Mussolini, So What?

What do Henry Kissinger, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, media magnate Rupert Murdoch and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman have in common with foreign ministers from Israel, Italy and Austria? All of them took part last week in a New York gala and toasted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

What do Henry Kissinger, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, media magnate Rupert Murdoch and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman have in common with foreign ministers from Israel, Italy and Austria? All of them, decked out in their finest dress, took part last week in a gala held at New York's splendid Plaza Hotel. And, along with 500 other notables, they toasted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was awarded the Anti-Defamation League's prestigious Distinguished Statesman award.

In public statements, Berlusconi delivered blow after blow - but who cared? Italy, he said, warrants investment because secretaries there are beautiful? Sexism, after all, has never been a criterion relevant to statesmanship. Judges in Italy, on Berlusconi's prognosis, are mentally disturbed? After all, we're familiar with this sector, which has honed witch-hunting into a skilled craft. Specific, focused criticism voiced by a German politician reminds the prime minister of a kapo in a concentration camp? Quarrelling with such associations is hard. Islam is inferior to Western civilization? What's there to doubt?

Berlusconi, however, isn't satisfied with that. "Mussolini didn't kill anyone," he declared earlier this month. At most, he sent his opponents to "holiday on internal exile," he added. In fact, 7,000 Italian Jews were sent to death camps, thousands of opponents of the regime were rounded up, exiled or murdered, and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, Libyans, Yugoslavians, and Greeks were killed during Mussolini's wars of conquest. Berlusconi, however, has suffered a sudden, extreme case of amnesia. Some two weeks after his statements, he was awarded his prize by the ADL - a laudable organization whose goal is to defend human rights, and to fight against defaming racists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. It is a development that raises the question of what counts as defamation and as Holocaust denial.

It's not hard to imagine the storm that would break in Israel and the Jewish world were French President Jacques Chirac - the same man who in 1996 assumed historic responsibility for crimes committed by the Vichy regime against the Jews - to make comments about Marshal Phillippe Petain that echo what Berlusconi has said about Mussolini. It's also not hard to imagine what would happen were the prime minister of Norway to make an utterance reminiscent of the position taken by Vidkun Quisling, or if his Belgian counterpart were to relate indulgently toward the collaboration between King Leopold II and the Nazis.

But Berlusconi is another story. It's not hard to find Berlusconi advocates in the Jewish world and Israel. In discussions with ADL director Abe Foxman, with top officials in Israel's embassy in Rome, with Likud Knesset chair MK Gideon Sa'ar (who recently initiated a pro-Berlusconi session in the Knesset) and with academics like Professor Shlomo Avineri, one hears the same refrain - nobody liked the Italian prime minister's "stupid" declaration about Mussolini. Yet they want to sweep the comment under the rug, or at least put it in a broad context.

Their defense relies on Berlusconi's support for the American war in Iraq, on his staunchly pro-Israeli policies (which refuse to draw distinctions between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism), on his support for boycotting and isolating Yasser Arafat, on his proposal to include Israel in the European Union, on his success in forcing European colleagues to include Hamas on the EU's list of terror organizations, on the gap between his statements and his policies ("after all, he hardly intends to revive Mussolini's regime"), and on the fact that, even though criticism of his statements is motivated by political partisanship, Berlusconi "went to Canossa," and "got down on his knees" in the Great Synagogue of Rome to apologize to the president of the Jewish community.

However, Amos Luzzato, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, offers an altogether different account of Berlusconi's "trip to Canossa." The prime minister, he says, neither fell to his knees nor apologized. Berlusconi, on this account, only "expressed regret" for the pain that was caused, and added that "his statements were made in a private conversation, and thus should never have been publicized." Two experts on fascism in Italy, Professors Piero Ignazzi and Marco Tarchi, are convinced that Berlusconi's statements were no slips of the tongue. The comments, the experts contend, were fraught with meaning: they were designed to compromise Berlusconi's partner-rival, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale, and to wink affirmatively at a hard core of Italians who long wistfully for Mussolini, to voters who have been disappointed by Fini's decision to distance himself from the Ducce's legacy.

Nevertheless, it seems that for some banalizing the Holocaust, and a dubious record in the realm of democracy and respect for the law, pale in comparison to steadfast support for Ariel Sharon and his policies. As Foxman put it during a reception for Berlusconi: "I like Bush. I like Sharon. And Silvio Berlusconi, we are delighted to have you here tonight."

While Israel and Jewish organizations must embrace a measure of realpolitik, they also must uphold approaches that have clear borders. Should Berlusconi's pro-Israeli stance be exploited in Europe and the international arena? Yes, without a doubt. But galas, parliamentary support rallies and distinguished medals of honor are another matter.