Italian Jews Fear Dual Loyalty Accusations After ex-MP Is Tapped as Israel's Envoy to Rome

Fiamma Nirenstein, once an outspoken member of Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, made Aliyah in 2013 but recently vied for the leadership of Rome's Jewish community.

An archive photo from October 7, 2010 showing Fiamma Nirenstein, then member of Italian Parliament, taking part in a pro-Israel demonstration in Rome.
AFP

The appointment of former Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein as Israel's ambassador to Rome is raising objections and concerns among leaders of Italy's Jewish community. The former parliament member also ran for leadership of Rome's Jewish community last month and her son works in the Italian intelligence service, raising fears in the Jewish community that accusations of dual loyalties will be made.

The announcement of Nirenstein's appointment took the Jewish community by surprise. Nirenstein is well-known in Italy as a long-time journalist but mostly for her political activity as an outspoken lawmaker for Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom Party. She defended Israel strongly in the Italian media every time the Israeli government's policies were criticized.

Most of the Jewish community leaders have so far expressed their criticism of Nirenstein's appointment privately or off the record. The community has extremely pro-Zionist views and many of its members display support for Netanyahu's policy.

One of the few who agreed to be quoted on the issue, albeit in a delicate, diplomatic way, was Rome's chief rabbi Riccardo di Segni. In a short interview to the Italian news agency ANSA he said "she's a very good journalist.  But I fear there may be problems [due to the appointment] just read what's already on the social networks about her dual citizenship."

Senior figures in the Jewish community say that the chief rabbi's remarks are representative of the sentiments that emerged in recent days. They point to the fact that within two years, Nirenstein went from being a member of the Italian parliament to becoming an Israeli citizen, then running as an Italian for the leadership of Rome's Jewish community before being tapped as Israel's ambassador to Italy.

"It's problematic," one senior figure in the community said. "If they appointed her as Israel's envoy in the UN or in another capital it would be alright. But appointing her as ambassador to Rome could make people ask if Italy's Jews are Israeli or Italian. It could even harm other Jews' chance of being elected to the Italian parliament, or to senior government posts in the future."

In fact, this is not a theoretical scenario. Nirenstein's cousin, a parliament member of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's party, is running in the Milan mayoral elections and could find his loyalty put to question. He hastened to declare after the announcement of his cousin's appointment as ambassador that he was proud to be Italian and proud of his family's success.

Nirenstein's appointment is further complicated by the fact that her son works in the Italian intelligence service. He was previously posted in Washington and Brussels and today serves in the Italian intelligence headquarters in Rome. According to the Italian news site Dagospia, people who have a nuclear family member serving as a foreign state's diplomat cannot work in Italian intelligence for fear of breach of secrecy. It is as yet unclear whether this means that Nirenstein's son will have to leave his position.

"This appointment could create a problem of anti-Semitism," a member of the Jewish community said. "Over the years, the Jew is always suspected of being a traitor to his country. Placing her in Italy, on the other side of the table, could harm Italian Jews' identity. The absolute majority of them are Zionists, but they're also citizens with all the rights and duties. It's not something to be trifled with," he said.