The Cynical Use of Israel in Italian Politics

, July 1, 2007

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been far from a marginal issue in Italian politics. A few decades ago the Italian Left started to use the conflict as a strategic instrument to build domestic political alliances. The Communist Party, which in the 1990s reconstructed itself as the Democrats of the Left (DS) with which most former communists affiliate, used its criticism of Israel for bridge building with the Christian Democrats. These were Italy’s largest parties up to the early 1990s.
  • The 1967 Six Day War was the turning point for the Left’s stance toward Israel. Until then, Italian Jews’ identification with the country’s Left was not problematic. Israel was perceived as a socialist country with emphasis on the myth of the kibbutz’s importance. This was reinforced by the deep impact of the Holocaust. This mindset well suited the communists as the Soviet Union could be represented as the great victory of good over evil.
  • It was only in the early 1990s, with the fragmentation of Italian politics after a spate of huge corruption scandals, that major forces supporting Israel emerged. These were led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia party that was formed in the early 1990s. The new Italian Right has to a large extent relegitimized pro-Israeli positions in Italy. Yet almost the entire Left and large parts of the Catholic world still retain their anti-Israel views.
  • Italy presently has a left-wing government. Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema was one of the strongest opponents of Israel when he was prime minister from 1998-2000. The current government may again take extreme anti-Israeli positions.

“It is not by chance that the radical shift in the European Union’s stance toward Israel occurred in a declaration at a 1980 conference in an Italian city, Venice. It was issued when the PLO still explicitly said that it wanted to destroy Israel. Nevertheless, the Venice Declaration demanded the creation of a Palestinian state.

“Nineteen eighty-two witnessed another defining moment in the history of the Italian Left’s attitude toward Israel. On 9 October, a group of Palestinian and other Arab terrorists shot at and bombed the main synagogue in Rome, killing one-year-old Stefano Tach and wounding thirty-five others. The Jewish community refused to allow participation in the funeral to the anti-Israeli politicians who had inflamed the atmosphere. President Sandro Pertini, a socialist who had also condemned Israel, embracing the Palestinian cause, needed the intervention of Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini of the small Republican Party to be permitted to attend. Spadolini had earlier refused to receive Yasser Arafat when he was in Rome.”

Fiamma Nirenstein is a correspondent and columnist for the Italian daily Il Giornale and the weekly Panorama. She has written or edited ten books and anthologies, most of which deal with Israel and the Middle East. Nirenstein also teaches at Luiss University in Rome and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca.

Israel: An Instrument to Build Political Alliances

She observes: “However surprising this may be, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been far from a marginal issue in Italian politics. A few decades ago the Italian Left started to use the conflict as an instrument to build domestic political alliances. The Communist Party, which in the 1990s reconstructed itself as Democrats of the Left (DS) with which most former communists affiliate, used its criticism of Israel as an opportunity for bridge building with the now-defunct Christian Democrats and with the Catholic pro-Third World movements. Until the early 1990s, communists and Catholics were Italy’s largest forces.

“For decades after World War II there was intense competition in Italy between the two major currents of the Left, the communists (PCI) and the much smaller Socialist Party (PSI). Pietro Nenni, who was the PSI’s leader and died in 1980, consistently took pro-Israeli positions. He saw in Golda Meir and her colleagues not only fellow socialists but also pioneers of socialism in a nonsocialist region.

“Bettino Craxi, who led the nowadays largely defunct PSI from 1976 to 1993, had been Nenni’s pupil and took over his party faction. Craxi became the most important socialist personality in the post-Nenni period. Over the years he distanced himself from the party’s traditional coalition with the communists and joined a number of coalition governments with the Christian Democrats.

“These coalitions created a need for Craxi to show that he still belonged to the Left. To rebuild his credibility as a defender of human rights he formed an alliance with Arafat. To some extent the Palestinian terrorist leader became Craxi’s left-wing fig leaf.

“Over the past decade the Italian Left, which has been losing strength, has started to seek alliances with pacifist and other extreme left-wing movements. This coalition was partly constructed at the expense of Israel.”

A Confused Reality

Italian politics has been very confused over the past decades, including attitudes toward the Jews and Israel. Nirenstein notes that portraying the Italian political and also intellectual reality requires piecing together many fragments. “One episode that tells much about the origins of this confusion occurred when the Einaudi publishing house rejected the manuscript of Primo Levi’s book If This Is a Man, which later became famous.

“This was an editorial decision by Natalia Ginzburg, another left-wing Jewish writer. She considered that Levi was giving an overly Jewish character to the battle between good and evil in the concentration camps. One of Ginzburg’s books, Lessico Familiare, tells the history of a wealthy, Jewish, bourgeois family in Turin in the years before the racist laws that began the Jews’ persecution by Mussolini’s fascist regime.

“Ginzburg describes the family in a light and nondramatic way, as if Jewish identity is something minor and optional. Being a Jew, for her, is a bridge to a much more important larger identity, that of resistance to fascism. The linkage between the two was obvious at a time when the fascists promulgated racial laws. Ginzburg’s book, which totally denied Judaism’s essence, became an Italian literary icon.”

Criminalizing Israel

“Yet Primo Levi, who committed suicide in 1987, and Ginzburg found themselves together in criminalizing Israel. Ginzburg made the often-quoted statement: ‘To the sunburnt sabra, the Hebrew soldier with the weapons in his hand, I prefer the bent Jew who studies the Bible, the fragile, weak, and sick Jew.’

“Such remarks were typical for many Italian Jewish postwar intellectuals. Italian Jewry was looking for a home in the society. The Italian fascists’ complicity with the Holocaust meant this could only be found on the Left. In 1988 Ginzburg went so far as to define Israel as a fascist state in the communist daily Unità.1

“Levi was more ambivalent. On many occasions he showed a great passion for Israel. His book La Tregua tells how, at the end of the Holocaust, its group of Jewish protagonists leaves for Israel.”

The Catholic Church

In one of her books Nirenstein notes that Italian Jewry is the oldest Diaspora community and that some even claim the Jews are the only true remaining descendants of ancient Rome. This Jewry’s history has had many glorious moments. Yet Nirenstein remarks, “It has one vice that sometimes has shown itself to be fatal: its desire to remain in the mainstream.”2

She now observes: “After the war the Jews did not have much choice regarding their political alliances. Italy has never fully apologized for its anti-Semitic racist laws. It is more correct to say that Italy has psychologically excised these from its conscience. It is a Catholic country, which means it gives itself absolution for its sins. The country’s historiography was partly changed by the historian Renzo De Felice. He portrayed fascism as something very different from National Socialism, as a kind of elite ideology. This is false, even if the Italians behaved less cruelly than the Germans and Hitler was much worse than Mussolini.

“Yet De Felice well demonstrates that fascism was a mass movement, built with a large Catholic population that widely supported anti-Semitism. The Italians still want to proclaim Pope Pius XII to be holy despite his misbehavior during the war. This fits the tendency of the Catholic mentality, historiography, tradition, and population always absolving itself. These people are willing to consider the Nazis as criminals but not to think deeply about their own conduct.

“The Polish Pope John Paul II initiated a very different attitude toward Israel and visited the country. On the other hand, he had a penchant for pacifism and other distorted ideas, such as failing to recognize how evil terrorism is.

“The question is how the present German Pope Benedict XVI will develop. He realizes that the Catholic Church is under worldwide siege by Islam. The Pope knows he has to address this struggle. It is quite possible that deep in his heart he thinks he is obligated to convert all Jews. On the other hand, because of the necessity to confront radical Islam, he might become a much better friend of the Jews than his predecessor.”

Until 1967

Nirenstein explains that: “Until the Six Day War of 1967, the Italian Jews’ identification with the country’s Left was not problematic. Israel was perceived as a socialist country with emphasis on the myth of the kibbutz’s importance. This was reinforced by the deep impact of the Holocaust. This mindset well suited the communists as the Soviet Union could be represented as the great victory of good over evil.

“There were other factors that reinforced this attitude. Palmiro Togliatti, the postwar leader of the Italian Communist Party, saw Israel’s 1948 war as a major anti-imperialist victory over the United Kingdom, which was philo-Arab. He viewed positively the return of the Jews from the Diaspora. Within the PCI, a Jewish senator, Umberto Terracini, also played an important role. He tried to move the party toward a special relationship with Israel.

About Fiamma Nirenstein

Former journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a Member of the Italian Parliament; Vice President, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chamber of Deputies; Chair, Parliamentary Committee for the Inquiry on Antisemitism; Fellow, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Board Member, Magna Carta Foundation, European Friends of Israel (EFI); Member, Steering Committee, Interparliamentary Coalition on Combating Antisemitism (ICCA); Founding Member, Friends of Israel Initiative. Author: Israel is Us (2009). Recipient: Israeli Knesset Award for Commitment in the fight against antisemitism.