It all depends who says it
BY mere coincidence, or bei mir bist du shein (if Professor Hirsh will allow the pun), the fall-out from the absurd decision to suspend London mayor Ken Livingston comes as the cord of rumors and allegations tightens around the neck of Tony Blair's Sports and Culture Minister Tessa Jowell.
Don't get alarmed, the minister has not insulted a newspaper reporter, as far as I know, so there's nothing to excite the Board of Deputies (not even of British Italians, if such existed). But as her husband, rich-persons solicitor David Mills prepares to face an Italian court, this time not as lawyer or witness but defendant, it is reported that Mrs.Mills signed a mortgage deal used as a cover for her husband to receive a £350,000 "gift" from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"On September 27, 2000 - in the middle of the Labour party conference - both Mills and Jowell signed a document taking out a large mortgage on their £700,000 terraced home in Kentish Town, north London. This money was then placed in an obscure hedge fund. The mortgage was paid off less than a month later with the Italian "gift". (Sunday Times, February 26)
Mills helped Berlusconi set up offshore funds to conceal the extent of his media holdings as well payments like those alleged. The lawyer has insisted he and his wife had entirely separate finances. Well, it's a change on "it's all in my wife's name".
But even with my quirky memory that irritates politicians, and amuses and exasperates my friends (where did I put my keys?), why should news about Livingston have put me in mind of Berlusconi?
Well, it's less than three years since the Italian PM, in his role as European Union president, shocked Euro MPs and caused a diplomatic row by telling German Social Democrat MEP, Martin Schultz who had said something about his use of immunity to avoid bribery charges:
"Mr Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of commandant. You'd be perfect."
Before his rise as billionaire property and media magnate, Berlusconi's jobs included singing on a cruise liner, but if he'd doubled as a comedian, Euro MPs were not amused by his jibe implying all Germans are Nazis. Martin Schultz might well have pointed out that his party suffered persecution by the Nazis, its members were sent to the camps, whereas Berlusconi appointed a "post-fascist", Gianfranco Fini as his Foreign Minister. (What kind of fascist is a "post-fascist"? One that dons a smart Italian suit).
It was not the first time Berlusconi had aired his ignorance and prejudice. Soon after the September 11 attacks he attacked Arabs and Muslim civilisation, saying Westerners should be proud of the "superiority of our civilisation" over Islam, which was "1,400 years behind". Berlusconi has never apologised.
In 1994, at a dinner of world leaders, then Russian president Boris Yeltsin complained that the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was not helping Russia end the Chechnya conflict. Since Italy was chairing the CSCE, Berlusconi was asked to reply. He spoke for 25 minutes about Europe and war. After the meal was over he sidled up to Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, and asked him: "What is the CSCE, anyway?"
According to Berlusconi himself, Gonzalez ended up splitting his sides on the floor laughing, and the Italian PM had to help him up.
Many people, particularly Italian Jews, were less amused by the interview Berlusconi gave the British Tory Spectator in September 2003. Discussing how the Iraqi people might need time to recover from 40 years of dictatorship, he was asked whether Italians had not had the same problem after fascism was defeated. He denied the comparison between dictators.. 'That was a much more benign dictatorship Mussolini did not murder anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday to confine them [banishment to small islands such as Ponza and Maddalena which are now exclusive resorts].'
It was not the first time. When first elected in 1994 he told reporters "Mussolini did some good things here". Tullia Zevi, a former leader of Italy's Union of Jewish Communities, told the New York Times in a telephone interview, "He said fascism was a very mild dictatorship! It was so 'mild' there were many political murders from the very beginning, and also for the Jews."
Mussolini used gas against Ethiopians long before Saddam Hussein tried it on Kurds. Italy's fascist regime adopted anti-Semitic race laws in 1938 depriving Jews of civil rights and leading to expulsion from schools and employment. These measures enabled the later deportation of thousands of Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. Mussolini publicly announced his agreement with the "Final Solution."
So how did Jewish organisations in other countries respond to Berlusconi's defence of Mussolini, his promotion of neo-fascists, or his "joke" comparing someone to a Nazi concentration camp guard? After all, Ken Livingstone's jibe to a reporter was enough to set off an international campaign, promoted by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, accusing London's mayor of being an antisemite, even though he publicly stated that he had not wished to offend Jewish people or make light of the Holocaust.
Well, the established organisation in the United States claiming to combat antisemitism, the B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League(ADL), proceeded with inviting Berlusconi to its dinner on September 23, 2003, to proclaim him "European Statesman of the Year".
On the eve of the dinner, the New York Times published a letter signed by three Nobel laureates, economists Franco Modigliani, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calling the ADL award "shocking to anyone who knows Mr. Berlusconi's controversial history."
Several Jewish groups asked that the award be withdrawn. But just as American Zionists had ignored French Jewish protests when they invited Jean-Marie Le Pen in an earlier decade, ADL director Abraham Foxman dismissed complaints about Berlusconi as "politically laced", and went ahead with the award dinner.
It was quite an occasion. Among top media and business leaders present was Rupert Murdoch, who fondly recalled how Berlusconi had said he was "entering politics to save Italy from the communists". (Much as Winston Churchill once said praising Mussolini). Also among the guests was former US secretary of State Henry Kissinger. They gave Berlusconi two standing ovations. I don't know if he told any of his jokes.
As Foxman explained, justifying the award, Berlusconi had been a loyal friend of the United States in its war on Iraq when other European leaders hesitated. He admitted Berlusconi's recent comments were "inappropriate" and "uninformed," but "that's not enough for me to say he's no longer a friend." Besides, as Foxman told the Jewish Week, the Italian premier was a "good friend of Israel".. "He has spoken out that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism," Foxman said.
When Silvio Berlusconi went to the Middle East that year he refused to meet Yasser Arafat. Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas therefore declined the pleasure of meeting Berlusconi. But Ariel Sharon said the Italian PM was "Israel's best friend in Europe."
So, if Ken wants to win forgiveness from such leaders, all he has to do is apologise and - change his views on US war policies and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Not much to ask, is it?
.Wondering what, if anything, Britain's Board of Deputies had said about Berlusconi, I did a search, and found an item mentioning "football" and "Berlusconi". Thinking it must have something to do with Lazio player Paolo Di Canio, who keeps giving fascist salutes, to the delight of neo-Nazi fans and Berlusconi's coalition partners in the Alianza Nationale, I clicked on the item to see what it said, and read:
"The Board of Deputies has written to European football's governing body to express its disapproval following the decision by UEFA not to allow Hapoel Tel Aviv to host their UEFA Cup quarter-final clash with Italian club AC Milan in Israel. The Israeli Government has condemned the decision coming, as it does, amid the growing crisis in Israel's tourist industry. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is also the owner of AC Milan, also supported Israel's stance and called for the tie to be staged in Israel".
So let nobody say the Board of Deputies does not keep its eye on the ball.
see previous items on: Turn Again, Livingstone?
Mills and Berlusconi