Marching for Israel Against Ahmadinejad

, September 26, 2006

On 26 October 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, made a genocidal call for the elimination of Israel at the “World without Zionism” conference in Tehran. Other speakers were terrorist leaders Hassan Nasrallah of Hizballah and Khaled Mash’al of Hamas.

Ahmadinejad’s murderous statements prompted many condemnations, inter alia from the UN Security Council and the European Union. One of the West’s strongest reactions was in Rome where, on 3 November, a torchlight march was held near the Iranian embassy. This protest was initiated by Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the conservative daily Il Foglio. An estimated 15-20,000 people took part in the demonstration, among them cabinet minister Roberto Calderoli who said he represented both the government and his Lega Nord party.

Ferrara, when asked why he took an initiative that was unique in the world, replies: “I felt it a political, cultural, and civil duty to organize a protest against Ahmadinejad’s call for genocide. I wanted this demonstration to have a simple goal: to proclaim that we uphold Israel’s right to exist and object to a head of state who denies this.”

A Great Political Success

Ferrara elaborates: “The demonstration was a great political success: it went beyond a gathering of about twenty thousand people who were determined to affirm their principles. Among those who marched or supported the demonstration almost the entire Italian political spectrum was represented, from the Center-Right to the Center-Left. The Rifondazione communists were the only party with a parliamentary faction that did not participate. Like other forces of the extreme Left, their prejudice is to support the national struggle of the Palestinians and their ideology tends toward anti-Zionism.

“Yet the party’s leader, Fausto Bertinotti, said that even he would have participated if the demonstration had as its motto ‘two states for two peoples.’ I replied that since we were not marching for a political goal, we were not interested in negotiating compromises on wording to gain unified backing. I told him that the demonstration’s motto was a simple one: to defend Israel and its right to exist against whoever threatens it.

“We succeeded in holding the demonstration one week after Ahmadinejad’s initial anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist declarations. Our support went far beyond the political parties. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest daily, came out in favor of the demonstration along with many other papers. Repubblica, the second largest daily, treated the rally benevolently, which was the maximum one could expect. The communist daily Il Manifesto opposed the demonstration but some of its journalists marched nevertheless. Numerous associations also came out in support and so did various other bodies of Italian civil society, from the Catholic sector and elsewhere. Many intellectuals and public personalities also expressed their backing.

“Also important, this was the first major demonstration of Europeans before the embassy of a Muslim country. We marched as close to it as we were allowed by the authorities. I called it a ‘hybrid torchlight march’ because persons and groups with very diverse views were present. But they showed unity in upholding Israel’s right to exist.”

Ferrara sums up: “The strong underlying message of the march against Ahmadinejad was that Israel had with its own forces defended its existence. Even for the Italian Left that has a great fascination, which is undeniable after all these years.”

One Precedent: USA Day

“The demonstration in favor of Israel was only possible because on two previous occasions I had taken similar initiatives. Il Foglio is a small opinion daily that informs about 20-30,000 readers among Italy’s elite. I founded it with little money and a great liking for adventure. We have shown that we can intensively promote cultural and civil opinions within the Italian political system. We lead battles on cultural, political, economic, and social issues at the Italian, European, and global levels.”

Ferrara founded Il Foglio in 1996. “The first time we organized a public demonstration was on 10 November 2001, less than two months after the attack by Bin Laden’s followers on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. It seemed shameful that all one heard about the thousands of American victims of terrorism was cheap rhetoric. At the same time, other people were burning American flags to protest the bombardments in Afghanistan at the start of the military operation to dismantle Al Qaeda’s training camps. This burning of American and also Israeli flags is an ongoing vice of small left-wing groups that are tolerated in Italy.

“We decided to organize a demonstration called ‘USA Day’ to show solidarity with the United States after 9-11. Italy’s newly elected prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, spoke in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton sent a message as well, speaking on CNN. He called it a beautiful idea and said Americans needed more Europeans in the streets to express their support. This was a new type of political event, a newspaper that took the initiative as an opinion-leader to bring people out into the public square.

Repubblica came out against USA Day saying it wasn’t a bipartisan demonstration. Thereafter they were greatly embarrassed by the fact that Clinton, the so-much beloved former American president, so strongly endorsed what we did.”

Israel Day

“On 15 April 2002 we organized a second, even more important demonstration called ‘Israel Day.’ A year before the attack on the Twin Towers, the Palestinians had launched the Second Intifada with its murderous suicide bombings. The Israeli government reacted by suppressing terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza.

“It was very difficult to call for a pro-Israeli demonstration in Italy in the days after the battles in Jenin. People were shown on television what were called ‘the tanks of Sharon.’ These besieged the mukhata in Ramallah where Yasser Arafat was almost a prisoner. Israel’s legitimate aim was to eliminate terrorism in the territories it had occupied for more than thirty-five years after winning a war of self-defense.

“We had anticipated well in advance how the media would react to Jenin. When the Israeli military action began, we warned that it would be strongly denounced. We explained that it would be very problematic to fight the terrorists in Jenin. We also knew how the anti-Israeli propaganda war functioned. We thus started to warn immediately that there would be newspaper headlines announcing the ‘Jenin massacre.’

“Subsequently, Human Rights Watch found that fifty terrorists had been killed and the Israelis had also sustained many losses. Within the limits of what was possible, Israel had made an effort to avoid civilian casualties in the very difficult combat conditions of the Jenin camp. It was clear that Israel had behaved honorably. We were happy that the truth had come out. Rather suddenly in Italy, even an extreme left-wing journal such as Il Diario was inspired to send a journalist to Jenin who reported the truth.”

A Very Successful Demonstration

“In those days it was not easy to organize a pro-Israeli demonstration, but we decided we had to do it. This event was again a great success, gaining the support of personalities from both the Right and the Left. The prime minister of the present left-wing Italian government, Romano Prodi, then president of the European Commission, expressed his sympathy. Among the backers on the Right was Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, leader of the Alleanza Nazionale party.

“On Israel Day there was a massive show of Israeli flags. Already on USA Day there had been many such flags alongside the American ones. People gathered on the square of the Capitol and descended the steps. It was a massive, beautiful procession. We marched to the synagogues on the Tiber River, where the participants deposited small stones. There was a short speech. I must stress that all these demonstrations have been organized with little money by a small newspaper.

“The success of the first two demonstrations helped me decide that a similar one was necessary against Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic campaign. We had to express intelligently our indignation toward the Iranian president and his political madness. Besides the Israeli flags there were also Italian and Iranian ones. A group of Iranians in exile took part in the protest and one of their slogans was, in the Persian language, ‘Zendebab Israel’-wishing Israel to live.

“Initially many ministers of the Berlusconi government intended to participate. However, the afternoon before the march in Rome there were counterdemonstrations before the Italian embassy in Teheran. Italy is Iran’s leading trade partner in Europe, and the Iranian government let it be known that there would be consequences for the countries’ bilateral trade.

“There was also pressure from the Confindustria, the Italian manufacturers association, and from some in the government. Berlusconi hesitated and did not reply forcefully. This led to the decision of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Fini not to participate. Also Defense Minister Antonio Martino chose not to come to the demonstration. Still, it was an event of major political importance.”

Why Did We Do It?

When asked why Ferrara was the only non-Jewish person in the world to organize such a demonstration, he replied: “I have no answer. What I can say is that prominent French intellectuals such as Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksman were astonished by what we had done. They said it  would never have been possible in France.”

After some reflection he remarks: “Perhaps it can be explained by a mix of our national reality, the history of Il Foglio, and my personal experiences. Italy has a certain liberty of action that other European countries do not have. Furthermore, Il Foglio is not so sensitive to the market. We do not have a certain quota of people whom we have to please. For other papers this usually includes the pro-Palestinians and the pro-Israelis, as well as the left-wing and right-wing intellectuals.”

Ferrara says it was very important that the pro-Israeli Berlusconi government was in power. “Fini’s role was also significant. As leader of a postfascist party he needed Israeli legitimization. His attitude toward Israel was the main indicator that he had changed his political outlook. At the founding congress of Alleanza Nazionale he had the party condemn anti-Semitism and the prewar racial laws of the Mussolini government, which were an important element of fascism. As a result, Fini ultimately succeeded in being invited to Jerusalem. His trip there inspired much debate in his party. Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra left the party and took with her a small group of members.”

Israel’s Strategic Role

“Berlusconi understood that Israel should play an important strategic role in Italy’s foreign policy. Pro-Arab prime ministers in the previous decades, such as the Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti and the Socialist Bettino Craxi, had created an imbalance in Italian positions toward the Middle East.”

In the current coalition government led by Prodi, the socialist DS party consisting mainly of former communists is the largest. When asked what position it will take on the Middle East, Ferrara says it is too early to tell. “When Berlusconi was talking to Javier Solana, the European high representative for foreign and security affairs, or to people like the then French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin or his Spanish colleague Miguel Angel Moratinos, it was a dialogue of the deaf. Berlusconi was pro-Israeli and they were anti-American, anti-British, and anti-Israeli. Berlusconi’s refusal to go along has prevented this position from advancing too much in Europe.”

The Prodi Government

“Now Berlusconi is no longer prime minister, and the opposite tendency has returned. We will have to wait and see where Italy will stand. When our DS foreign minister, D’Alema, was in the opposition, he did realize that he had to march against Ahmadinejad. Will he now cave in entirely on Israel and become a loudspeaker in Italy for Europe’s dominant anti-Israeli line? Or will he, which is much more in Italy’s interest, be a brake on the fanatic anti-Israelis who form much of the European bureaucracy? Anything is possible, yet the key man in his party, Secretary-General Piero Fassino, has shown himself to be a very balanced person. He is convinced that defending Israel is a matter of priority. Thus it won’t be easy for D’Alema to overcome that stance.

“Prime Minister Prodi has the habits of the old Christian Democrat politicians. He comes from a left-wing Catholic school. He believes in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. He rejects the idea of a clash of civilizations. He can best be defined as a navigator. Prodi is no fighter against terrorism and Islamic fanaticism. He is unlikely to create great surprises that will detach him from the Brussels and Strasbourg orthodoxy.

“As president of the EU Commission he made some far-reaching anti-Israeli statements. This helped him in his relationship with Paris and Berlin, protecting him, in turn, from the evident contempt he faced from London and Washington. As Italian prime minister he is likely to navigate more carefully.”

Ferrara repeats: “It is certainly possible that the Prodi government will take an anti-Israeli line. We do not yet see the first explicit signs of it, but as noted, it is too early to say.”

In mid-July during the fighting in Lebanon, Ferrara attacked the Italian government and the parties that supported it. He charged that they were taking a summer vacation from their responsibility. In an article titled “The Tears of the European Crocodile Destroy Israel,” Ferrara wrote that “they feigned not to know that Palestinian nationalism-polluted by the political and civil corruption of the revolutionary elites-was being substituted by the political Islamism of Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust-denying head of state.”

Ferrara ended with a call to the Italian Left: “On one side you have people like Olmert, Livni, Peretz, and Peres. On the other side there is Sheikh Nasrallah and Mash’al, who is a fugitive in Damascus protected by the worst despots of the Middle East. For once, do-gooders, make a choice that reflects proportional use of intelligence and political dignity.”1

Giuliano Ferrara is the founder and editor of the daily Il Foglio. He was born in Rome in 1952 to a family of longstanding communists, and remained a communist until the age of thirty. He was a political columnist for Corriera della Sera and has published in several Italian weeklies. He has been the director of many television programs, first for the state-owned RAI and later for Mediaset of the Berlusconi Group. For five years he has been anchoring a daily news program on the independent network La7 owned by the Telecom group.


Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.