesting organs of Palestinians and so on.
No person in his right mind and a bit of understanding of Israel would believe such claims — but unfortunately they are indeed believed by many people.
Q: So even if some of the most powerful European countries were governed by pro-Israel politicians, they would still be unable to act in favor of Israel because of that kind of pressure?
Fiamma Nirenstein: The European politicians live a big lie. Every time when a decision could be taken that would really help to defend Israel, a lot of courage is needed. Take, for instance, the events around the assassination of the Hamas official in Dubai. European governments have called in the Israeli ambassadors because Israel allegedly faked passports of European countries. These accusations are so hypocritical. Just think about who that Hamas guy was and what he had done: smuggling Iranian rockets to Gaza that can hit Tel Aviv.
During the Gaza war Israel was accused of endangering or killing civilians because it allegedly didn’t hit its targets precisely enough. Now that a target has been hit very precisely, they protest too. How is Israel expected to defend itself when it is neither allowed to wage war nor to act with pinpoint accuracy against its worst and most dangerous enemies?
Q: Are the politicians who use the credo of the “moderate” Fatah and the “need” for a Palestinian state out of touch with reality?
Fiamma Nirenstein: Yes. As Natan Sharansky says: society is more important than the state. Before talking about a Palestinian state one should look for the Palestinians who want to build a democratic society and support them. It wouldn’t be a good idea to found a Palestinian state that supports terrorism and starts another war.
Since 1948 the Palestinians have rejected all plans for a partition because their true goal is the destruction of Israel. Just go to the website of Palestinian Media Watch and look what the Palestinian TV says about destroying Israel, killing the Jews and martyrdom.
The Palestinian Authority names soccer fields and youth camps after so-called shahids, people who killed Jews. An UNRWA educational program in Ramallah has honored the terrorist Abu Jihad — who has murdered hundreds of people — with a soccer tournament in his name. This is the education that is given to the Palestinian kids. So we have to find a new approach to peace in the Middle East. One must put an end to the anti-Semitic incitement by no longer giving money to anti-Semites.