A beaming Silvio Berlusconi accepted the Anti-Defamation League’s Distinguished Statesman Award at a gala dinner in New York Tuesday night, a week after the Italian prime minister was skewered at home for defending the World War II reign of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Before an elite crowd of about 500 at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel (among those on hand were Peruvian President Allejandro Toledo, foreign ministers, ambassadors and Miramax head Harvey Weinstein) Berlusconi emphasized his strong allegiance to the United States for saving his country from fascism and referred to the Holocaust as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
He also re-emphasized support for America’s war in Iraq and for Israel, as well as his opposition to anti-Semitism. To great applause, Berlusconi said terrorism is a crime against humanity and "there is no cause to justify the murdering of innocents" in the Middle East.
"I have always been grateful to the United States for saving my country and Europe from the greatest scourges of the 20th century: anti-Semitism, Nazism, communism," he said.
Berlusconi recommended that Israel be considered for membership in the European Union.
But he never directly addressed last week’s controversy, where he was pressured to apologize to Italy’s Jewish community for saying that "Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile."
The published remarks offended Italians, Jews and non-Jews, who noted that about 7,000 Jews were deported under Mussolini’s reign, 5,910 of whom were killed. Widespread persecution of Italian Jews also began in 1938 when Mussolini’s regime issued racial laws.
Berlusconi last week clarified the incident, saying that during a conversation over a couple of bottles of champagne, he was merely rejecting the reporters’ suggestion that Mussolini was as bad as Saddam Hussein.
Some called for the ADL to cancel the event because of the controversy.
Three Nobel laureates (economists Franco Modigliani, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in a letter published Tuesday in The New York Times, said the ADL’s decision to honor the prime minister was "shocking to anyone who knows Mr. Berlusconi’s controversial history."
At the dinner, ADL national director Abraham Foxman addressed the controversy, saying he never received so many phone calls questioning whether he should go ahead with the award. He said some of the critics don’t like President Bush, Sharon and Berlusconi.
"We like President Bush, we like Sharon, we like Berlusconi," Foxman declared. "We are delighted to have him here tonight.
Later, Foxman told The Jewish Week he felt Berlusconi publicly addressed the controversy and that he privately "apologized to me."
But in Italy, Jewish leaders were mixed about the apology.
"Mr. Berlusconi has apologized twice and we are satisfied," Guido de Veroli, a spokesman for the 30,000-member Jewish community, told an Italian reporter.
But Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Jewish Communities, said that while Berlusconi apologized to him and the Jewish community personally, he did not issue an apology to the entire Italian people.
Dinner co-chairman Rupert Murdoch praised his fellow media mogul as a courageous man who stands up for his beliefs against larger European countries.
Weinstein credited Berlusconi for reinvigorating Italy’s film industry.