The Anti-Defamation League did itself and the American Jewish community a disservice this week with its festive dinner honoring the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s ethical record as a businessman and as prime minister are an embarrassment to Italian democracy. His relations with fascists and fascism are an affront to Jews in Italy and everywhere. His support for America and Israel are appreciated, but they do not make up for his record.
As Nathaniel Popper reports on Page 4, ADL national director Abraham Foxman believes the criticisms of his decision to honor Berlusconi are “political.” The idea is that his critics don’t like Berlusconi because Berlusconi supports George Bush and Ariel Sharon. With all due respect, that’s backward. Berlusconi’s critics don’t like him because of who he is and what he’s done.
Perhaps the most telling honor bestowed recently on the Italian premier was a special section last July in The Economist, the widely respected and impeccably conservative British newsmagazine, laying out the legal and ethical brief against Berlusconi in vast detail and challenging him to respond. The magazine enumerated charges going back decades of money laundering, perjury, false accounting and bribing judges. It also cataloged steps it said Berlusconi had taken as prime minister to put himself beyond the reach of Italy’s laws by changing them to his benefit. The Economist called him “an outrage against the Italian people and their judicial system” and “Europe’s most extreme case of the abuse by a capitalist of the democracy within which he lives and operates.” Berlusconi responded by threatening a lawsuit.
And we haven’t even gotten to his sordid record on fascism. His recent gaffe about the “benign” rule of Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s ally and mentor, was only the latest. Far worse was his decision to whitewash Mussolini’s heirs, the National Alliance, by bringing them into his governing coalition.
Looking at his record, it’s hard to think why a Jewish group would honor him except for his support of Bush and Sharon.
Now, some groups might legitimately make that call. But the ADL is not just any Jewish group. It is the nation’s biggest and best-known advocate of Jewish rights. To many Americans it is the virtual embodiment of the Jewish claim to moral authority in the face of discrimination and oppression. With that authority comes an obligation to be consistent in its standards and values.
Few Jewish communal leaders deserve that sort of authority more than Foxman. Indeed, his record of courage and straight-shooting is part of the reason for the ADL’s pre-eminent position today. He’s never been afraid to name names when someone has crossed the line, Jewish or non-Jewish. He’s also shown the courage, all but unique among his peers, to accept apologies, whether from Pat Robertson or Jesse Jackson, and bury the hatchet.
The award to Berlusconi might have been conceived in that light. But it has the opposite effect. Instead of strengthening the ADL’s authority it weakens it, by suggesting the league can no longer differentiate between right and wrong. And that weakens all American Jews, in whose name the league speaks.
In today’s world, your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and new dangers ought to take precedence over old nightmares. It’s right to treat Berlusconi politely, given his eagerness to reach out to us. But for that he deserves a handshake, not a statesmanship award.