Early in Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel “Altneuland” is a sarcastic description of complacent nouveaux riches Jews of Vienna at a salon. Blind to the dangers that await them, they ridicule the nascent Zionist movement. When one wit jokes that he will be the Jewish settlement’s ambassador to Vienna, others join in: “‘I too!’ ‘I too!’”
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Like some of Herzl’s other ideas, it seems this one too is becoming true, if distorted, ironically in the Netanyahu era. But it’s not funny.
As his ambassador to Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose a fairly recent immigrant from the United States with ties to the Republican Party, who had campaigned in the crucial state of Florida against Barack Obama’s election.
Anyone with a brain would have discouraged such a provocation, and there is no disputing that Ron Dermer is the biggest failure as ambassador to the world’s leading superpower that Israel has ever had.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu and his foreign minister seem to think it was a brilliant idea, and the prime minister is repeating the trick by nominating Fiamma Nirenstein, a new immigrant from Italy, as Israel’s ambassador in Rome.
Of course Netanyahu has the right to opt for political appointees rather than career diplomats. I assume that he chose Nirenstein for her pro-Israel public relations work in Italy, as well as her Likud-friendly positions.
The problem goes beyond the fact that Nirenstein spent most of her life in Italy and has not relinquished her Italian passport: She is a well-known political figure there. Until 2013 she served in the Italian parliament for Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. She was vice president of the chamber’s foreign affairs committee and is known to be close to Berlusconi. Nirenstein immigrated to Israel in 2013, but in June 2015 she ran for the leadership of Rome’s Jewish community, losing six votes to 27 to Ruth Dureghello.
Berlusconi’s right-wing party is in the opposition, and Italy is led by a center-right coalition. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is one of Israel’s best friends in Europe.
In a recent visit he gave an enthusiastic — even moving — address to the Knesset. He described Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, called for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state and condemned all boycott attempts against Israel or its products. He declared that anyone who supports such a boycott is a traitor to Europe’s democratic values. No other European leader in recent months has taken such a clear pro-Israel stance.
Maybe it was in order to “punish” Renzi for his pro-Israeli policies that Netanyahu decided to send Rome an ambassador who is identified with Berlusconi’s right-wing opposition. Does Netanyahu have another explanation?
The decision stunned Italy’s Jewish community, whose leaders asked President Reuven Rivlin during his recent visit to Italy to intervene to block the appointment. (Rivlin told them, in his statesmanlike way, that the matter was beyond his purview.)
This is not a personal matter, but one of principle on a number of levels: Posting an ambassador to serve in the country of which she was a citizen until just recently is problematic; it blurs the lines between Jewish and Israeli identity and between Israel and the Diaspora, and forces the local Jewish community to face the accusation of dual loyalty.
In addition, the appointment of an ambassador who is identified so strongly with the political opposition in the host country is a smack in the face to that country’s government — especially when this government is so friendly toward Israel. On top of all this, how can an individual who lost the election to head the local Jewish community return to that community as the representative of Israel? It is not difficult to imagine that she will be hard-put to succeed in a situation that could well confuse and embarrass, if not insult, even Israel’s closest friends.
Netanyahu has the right to reward Nirenstein for her support of his policies and Likud’s positions, but it is doubtful that someone who has not lived in Israel can truly represent the state and its problems. If he nevertheless thinks she is a suitable ambassador for Israel, then there is no reason not to post her to another country, from Kazakhstan to Argentina, and she even deserves our good wishes. But she should not be sent to Italy.
I hope that common sense will win out in the end: Nirenstein’s appointment will only hurt Israel and the Zionist idea. We must say to Herzl’s credit that he foresaw such absurd situations, although presumably he never expected someone would take them seriously.