Guess who’s still coming to dinner?
Despite some controversial comments about Mussolini made last week, Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, will still be the guest of honor at a New York City dinner in two weeks sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.
Berlusconi, a moderate right politician, triggered worldwide headlines last week when he was quoted in a regional newspaper appearing to defend Italy’s World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a benign leader.
Said Berlusconi: "Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini sent people away on vacation, in internal exile."
The comments about Mussolini, a staunch ally of Adolf Hitler, did not sit well with many. Left-wing political foes immediately labeled Berlusconi a fascist apologist.
And Amos Luzzato, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said, "Berlusconi’s comments cause me profound pain."
Luzzato noted that Mussolini introduced Italy’s first racial laws in 1938, leading to the deportation of 8,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
Nevertheless, the gaffe-prone Berlusconi will be hailed as a friend of Jews and Israel and be presented with ADL’s distinguished statesman award, said ADL national director Abraham Foxman.
Noting that Berlusconi quickly clarified his remarks and was expected to meet with Italy’s Jewish leadership this week, Foxman contended that the prime minister’s misstatements do not overshadow his positive actions on behalf of America, Israel, and against anti-Semitism.
"This is a tribute to Italy and its prime minister. It is being given to him because … when Europe was dumping on the U.S., turning its back on us after 9-11, Berlusconi stood by the U.S. on its fight against terrorism," Foxman said.
On Israel, Foxman said Berlusconi has been supportive and understands Israel’s problems.
"He has spoken out that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. He has issued a public statement condemning anti-Semitism ó you don’t find that in Europe today."
Further, Foxman hailed Berlusconi, now serving as president of the European Union, for helping persuade the EU to place Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations last week.
Foxman said that while visiting Berlusconi twice in the last few years, he learned that the Italian leader every year visits Anzio Beach to visit the graves of thousands of World War II American soldiers who died to free Italy.
"He said ëAmericans, Christians and Jews, shed blood defending our democracy, how can I not stand with America.’ "
Still, Foxman chided Berlusconi for his comments.
In "clarifying" his remarks, Berlusconi explained that he did not mean to defend Mussolini: he was merely objecting to a reporter’s comparison of Mussolini to ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"I didn’t accept the comparison of my country to another dictatorship: that of Saddam Hussein, which provoked millions of deaths," Berlusconi told reporters.
Foxman called the remarks about Mussolini "silly and inappropriate. I think it was a mistake for him to compare evil.
"Is he perfect? No," Foxman commented. "He is a good friend that has a flaw. The flaw is he sometimes speaks on all kinds of issues without thinking."
But, "he has apologized and he has tried to fix it. I still embrace him because he is a friend and continues to be a friend."
Foxman also noted that Italy is also historically less anti-Semitic than other European nations, and even while Mussolini was dictator and 7,000 were deported, 23,000 Jews were rescued by their Italian neighbors.
Recent ADL political honorees include French President Jacques Chirac (2000) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (2001.)
The ADL dinner is being chaired by Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble. Vice chairmen include Mortimer Zuckerman, New York Daily News owner and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; and Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post and Fox News.
The flap is the latest prompted by the prime minister’s remarks, regarded by many as insensitive.
Speaking at the European Parliament last July, he told a German lawmaker who had criticized him that the man should appear in a movie as a Nazi concentration camp guard. Berlusconi later expressed regret, saying the remark was meant as a joke.