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The strange relationship between Silvio Berlusconi and Italian Jews

Why would Italian Jews vote for a man who says Mussolini wasn’t all that bad?

By Anna Momigliano

Silvio Berlusconi (credit: Alessio85 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)

ROME – After dominating Italian politics for two decades, Silvio Berlusconi is running for re-election. Recently, the flamboyant 77-year-old tycoon spoke in praise of Mussolini – incredibly, he made his remarks on Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the January 27 ceremony held in his native Milan.

“The Racial Laws [that stripped Jews of their civil rights in 1938] were the worst sin of a leader who, in other respects, accomplished many positive things,” Berlusconi said. His audience included local Jewish leaders.

Predictably enough, he was booed.

But Berlusconi was not addressing the Jews in the audience.

With a national election scheduled for February 24 and 25, political campaigns are at full throttle in Italy. So it makes some sense that Berlusconi, whose self described “center-right” People of Freedom party is faltering in the polls, is doing his best to please conservative voters who, due to the economic crisis and a series of corruption scandals, are now beginning to question his leadership.

Mussolini is still quite a popular figure in Italy. This is true not only for right-wing radicals, but also for more mainstream conservatives. Italian law defines “apologizing for fascism” as a criminal offense, but it’s quite common to hear positive comments about Il Duce’s regime in private situations. I myself recall odd dinner party conversations on the topic.

According to a 2010 survey, Mussolini is Italy’s second most popular historical figure of all time, second only to Leonardo Da Vinci. The results of the survey are probably exaggerated, given its methodology – it was conducted by volunteers for a well-known history magazine – but it reflects a general climate in which the historical responsibilities of fascism are downplayed.

Berlusconi has made controversial statements about Mussolini before. In 2003 he claimed “Mussolini did not kill anyone.”

In fact, Mussolini did kill quite a few people – including 7,000 Italian Jews sent to Nazi camps with the help of the fascist regime. Click here to view all their names, dutifully collected by historian Lilliana Picciotto. Many of those Italian Jews boarded their trains to Auschwitz at the central station in Milan, where the ceremony was held at the end of last month.

It’s strange enough that Berlusconi was invited to speak at a ceremony memorializing Jews who were murdered with Mussolini’s help. Stranger still, though, is this: Not only do many Italian Jews vote for Berlusconi, but some are actually members of his party.

Currently there are at least two Jewish members of parliament who were elected as candidates for Berlusconi’s party, People of Freedom. For the upcoming election, the party even has a candidate from Israel, 30-year-old Sharon Nizza (the Italian electoral system includes a number of special seats for Italians living abroad).

Mussolini’s own granddaughter, Alessandra, is also a candidate on the People of Freedom’s party list.

In an interview with La Repubblica, Nizza admitted she was embarrassed by Berlusconi’s pro-Mussolini comments. She vowed to “make him change his mind.”

In other words, defending Mussolini is considered embarrassing, yet tolerable – something to be outraged over for a while and then forgive.

Emanuele Fiano, a member of parliament for the left-leaning Democratic Party and son of a Holocaust survivor, was much harsher in his judgement. “I can’t see how a Jew can vote for Berlusconi, after this,” he said.

The truth, however, is that many Italian Jews will continue to vote for Berlusconi, just as they did after he claimed in 2003 that Mussolini “did not kill anybody.”

Jewish support for Berlusconi is based on complex factors. The most obvious is that Italian Jews vote like all the other Italians: some of them vote right, some of them vote left. And in Italy politics is rarely about ideology, identity or civil rights: people tend to vote according to their economic interests. This also explains why Berlusconi’s party is so strong in the North, which is much wealthier, but is also socially more progressive than the South.

Another explanation is that the Right is traditionally more friendly to Israel than the Left. Indeed, Berlusconi used to be one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s few supporters among western leaders, prior to his resignation in 2011. The Italian Left, on the other hand, has a reputation for its “pro-Arab” bias. This was true in the 1980s, when under the socialist government Rome was considered a safe haven for Palestinian groups. But much has changed since then.

To put it simply, some see it this way: “Italian Jews need to chose between those who don’t love Israel and those who don’t love Jews,” wrote demography scholar Sergio Della Pergola in an editorial published by Pagine Ebraiche, Italy’s Jewish newspaper. He was quoting his own daughter.

Personally, I don’t agree with this view. Yes, Italy’s Left is often critical of Israeli policies, but in many cases they have a good point. But even if one does agree with Della Pergola’s daughter, the question remains: how can Italian Jews, whose families were directly affected by the Holocaust, still vote for a party led by a man who says that “Mussolini didn’t kill anyone”? How can they vote for Berlusconi, no matter how pro-Israel he is?

In the U.S. and the U.K., some Jews argue that contemporary Jewish education places too much emphasis on the Holocaust as a foundation for Jewish identity – as opposed to, let’s say, love for Torah or the relationship with Israel.

Sometimes I wonder if in Italy we have the exact opposite problem. And I ask myself how so many of us have come to believe that Israel is more important to us than the fact that our grandparents were slaughtered by a man who, according to Berlusconi, “has done many positive things.”

But then, I forgot: Mussolini didn’t kill anyone, did he?

Anna Momigliano is an Italian journalist focusing on the Middle East and new media. She edits the magazine Studio and authored Karma Kosher, a book about Israeli youth.

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    1. Leen

      Mussolini’s relationship with the Jews was a little more complex.

      Although Mussolini did indeed find the conept of Fascism, it did not necessarily call for genocide of other races. Its emphasis laid in military control of the nation, and total control of the state. There was emphasis on racial superiority in terms of wanting to go back to the glories of the Roman days. However it was extremely nationalistic.

      Mussolini personally had nothing against Jews, many of his mistresses were Jews and some of his party members were also Jews.

      However, this changed with the relationship getting closer with Hitler, and Mussolini’s syphilis getting worse. He became incompetent, pretty much controlled by Hitler, and tried to emulate his policies on Hitler because GErmany was gaining more power and power. This coupled with the loss of his sanity (as syphilis causes brain damage), Mussolini became antagonistic towards the Jews because it is what Hitler did.

      That’s what explains Mussolini’s complex relationship with Jews. It doesn’t excuse it of course, but certainly explains why Mussolini pulled an 180 on the issue of Jews.

      Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Apparently, even with Hitler’s influence, Mussolini did not listen to Hitler all that much, he refused to transfer all of the Jews to the Nazi concentration camps and opposed the Final solution.

        Reply to Comment
        • Camilla A.

          Leen, Mussolini’s relation with Jews is indeed different and more complex than Hitler’s, but be careful not to lessen the role he played in the Holocaust.
          It is true he had Jewish mistress, (Angelica Balabanoff and Margherita Sarfatti), but that doesn’t necessary mean he had “personally nothing against Jews”: his daughter Edda quoted him saying “Jews are my worst enemy” well before Racial Laws were enacted (and a similar view emerges from a biography of his last mistress, Clara Petacci; but as I haven’t read it myself I can’t elaborate further).
          It his true that fascism, unlike nazism, is not antisemite “per se”, but still it is a very authoritarian and nationalistic doctrine (as you rightly said), and modern fascists (at least, the ones who declare themselves “fascists”) in Italy ARE antisemite with almost no exception.
          It is also true that before Racial Laws were enacted many Jews, just like their Catholic countrymen, supported Mussolini and were not only members (something you were “forced” to be if you wanted to get a decent job) but even relevant figures of the Fascist Party (such as Aldo Finzi). But that didn’t help them much during WWII (Finzi himself died in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre).
          And finally, it is true that no Italian Jew was deported before 1943 and the rise of the Republic of Salo (which might suggest Mussolini wasn’t as keen as Hitler to exterminate the Jews). But when the deportations started, Italian Fascists did actively help the Nazis. Just to make a small exaple, under Italian racial laws, the issues of a mixed couple were not to be considered Jews; well, there have been cases when the Fascist Militia broke the rules they themselves had issued and deported those families.
          So, after all, I am aware of Mussolini’s position, and I know it was different from Hitler’s. But I don’t think that difference matters for all my countrymen that were stripped of their citizenship, jobs and civil rights, and finally deported and murdered just because they were Jews. It shouldn’t matter at all.

          Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            At the end of the day, Mussolini was a dictator. He wasn’t a very good one because his flopped on many issues, allowed other people to define fascism, his own conception, and his close relationship with Nazi germany doomed him. His obsession with retrieving Austrian controlled territory also took a life of its own at some point.

            Please don’t get confused with what I’ve said before, I never said Mussolini was a great guy as I think being a dictator makes you a bad leader morally. Also I am wary of any state-controlled ideologies.

            But again the flip flop issue is what I’ve highlighted. Mussolini has also retracted and said that he regrets the inactment of the racial laws and has said that Jews are part of Italian society and should be left undisturbed, and has implied he regrets the Racial Laws. He even openly mocked the ‘Aryan’ concept saying that race is but an idea. But then you have some other comments he made about race and the Jews. It is like Mussolini, he often enlisted the support fo the Catholic church despite the fact he was an atheist.

            When I was referring to the Jewish member of the Fascist party, I was referring to people such as Ettore Ovazza who were fascists before the March to Rome. Although yes naturally people supported fascism becuase its idea that the state controlled the nation.

            I do find Mussolini fascinating, I think he was a much more complex character and his policies stemmed from a wide range of factors, insecurities, and opportunism. Nevertheless, if I was going to rank him on my list of dictators of the 20th century, he would definitely be on my soft list (compared to characters like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc). For me I do find it unfortunate that this man is still hailed in Italian society, just like I find it unfortunate that Stalinism is still alive in Russia and Maoism is nowhere near dead in China. let’s just thank the lord that Hitler is not hailed as a hero in Germany.

            Reply to Comment
      • ToivoS

        Mussolini personally had nothing against Jews, many of his mistresses were Jews

        Oh whoop de whoop. Do you know how many slave owners had black mistresses? Today I saw the obituary of Strom Thurmond’s daughter, born of his black maid. Is this some kind of defense for some of worse racism that the US experienced? Poor Israel, they are reduced to this to defend their supporters today.

        Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          You should read my entire post before pulling up a quote out of context.
          As I’ve said before, Mussolini has flip-flopped on the issue of Jews and race, he has publically and privately mocked the idea of racial purity and said the jews are part of italian society, yet based on a number of factors inclusing personal factors such as his advancement of syphilis (which as you know causes brain damage) he has changed his tune on Jews. He has said though that he regrets the racial law enactment.

          That is not comparable to slave laws because Mussolini did not enact the racial laws until 1938 (he ruled Italy for a good amount of time before that and his conception of Fascism was in 1922, so you do the math). Again it seems his period of being publically anatagonistic towards the jews extended for 5 years. That to me is not comparable to decades of slavery and racial attitudes.

          Mussolini is not as cut and dry as people make him out to be. He was an opportunist really than someone who is ideologically driven. It was known that Mussolini despised the Catholic church and catholics in general yet he had no problem using the church to his advantage.

          And by the way, I am not a supporter of Israel. Just because I am willing to bring up a historical debate about Mussolini does not make me an Israel supporter. You can look it up yourself, Mussolini’s relationship with Jews.

          If anything, I think Stalin was more of an anti-semite than Mussolini as there were records of him being antagonist towards the Jews in his private life, despite the fact that he has stated he was against antisemitism of all sorts.

          Anyway, it doesnt matter because Mussolini still was a dictator.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Camilla a.

      You know, Anna, the fact that someone belonging to a minority group may actually vote the italian right (Berlusclowni + the not-so-former Fascists + Lega Nord) has always puzzled me. Is not that I demand higher standards from minorities – actually I think that NO decent and educated Italian should vote for the above mentioned parties; it’s just that, I mean, they should KNOW just how bad those guys are… Just how populists and ignorant and sometimes racists. But if an Italian Jew can vote Berlusconi for the reasons you listed; if a gay person may do the same after he stated that “it’s better to flirt with young, attractive girls than being gay”, and so on, well, I give up and conclude that human nature is pretty twisted.

      There is just one thing I would like to add to your otherwise excellent article. For a long time I was disturbed by the idea that some Italian Jews might actually vote Berlusconi for Israel’s sake (just to make myself clear: I am also disturbed, and very much so, by the fact that many Catholic Italians do vote Berlusconi for Vatican’s sake. I just focus on Jews here because that’s the topic). I used to wonder why, and once or twice I was even trapped in absurd debates about dual loyalty and so on. At the end of the day I realized that after all what drives a Jew to vote Berlusconi is the same thing that drives (almost) every other Italian to do the same: egoism and lack of foresight. Berlusconi’s supporters vote him because they think he will make their interest: by cutting taxes, by giving us back IMU, by bringing Balotelli to A.C. Milan or by defending Israel even when it is indefensible. And they are so short-sighted they don’t realize that – to roughly translate what we say in Italian – they are beating the hoe on their own feet.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Roberto K

      So the Libyan, Ethiopian and other dead in the Italian conquest of North Africa, both before and during Mussolini’s rule are irrelevant to the question of who Mussolini killed?
      (for example http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/25/libya-remembers-bombs-not-first)

      Though of course in North Africa Mussolini was not doing anything different form what France, Britain and the U.S. were doing in their respective colonies or would-be colonies.

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        Mussolini loved some Jews (“some of my best mistresses were Jewish”??) and until 1938 had cordial relationship with Zionist Revisionists who had Betar Naval Academy in Civitavecchia. Then the alliance with Nazis changed it for the worse.

        So the earlier, kinder Mussolini, who murdered relatively few political opponents and waged relatively small wars was a good friend of the Zionist movement.

        Reply to Comment
      • Silvana Da Ros

        Indeed and at the chanting of ‘Faccetta nera’. For more racism.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Marco Schneebalg

      Just one thing:
      Berlusconi was not invited to the ceremony. He invited himself. Also, he did not speak at the ceremony, he slept; he only spoke to a journalist outside the ceremony.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Silvana Da Ros

      From the article : ‘Another explanation is that the Right is traditionally more friendly to Israel than the Left.’
      The above is incorrect. It maybe true nowadays and yet recently Israel was isolated by the whole world in the vote for the Palestinian State.
      Historically the italian left protected the jewish population and the jews supported the left for that reason, but only for a while it seems.
      Any further comments on the behavior of the majority of jewish people and their political choice, as stated from this article, would risk to trigger their accusation of antisemitism, so frequently applied today to any criticism of the jews and of the state of Israel. Hence no freedom of comments.

      Reply to Comment