Sanitizing Italian Fascism Sullies Fight Against Antisemitism

By Yossi Sarid

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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This past Tuesday the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee hosted Italy’s deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. I didn’t attending the session. In plain terms, I boycotted it. I had no wish to play any part in sanitization ceremonies for fascists, neo-fascists and antisemites of all kinds.

Fini is the leader of an important Italian political party, the National Alliance, an extreme-right partner in Italy’s right-wing ruling coalition. The National Alliance is the legal heir of Italy’s Fascist Party, which changed its name, and has even tried, in recent years, to change its repulsive character — and in doing so, its political fortune as well.

Fini has two objectives: He wants to be Italy’s prime minister; and he believes that one day, and soon, his party will succeed Forza Italia, the current ruling party, which is entirely an extension of the personality of one individual, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Fini expects that when Berlusconi falls because of his many alleged criminal entanglements, his party will come toppling down too. But Fini wants to be a respected and accepted European statesman. And he knows that in a brown shirt, he has no chance of making it into the club.

Just a few years ago, Fini was still declaring, with passion and conviction, that “Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.” Eight too-long years passed before Fini found it in him to “rectify” his statement, to back away from it.

But even when expressing his reservation, he failed to note that Mussolini was one of the greatest villains of the 20th century, running close behind his close ally, Adolf Hitler. He did not say this because he did not want to anger his supporters, many of whom still greet one another with stiff-arm fascist salutes and visit the grave of Il Duce each year.

Why, of all countries, would Israel, the state of the Jewish people, want to wash the hands of a man like Fini? The reason is clear: Fini supports the Israeli government’s policies in the territories; he is a friend of Ariel Sharon; and in a place that has no friends, even Fini will be considered one.

In such a regrettable manner — and with a huge degree of hypocrisy — does the government of Israel wage its war on antisemitism. Not only Fini, but Berlusconi himself is an example of this two-faced attitude. A few weeks ago, he was quoted as saying, “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile.”

When our prime minister visited Italy last week, I wanted to equip him with the books of the renowned Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi, so that he could present them to Berlusconi as a gift. In his works, Primo Levi describes his deportation from Italy by Mussolini’s Nazi allies and the two years he spent in the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Levi apparently never recovered from his internment at Auschwitz and suffered right up until his suicide, in the late 1980s, almost 40 years after he was freed from the horror.

The most astounding part of the entire affair is the fact that no one in Israel protested Berlusconi’s chilling statement. Not a single grievance was heard — not even from the mouth of the minister of Diaspora Jewish affairs, Natan Sharansky. Just imagine what kind of a reaction would have ensued had the very same things been said by another statesman, who is not known as a “friend of Israel” — the French president, for example; not to mention one of the Arab leaders.

A similar kind of hypocrisy can be found in the attitude toward Austria. At the time, Israel kicked up a big fuss when Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party joined Austria’s governing coalition. We severed diplomatic relations with Vienna, a far-reaching step, and we called on the entire world to follow suit. And then, just a short time thereafter — and almost in secrecy, without any plausible explanation — Israel renewed ties with Austria, despite the fact that the Freedom Party, albeit somewhat weaker, remained a part of the government.

If we severed ties then, why are we renewing them now? And what’s so surprising about the rumors regarding the link between the renewal of relations and the need to investigate financial goings-on of Sharon in Austrian banks?

It is a shame, in the fullest sense of the word. The battle against antisemitism must be waged from a firm base of values and principles. If the world senses that it is a political, cynical and opportunistic Israeli fight, its foundations will be shaken and it will completely lose its moral validity.

Every time I am personally at a loss, I will ask myself: Would Primo Levi, on his return from exile, have shaken the hands of these people? If not, then I too refuse to shake and sanitize. As far as I am concerned, Gianfranco Fini remains persona non grata.

Yossi Sarid is a Meretz member of Israel’s Knesset. This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz.

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