Interview: Fiamma Nirenstein
Italian-born Fiamma Nirenstein, 62—award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker—has lived and worked in Jerusalem for decades. But since last April, she has also served as an elected member of Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative coalition government in Italy, where she is deputy chair of the Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee. Nirenstein, a fellow of both the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Hudson Institute in Washington, brings passion to her personal and political priorities, which include strengthening Israel, fighting anti-Semitism and terrorism.
Q. How does the current regime in Italy view the Jewish state?
A. [Prime Minister] Silvio Berlusconi and political leader Gianfranco Fini were forming a new party that merged each of their existing ones. Both men have outstanding foreign policy credentials. Fini visited Israel and bent on his knees in Yad Vashem as a personal act of solidarity with the Jewish people. Berlusconi sent Italy’s soldiers to help in the war against terror in Iraq and has maintained a great relationship with Israel. This is a completely new approach when contrasted with former Prime Minister [Giulio] Andreotti’s completely pro-Arab foreign policy.
Q. How do you see this new approach to Israel?
A. Berlusconi changed the overall tenor of relations. He emphasized that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and persisted in repeating that, since 1948, it was Israel that had been attacked by its Arab neighbors because of Arab refusal to accept Israel’s presence in the Middle East. Berlusconi and Fini [understand] this central point and know which side of the struggle is rooted in the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This reflects my own views too and so I accepted the invitation to run on their list.
Q. Where does Italy stand on immigration?
A. Immigration in and of itself is not a damaging thing. It becomes a problem only when the newcomers seek to exploit [the government], don’t respect you and don’t respect your laws. This then turns into a clash of civilizations. Italy’s policies encourage immigration, be it by Muslims or Africans or Gypsies, but each group represents challenges. [For example] there have been several episodes of violence against women in the Muslim sector. Some Gypsies have been associated with problems relating to the security of property. Drug dealing and prostitution have been seen among some African immigrants.
Q. What concerns you about Muslim immigrants?
A. Muslim rules about women and other issues are very different from the Italian and European norm. The clash of civilization occurs when they start organizing their communities in ways to oppose our core values. When they organize their mosques, the daily way of life in their family, their schools, there is very often a message of hatred toward our civilization. Sometimes this is total refusal to join in our accepted norms…. Sometimes there are very good people that try to integrate, but…they are directly or indirectly pressured by the jihadists in their midst. There are [also Muslims extremists] passing through Italy from Germany and England, who sometimes go to Iraq. We capture some of them with weapons and money, but Italy remains an unwilling bridge.
Q. Five or ten years ago, European governments were uniformly hostile to Israel and critical of the United States. Today, friendlier views dominate in Germany, France, Poland, England and Italy. What has changed?
A. It’s premature to say that a new era has arrived…but it is no coincidence that so many of the people’s minds were changed during this brief time. [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made people start thinking more realistically about the problem of international terrorism threats to the West and the genocide threat to Israel. After all, Europe was the place where the Holocaust was perpetrated. As anti-Israeli as some Europeans can sometimes be, they remain Europeans, and they definitely don’t want to see another Holocaust.
Q. Will Italy tolerate Ahmadinejad?
A. No, I don’t think so. Neither my prime minister, nor the Pope [Benedict], nor anyone else of significance received him when he came to Rome by invitation of the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. So there is a new attitude. Ahmadinejad’s genocidal message…is rejected, and there is a new understanding of the dangers posed to Europe [because of] his nuclear initiative.
Q. Has public opinion changed regarding the Palestinians?
A. The Palestinians have fared very badly since [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon pulled Israel out of Gaza. First of all, this changed much public opinion about Sharon. Many realized that even when they thought extremely negative things about the leaders of Israel, at the end, their biases can be completely wrong. That was the first revelation. The second was about Hamas. Even though there is not one single Israeli soldier or settler left in Gaza, the Gazans destroyed synagogues and hothouses when they retook Gush Katif, and then they started killing their own people and started bombing Israel nonstop. This came as a shocking surprise to the conventional wisdom.
Q. Extremist Muslims despise Israel and a Berlusconiled Italy. Because you represent both, are you in danger?
A. I have had state bodyguards since 2001. That is when [extremist Muslims] started threatening me.
Q. Rumor has it that you admired Che Guevera in your youth? How have you changed?
A. I was never a violent communist, but a communist indeed I was. Being a rational person, I eventually realized Communism was a mistake. In 1987, I started covering all the anticommunist revolutions in Eastern Europe. I reported from China, interviewing Deng Xiaoping long ago. So I know the world, I saw firsthand Communism was not good. For me, democracy is freedom and human rights. This is my own law, and beyond that, of course, is Judaism. So naturally, I woke up when I saw the left betraying all these values. I must say, however, that [being a communist] never suggested any anti-Israel feeling to me. My father first came from Poland to Israel in 1936 before it was a state. When he returned to Europe to fight with the Jewish Brigade, he was communist. He met my mother, who was an armed partisan, so I was born to a couple of fighting leftists. I don’t think it unusual that I started off following in their footsteps. Subsequently I became an anticommunist because of precisely the same values.
Q. In a widely reported incident during the recent Italian election campaign, a man at one of your rallies gave a Fascist salute. How did it feel to see that hated salute used in support of your conservative party, which has reportedly flirted with neo-Fascist support?
A. Nobody who gives the Fascist salute is for me, so I didn’t experience that particular problem. Why was this non-incident reported at all? Because Berlusconi put on his list of perhaps 4,000 candidates, national and local, a guy who had once been a Fascist. He claims he saved many Jews, and I don’t have reason to doubt it. He says he simply longed for the days when the trains arrived on time and when there was more civil order. He is an old man, and the press…asked me if I was comfortable with being in the same party with him. I replied that he is irrelevant, a relic of the past. There were some nasty caricatures of me, some anti-Semitism in the press and anti-Israel sentiments, but in the end, many accepted my take on the incident and some did not.
Q. What is your focus since entering Parliament?
A. I am thinking about a possible indictment of Ahmadinejad. I want to create a link between the help that Italy gives to poor countries and institutions and the prohibition of hate speech.
Q. Among the likely Israeli candidates for prime minister, who would Berlusconi feel most comfortable with?
A. He would love them all intuitively because they are Israeli. He has a deep admiration for the Israeli people.