Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The flame of Fiamma

Before she undertook the role of Israel's defender in Italy, Fiamma Nirenstein was raised as a leftist in a Jewish family • Today, as vice president of the Italian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, she is convinced: "The Palestinians want their own state in order to destroy the Jewish state" • An interview brimming with ideology and vision.
Dror Eydar On my way to the residence of Fiamma Nirenstein in Rome, I passed protest signs linking the mayor of Rome to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Nirenstein, a Jewish intellectual and media personality, was elected three years ago to the Italian parliament as a member of the "People of Freedom" party headed by Berlusconi. She serves as vice president of the Italian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and heads several other parliamentary committees, such as the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. Fiamma means "flame" in Italian – an apt description of this energetic women, who, during our talk, which extended in all directions, managed to hold two conversations with the speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the foreign minister, and her two bodyguards, allocated to her ever since entering political activity and consequently receiving threats on her life, from various quarters.

On the table lay the Il Giornale newspaper, in which she publishes a pro-Israel column titled "Fuoco e Fiamma," which means "fire and flame." Her walls are lined with numerous books, among them her publications on Israel, the Jewish people, anti-Semitism, the Middle East and terror. Her latest book is titled "Israel Is Us." Prior to this, she gathered about 3,000 Italians, including senior intellectuals and politicians, to a pro-Israel rally, and its dozens of speeches were compiled in a book titled "For the Truth, For Israel." On the table also lay a draft of her new book.

She recounts how her father arrived in Italy with the Jewish Brigade, and met her mother in Florence, where he decided to remain. For years he served as the reporter for "Al Hamishmar" in Italy. "We were an extremely leftist family," she laughs.

So, you went astray?

I, too, was a communist – the same as the rest of my generation. However, I sobered up by the end of the 1970s. In 1967, a few months before the outbreak of the Six Day War, my parents sent me to Kibbutz Neot Mordechai. When war broke out I got to see it through Israeli eyes. As a journalist, I spent all the following wars in Israel, too. I saw with my own eyes how essential it was to be together when facing danger. This is the reason why I hope the Jews in Israel can unite, despite their differences. Because my main concern is for the Jews.

With all my struggles for Israel, with the Palestinian issue and the unilateral declaration at the U.N., the real story is Iran. It is very hard to convince the Jews of their present danger. It was different during the Six Day War; the sense of togetherness was much stronger.

A sense of no-choice?

That too. And also that we were in the right. A few days ago, A.B. Yehoshua visited here. We are very good friends. The territories and the settlements make him extremely angry. He has an idealism that blinds him from seeing with whom he is dealing. He describes the settlements as 'stepping on the Palestinians' feet.'

I told him that he does not know the settlers. He perceives them in a fantastic light. He does not know them, nor does he have any sympathy for them. I do. I know them well. I have lived among them. They are the salt of the earth.

There is naïveté, not viciousness, in A.B. Yehoshua and his friends. They construct a world for themselves in which the Arabs fit into their rational theories. And each time this blows up in their faces. Like Thomas Friedman's writing.

Friedman is constantly wrong. He no longer has eyes to see. I have been following Israel for more than four decades. As a journalist, I did not cover the events from my home; I was there when [the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat arrived in his helicopter, in Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah. I witnessed the expansion of the Hamas movement and traveled to Gaza University to speak to them. I saw for myself what took place in Israel. This is precisely why I understood what terror was. This is the most difficult thing for the Western world to comprehend.

When I returned to Italy after the 1967 war, I was accused by all of being a criminal since I was in Israel at the time of the occupation of the "poor Palestinians" by the Israelis. Yet I knew how events really developed. I witnessed the battle from Neot Mordechai and the Israelis going up to the Golan. We remained at the kibbutz, had missiles fired at us at night, and saw the MiGs in the sky above us. So to me the story of the poor Palestinians and Syrians … and that the Israelis were occupiers, was clearly wrong. It was then I began my journey to the other side of the political map, from the leftist views I held at the time. It was not the kibbutz that changed me, but rather my return to Italy, where I was labeled an 'unconscious fascist.' I had not then changed sides completely, but became aware of the utmost importance to me of my Judaism and my connection with Israel. From the time when others perceived me this way, as the 'other,' I too began to perceive myself this way.

Did it cause you to justify why you are the 'other'?

It was the same with feminism. I am very active as a parliament member and vice president of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, but people see me first and foremost as a Jew and as 'the' friend of Israel.

After a while, you realize you have to make something positive of this association. For instance, when I am asked why I defend Israel and devote so much of my time to this subject in my position in the Committee of Foreign Affairs, I respond that it is an honor for any Western state, and particularly for Italy, to defend Israel. It is shameful that states such as Finland and other northern European countries have become anti-Israel and at the end of the day also anti-Semitic.

We have achieved many results in our defense of Israel. We voted against the Durban II conference, we were active against the Goldstone report. To achieve this we worked hard in the Italian parliament. It is true that I act in defense of Israel, but it is also for the benefit of Italy, since it is an honor for Italy to deal with this issue. Come tomorrow, with all the economic troubles and sexual scandals of Berlusconi, Italy can always proudly say that it stood in defense of Israel, and this will forever serve as a badge of honor for this government.

Why do you use the term "honor" – for Italy, for the Western world – in reference to the defense of Israel?

Since democracy is the badge of honor of our time. It is a Judeo-Christian invention. If we invest in democracy and act on its behalf also in the international arena, it will attest to our commitment to it. It is easy to wake up in a reality of freedom of expression and state: 'Yes, I believe in democratic rule.' The test is when you reach the U.N. and object to a unilateral declaration [of a Palestinian state], and suffer the criticism. It is here that I am unsure whether Italy will stick with its decision, but our parliament has more supporters of negotiations between the sides than for a unilateral declaration. We are working on this.

You speak of a principled support of Jews and Israel; how can Italy, or the West, benefit from the struggle for Israel?

Italy experienced Fascism. Europe murdered six million Jews, and even if Italy was not principally to blame for the Holocaust, the Fascist regime under Mussolini acted against the Jews and aided the Nazis. When in August 2009, Sweden published in the Aftenbladet an article about Israeli soldiers harvesting organs from Palestinians, I participated in a meeting with the Swedish foreign minister. I stood up and asked what he meant to do about the anti-Semitism in Sweden. He denied that such a phenomenon even existed there and added that Sweden defended the freedom of the press. Would you believe it?! I am sure that had an Italian paper published such a lie, it would have caused a revolution. The honor of Italy would have exposed it as a blood libel.

It is disgraceful that a continent which killed six million Jews and which was glad to lend a hand in the deportation of Jews to concentration camps could publish, in this day and age, that Israeli soldiers harvest organs of Palestinians.

There is a basic anti-Semitism that will never go away, and one of its expressions is the accusation that Israel is the new Nazi. Of course, only the most extreme express themselves this way. The most common accusation is that Israel is an occupier, a child killer. See for example the Turkish television series on Israeli soldiers who kill children, and similar series' in other Arab countries.

This makes me to think that the Arab Spring will never succeed. While I identify with the demands of the people, filling the streets against the tyrant who humiliated them, I also see the indoctrination of pure hatred toward Jews that these people underwent for many decades. One can only see what is published in the newspapers and what is broadcast on television, including Palestinian television, and how streets are named after suicide bombers and terrorists. More than the territorial problem, there is a basic objection – stemming from an Islamic perspective – that brought about tremendous anti-Semitism, and Muslim immigrants to Europe bring it with them. They simply do not accept the fact that there is a piece of the Western world inside the Arab 'Umma.'

Why does the European Left cooperate with them?

This should be examined in connection with the relationship of the Left with the Soviet Union before its fall. The Left always thought in terms of a capitalist, imperialist power, incarnated predominantly by the U.S. and Israel, versus the poor of the world, which must be defended. And even in the case of Iran, where women are stoned, homosexuals are hanged, and any civil rights are opposed, nevertheless, Iran should be supported due to its belonging to the part of the world exploited by Colonialism and the West. Those prejudices are expressed here, positively discriminating the third world, including the Palestinians, in the face of the western world. This is the basic point.

Add to this the social situation of sitting at the table with your bourgeois friends, whether in Italy or France, where it is fashionable and acceptable to take up the side of the Palestinians – with all the many lies involved.

And yet, we can ask why it is that when facing a unilateral declaration, the world is prepared to support a Palestinian state? As this is lunacy. First, a Palestinian state cannot exist, divided as it would be between Hamas and the PLO. They have nothing in common, neither institutions nor an economy. So only violence can result from such an unrealizable expectation. Second, what could be the nature of a Palestinian state? On the basis of our knowledge until now – a state where women are inferior; extremist Islam prevails and perhaps wins the next elections; homosexuals are persecuted, as well as regime dissidents. In this case, why has it gained such widespread support around the world, particularly in the western world?

The Jews are the reason. The Palestinians' raison d'être is not a positive aspiration to establish a state, but a negative one, to destroy the Jewish state. This apparently suits the cultural and political agenda of the world's Left.

I have a bad feeling about the unilateral declaration. It rests entirely on lies. They approached the U.N. as if it were a judge who has the deciding power. First of all, the U.N. can make no practical decision. It cannot create a state where there is none. Second, the U.N. is made up of a bunch of totalitarian states with an automatic majority that votes against Israel in every possible situation. That being the case, the almost only truth resulting from the U.N. is a terrible wave of scorn and violence toward Israel. This is why the situation saddens me so.

If you look at my website, you will see the incredible mass of initiatives I made: I went to the U.N. in my capacity as president of the Jewish members of parliament, with our steering committee, together with the heads of the World Jewish Congress, and we held a dinner for the European ambassadors there, followed by a press conference on the subject. We went to Washington and were received by the Jewish members of Congress. In Italy I met 150 non-Jewish members of parliament. In parliament, in the Foreign Affairs Committee, I presented a motion to vote against the unilateral declaration. I presume we will win since we have a majority, and we will be the only parliament to vote on this subject. And then, when all this is over, I will have a discussion open to the public with Fratini, the minister of foreign affairs, who is extremely supportive of us. And I have been writing hundreds of articles, too.

Do you experience feelings of despair?

Yes, because I feel isolated. Many people say that they have had enough of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, even in my own newspaper, which is the most sensitive of all. Otherwise I would not be publishing my articles in it, otherwise I would not be in this parliament, or on this side of the government, otherwise I would not have written my last book, about Jerusalem. It is about my story of love for Jerusalem, a personal story, about my son, and how I met my husband in Jerusalem.

You spoke earlier about the political transition you experienced in your own worldview. Were you the only one among your friends to change sides?

There are actually many writers, including well-known ones, who write with the same passion as me, and they are Christian. They can no longer stand the nonsense written about Israel. Neither can they stand the lie of Communism any longer. They understood how deeply connected Communism was to totalitarianism, and today, among the Italian elite, it is even better understood how mistaken is the approach to Israel, and that much work needs to be invested to change it, as I do.

How did you become acquainted with Berlusconi?

Through my writing. I published many articles and books and three years ago he contacted me.

And how do you feel about the scandals surrounding him?

I am exceedingly sorry about them, because I think he is a brilliant person. In a period when Italy was entirely in the hands of the Communists and the Catholics, he took Italy and ushered it into the era of modern economy. All the rest is less important to me. I am very sorry to hear about the sexual scandals. They particularly grieve me as a feminist. Yet, it is important to recall that in the immediate wake of the Left's failure to win the elections, the judicial system took its place in opposition to Berlusconi, and it is unbelievable what they put him through.

Do you mean that some of the accusations against him are false?

Yes, and the way it has been done is also contemptible. The fact is that he was tried many times, and was vindicated.

So the judicial system ganged up against him?

There is no doubt about it. Everyone acknowledges this, as does most of the media, which is predominantly left-wing. Even those working for Berlusconi's own television network. The worst thing is that Italy is no longer governed by politics but by its hatred of Berlusconi, as well as envy of his ability to build himself up with his own two hands. This is a new phenomenon in Italy, with its aristocratic families who nurtured generations of politicians.

How can you explain that instead of the culture of debate, the Left attacks ad hominem (the person) instead of ad factum (the facts)?

Because it is perceived as a moralist choice. I am better than you because I am on the Left. It is not an issue of whether I am right or wrong, but that I am better than you, morally, intellectually, as a human being; my cultural life is better. We simply have a demonization of Berlusconi here – the same as was done in Israel to [Ariel] Sharon and [Benjamin] Netanyahu.

Finally, I would like to ask you about the religious issue. Rome is a holy city to millions of Catholics. How much does this play a role in their approach to Israel and how does the Muslim issue factor in?

Already in 1995, the church proclaimed that the Jews did not kill Jesus. However, a more significant step in changing the church's attitude toward Israel was the visit to Israel by John Paul II and his recognition of it. Before this, the church perceived the Christians as versus Israel, the true Israel (and the Jewish people as carnal Israel – merely the biological descendents of the biblical people of Israel). Once the pope travelled around Israel, visited the Western Wall and placed a note in it, this made a great difference. John Paul also clarified that the Jews were the elder brothers of the Christians, and this greatly transformed the relations. As a Pole, he understood this.

As for Islam, this was never an issue in the past. It started surfacing in public debates due to the growing awareness of the persecution of Christians all over the world (the majority of Christians in the Middle East fled). Following this, the church has attempted a cautious handling of this issue. However, their fears of the Arab world resulted in the church showing less enthusiasm to raise the discussion on the issue.

Toward the end of our conversation, I told Fiamma about the four sages who sojourned to Jerusalem after its destruction. Upon seeing the destroyed temple and city, they tore their clothes and wept. Only Rabbi Akiva laughed. He told them that the prophecy of destruction was linked to the prophecy of redemption. Now that he had witnessed the realization of the prophecy of destruction, he knew that the prophecy of redemption would be fulfilled, and he quoted the prophet Zachariah's prophecy: "Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem … And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing." Who destroyed the temple back then? Rome, the city in which we sit today and have our talk. Such a historical perspective allows us to ask who beat whom – the Roman legions or Rabbi Akiva's laughter.

"I am glad you told me this," she says in response. "I embrace it and hope; this is a difficult week [the week of the Palestinian declaration at the U.N.], but we have overcome Pharaoh," she laughs, "and we will overcome this too."

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