Saturday, September 20, 2003

Is Silvio Berlusconi Good for the Jews?

Anti-Defamation League: 90 Years of Fighting Anti-Semitism, Bigotry and Extremism
ADL home page

On Tuesday, September 23, 2003 the ADL will honor Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with its Distinguished Statesman Award. This honor is being bestowed upon Berlusconi because of his strong support for Israel, that is to say for the policies advocated by the Israeli government. When he visited Israel last year he met with Prime Minister Sharon but unlike other world leaders not with Yasser Arafat. Berlusconi has also been unique among leaders of "old" European countries in supporting the war in Iraq. He sent Italian troops to serve among the "coalition of the willing."

Tuesday marks the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Heads of state and other dignitaries will doubtlessly be honored by a variety of organizations as they are every year when the UN session begins. Berlusconi's award from the ADL would not have been noted were it not for his latest gaffe.

In an interview with two British reporters Berlusconi said, "Mussolini didn't kill anyone. Mussolini sent people on vacation abroad." Click here for full text. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister the rest of the world is not letting his statement pass without comment. In fact Mussolini was responsible for the deaths of approximately one million Libyans, Ethiopians, Yugoslavians, Italian Jews and other Italian civilians killed because of Italian involvement in World War II. Read more here and here.

ADL national director Abraham Foxman has said that Berlusconi is a "flawed friend" who will still receive the award click here. If the ADL has spent 90 years fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry and extremism why is it honoring a world leader who minimizes fascist atrocities? We don't need to look very far for the answer. Foxman told us. Berlusconi supports the actions of the Israeli government.

It is interesting that the ADL, whose stated mission is to fight anti-Semitism, is ignoring requests from some in the Italian Jewish community to cancel the ceremony. Tullia Zevi, a former leader of Italy's Union of Jewish Communities asked Foxman not to honor Berlusconi. In an interview with the New York Times she made the following statement.

"He said Fascism was a very mild dictatorship!" Ms. Zevi said in a telephone interview from Rome. "It was so `mild' there were many political murders from the very beginning, and also for the Jews."

She said Mr. Foxman told her he wanted to pay homage to a man who was supporting an increasingly isolated American president.

"The feelings of a community that has been established here for 2,000 years have the right to be respected," said Ms. Zevi, whose family fled Italy when anti-Jewish laws were imposed in 1938.

Berlusconi has said that his remarks were misunderstood, the translation was bad, he only meant to say that Saddam Hussein killed more people than Mussolini did. He even gave an apology, of sorts, click here, in an Italian synagogue. But the Prime Minister has a history of making offensive remarks. He likened a German politician to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and said that Germany and France should "shut up" about their opposition to the war in Iraq.

Perhaps this level of arrogance, bad taste and offensiveness comes from being the richest man in Italy. Berlusconi is a media mogul who passed a law exempting himself from prosecution while he is in office. He had been accused of bribing judges and now the accusations will remain just that.

It is sad that the ADL has sunk to such a point. Why can't they tell Berlusconi that the event has been cancelled? I think that a short, simple letter would do the job nicely.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

We are an organization dedicated to fighting extremism. That means we fight fascism. That means we can't honor someone who apologizes for fascism. Sorry.



But this brouhaha is bigger than Mr. Berlusconi. The problem is that the ADL has cast its lot so completely with Israeli government policy that its ability to speak out on a variety of issues has been compromised.

In my previous post I discussed the controversy surrounding the yet to be completed film The Passion amid charges made by the ADL and others that it is anti-Semitic. Unfortunately conservative Christians, who don't like being questioned, made it clear that their support of Israel was subject to the degree of support that Jews gave their issues. See here. In the case of The Passion it means pipe down about "our" movie or we and our congressional allies may not be such strong supporters of Israel. What did Mr. Foxman say about this effort at blackmail? He said nothing. He couldn't do otherwise. He has already toadied to the Tom DeLays of the world, people who do not equivocate when proclaiming their belief in the supremacy of Christianity, all because of a stated support of Israel.

Unfortunately these instances of questionable behavior are not Foxman's biggest contribution to the history of poor decision making. Abraham Foxman played a role in sticking Bill Clinton with the Marc Rich debacle.

In January 2001 Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, the fugitive financier. There were howls of protest when the pardon was made public. Right wingers in Congress, who were not content to have successfully stolen a presidential election, even made noises about impeaching a former president. The pardon tainted the Clinton administration and even his strongest advocates found it difficult to come to his defense.

Clinton wanted a Middle East peace plan in place before he left office. Ehud Barak, then Israeli Prime Minister, requested the Rich pardon. Barak could have gotten anything he wanted from the desperate soon to be former president. But how did the issue come to Barak?

Marc Rich used money, and connections with his foundation in Israel, to pressure Barak into asking for the pardon. Not wanting to leave any stones unturned, he also asked Foxman for help. New York Times columnist William Safire reported this story on March 21, 2001. Because you will not be able to link without paying for the story I have copied the relevant portions of the column. There is also fascinating if minutely detailed story from here.

It had just been revealed that Foxman -- whose organization had received $250,000 over the years from Marc Rich -- had not only written to President Bill Clinton urging forgiveness for the fugitive billionaire but was present at the creation of the pardon plot.

Thirteen months ago, according to Foxman, he met in Paris with a former Mossad agent now on the Rich Foundation payroll who had the month before pledged $100,000 to A.D.L. Foxman came up with the idea of asking Denise Rich, the divorced wife of the man on the lam for 17 years, to intercede with Clinton for a pardon.
He knew her only from ''reading the columns,'' Foxman told reporters last weekend. However, he sat across the aisle from Mrs. Rich on Air Force Two when Clinton invited both of them to accompany the presidential party to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. It was logical for him to presume that Rich's former wife was on the government plane because she had some connection to the president.
That bright idea of Foxman's led to e-mail from Rich's top man in Israel to Rich lawyers in the U.S. Ultimately, a former Clinton White House counsel, Jack Quinn, used Denise Rich to circumvent expected Justice Department resistance to pardoning a defiant fugitive accused of the biggest tax rip-off in U.S. history.

Let me stipulate here that it is no sin to recommend mercy or point out good deeds done by unpopular targets of prosecutors. I regularly signed parole petitions for Nixon colleagues jailed after Watergate. And when prosecutor Charles Hynes led a New York Bar Association campaign to disbar a near-comatose Roy M. Cohn just before he died of AIDS, I denounced the vengeful lawyers as a pack of ghouls. I don't knock loyalty.
But at issue here is the ease with which an unpatriotic wheeler-dealer can manipulate fine organizations and hungry politicians here and abroad into expunging all unanswered charges from his record.

Would we have known about the A.D.L. advice to Rich and intercession on his behalf if Congress had not begun an investigation? Unlikely; though he reported fully to some 40 members of the A.D.L. national executive committee on Feb. 3, for six weeks after the pardon fire storm Foxman said nothing publicly.

Not until March 9, when the Burton committee contacted him, did A.D.L. release its official letter to Clinton whining about ''Marc Rich's suffering.'' Only after cooperating with House investigators did Foxman admit publicly that it was his suggestion in Paris that led to the well-heeled Denise's exploitation of her access to ''Number One.''
In a March 19 letter to national commission members, he explained that his pardon request was partly ''predicated on the fifteen years I knew of Marc Rich's generous philanthropy and good deeds,'' but lately ''I began to question whether a person's good deeds should overshadow other aspects of his behavior. In hindsight this case probably should not have had my involvement as it was not directly in ADL's clear-cut mission. . . .''

That mission is to fight bigotry. The last time Foxman muddled it was to write Clinton asking for Jonathan Pollard's release; commission members privately slapped him down because that prosecution had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, either.

The time is ripe for the A.D.L. -- and other do-good and advocacy groups, too -- to take a hard look at the ulterior motives of their money sources. It's time to set out written policies to resist manipulation by rich sleazebags and to reprimand or fire staff members who do not get with the ethical program.

Abraham Foxman's actions perpetuated some of the worst negative stereotypes about Jews. Namely that they are wealthy and powerful and use that wealth and power to aid Israel even if by doing so they hurt the United States.

I will keep this in mind during the next controversy, and there will be one, surrounding anti-Semitic remarks. If Amiri Baraka can be pilloried for repeating an internet urban legend about Jews staying home on 9/11 then a major Jewish organization should be pilloried when it accepts behavior from supporters of Israel that it wouldn't accept from anyone else.

There is more to this story than Silvio Berlusconi carrying home a plaque. Because Jewish organizations like ADL have made unquestioned support of Israel their reason for being they have made alliances with people and causes who ultimately may not work in their interests.

It is interesting to note that the ADL and others equate support for war in Iraq with support for Israel. I am still not clear how Saddam Hussein threatened Israel. Of course, Saddam Hussein hadn't threatend anybody since the first Gulf War in 1991. That small detail was one of the reasons I opposed this war. But the neoconservatives and other war cheer leaders made the case that an invasion of Iraq was good for Israel. Does the ADL and its membership now equate the fight against anti-Semitism with support of conservative politics? Do other Jewish organizations agree with that assessment?

If anti-Semitism is now defined as opposing Israeli government policy the ADL needs to change its mission statement. It should now read, "We support Israeli government policy and anyone else who agrees with us. We aren't picky about who these supporters may be. We'll take anybody."

Now that would be truth in advertising.