fascist party, and the other part of his government was the Northern Alliance, which is composed of racists from the north who regard the southerners as degenerate. Does that sound like a good human rights and civil rights record to you?”
Even for some people sympathetic to the ADL’s decision, Berlusconi’s past is cause for pause.
“I understand why the ADL chose to honor him. In today’s world, Israel’s friends are few and far between,” said Albert Chernin, the former executive vice chair of what is now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Giving him recognition is a means of encouraging others. But I must confess, it was a lot to swallow between his comments and his background with a party that he explicitly identified as fascist.”
In a conversation with the Forward, Foxman accused Berlusconi’s and the ADL’s critics as using the scandal as an opportunity to grind their political axes: “The criticism is political. There are a lot of people who have the luxury to be political. I respect their political views. That has nothing to do with my decision or our decision. Everybody’s got an agenda. My agenda is America.”
Longtime observers and supporters of the ADL rejected Zevi’s claim that the organization’s focus on Israel represented a shift, nor do they see its interest in Israel as purely political. Observers point to 1982 as a decisive turning point, when the then-head of the ADL, Nathan Perlmutter, wrote “The Real Anti-Semitism in America.” Perlmutter argued that most antisemitism is now channeled through criticism of Israel.
In a letter to The New York Times Tuesday, three Nobel laureate scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued that the ADL is going about its defense of Israel the wrong way. The honoring of Berlusconi, they wrote, “is bad for the Jews, bad for Italy, bad for the United States and even bad for Israel.”
At the very least, Zevi said, the ADL should have refrained from bestowing the title “distinguished statesman” on Berlusconi. “He’s a great character,” Zevi said. “Statesman, that’s not exactly the term I would use.”
At the Anti-Defamation League’s Tuesday-night dinner to honor Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, the crowd gave a resounding applause when ADL national director Abraham Foxman announced, “I like Bush. I like Sharon. And Silvio Berlusconi, we are delighted to have you here tonight.” But the solidarity of the moment did not extend far beyond the Plaza Hotel Ballroom.
The ceremony for the fast-talking prime minister, just weeks after he made comments sympathetic toward World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, has generated a roiling debate about whether the ADL is compromising its self-proclaimed role as the “nation’s premier civil rights/human rights agency” in deference to the interests of the United States and Israel.
Berlusconi uttered his controversial remarks just three weeks before the ADL dinner. Defending the regime of Mussolini against comparisons to Saddam Hussein, Berlusconi said Mussolini — Adolf Hitler’s chief ally and ideological mentor — had been a “benign” dictator. “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday in internal exile.”
The sharpest reaction to Berlusconi’s insensitivity came from the Italian Jewish community.
Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, has said repeatedly that Berlusconi’s comments caused him “profound pain.” Even after Berlusconi met with Luzzatto at a Rome synagogue to apologize, Luzzatto said to the press that “he has apologized to us and specifically to me, but not to the Italian people.”
Luzzatto, however, declined to explicitly criticize the ADL. Through a spokesman, Luzzatto told the Forward that “the Italian Jewry should not enter into the decisions of foreign Jewish organizations.”
Luzzatto did not attend the ceremony in New York, but he did send a representative of the union.
A past president of the union, Tullia Zevi, was more outspoken in her criticism of the ADL and Foxman. Zevi immediately called Foxman to complain when she heard about the planned ceremony. “I suggested that he postpone it,” Zevi said. “To celebrate a man who has said these things is insulting the memory of these people who suffered under these times.”
At the dinner itself, the marquee list of speakers, from Harvey Weinstein to Rupert Murdoch, danced gracefully around the topic of Berlusconi’s shameful remarks.
Only Foxman brought up the scandal, at the beginning of his speech when he recalled that many people had called during the day to ask how he was “feeling” about the ceremony. When the Forward asked him just this question earlier in the day, Foxman replied: “I am as excited and I will present it with as much gusto as I would have done before this.”
Speakers at the event praised Berlusconi for supporting the recent American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. During his speech, Berlusconi thanked the United States for ridding Italy of fascism during World War II.
In going ahead with the ceremony as planned, Foxman repeatedly said that Berlusconi’s support of Israel and the United States is more significant than a few poorly considered comments.
“This man has stood by America,” Foxman said. “This man has been upfront on fighting terrorism. This man is the only clear voice on support and understanding of Israel [in Europe]. When there have been explosions of antisemitism, this man has been right out there on the front. For all these things, we are paying tribute to him.”
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, defended Foxman. “Today, looking at the crisis that Israel faces, it is the pressing issue for the Jewish community,” Rosen said. “I can’t excuse what [Berlusconi] said. It was a dumb comment. But you have to look at his record on the whole.”
It is exactly when critics of Berlusconi look at his larger record, though, that they become particularly uncomfortable. In an unprecedented open letter printed in August, The Economist presented a laundry list of Berlusconi’s suspected wrongdoings, including money laundering, perjury and bribery. At the end of the letter, the British-based publication declared: “He is a prime representative, and perpetuator, of the worst of old Italy.”
For Jewish groups, though, Berlusconi’s corruption should be his least worrying connection to Italy’s history, according to both historian Patrick McCarthy, author of “Italy Since 1945,” and Leonard Zeskind, a researcher on far-right nationalist groups.
Both men point to Berlusconi’s membership in the Masonic lodge, Propaganda Due, or P2, as it was known. In 1978, Berlusconi joined the ultra-secret P2, an anti-democratic organization that was discovered and then dissolved after an investigation into the murder of a prominent Italian bank executive in 1982. Zeskind calls the P2 a “protofascist organization that explicitly modeled itself on Mussolini’s ‘black shirts.’”
In 1994, Zeskind points out, “[Berlusconi’s] government consisted of the National Alliance leader [Gianfranco] Fini, whose party is a