Remember Silvio Berlusconi's Holocaust misstep, in which the former prime minister compared his experience of being convicted for tax fraud to the persecution of Jews under Nazism?Berlusconi has tried to settle the issue in the Italian fashion, that is, around a restaurant table.
On Sunday night, the media tycoon-turned-politician showed up at one of Rome's most famous Jewish restaurants, where the head of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, also happened to be dining. Apparently, Berlusconi invited Pacifici to his table and seized the occasion to apologize for his inappropriate remarks, which appeared in a recent book by Bruno Vespa, Italy's most famous TV anchor. Berlusconi also promised that Vespa would remove the statement from the future editions of his book.
Part of the meeting was caught on camera, leading to speculation that it might have been staged.Earlier last week, Berlusconi's young girlfriend also “accidentally” dropped by a Jewish restaurant in Rome. When asked by paparazzi what she was doing inside the Ghetto, one of Europe's oldest Jewish neighborhoods, 28-year-old Francesca Pasquale answered: “You eat well here." To her credit, the cuisine of Roman Jews, the so-called “cucina giudaico romanesca,” is particularly renowned and draws many non-Jewish fans.
Berlusconi, who is currently struggling with a schism within his conservative party while trying to avoid the implementation of a sentence banning him from holding public office, is not new to distasteful remarks on Jewish history. He has praised Mussolini on several occasions, including a ceremony commemorating the slaughter of Italian Jews by the Mussolini-supported Nazi regime, and once famously compared a German left-leaning politician to a Kapò.
Despite this, he has retained a certain degree of popularity among pro-Israel Jewish circles.
There is no reason to believe that Berlusconi's conservative party gets more of the Jewish vote than any other political faction—here, religion-based opinion polls are a no-no. Besides, Italy has only 35,000 Jewish citizens, an insignificant percentage of voters. Yet Berlusconi counts a number of Jewish intellectuals among his supporters, and a portion of Jewish leaders have been lenient toward his controversial statements.
Since Berlusconi compared himself to a Nazi victim, for instance, Renzo Gattegna, head of the Union of Italy's Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for Orthodox communities, has been pretty tough in condemning the statement. But Riccardo Pacifici, head of Rome's Jewish community, has been more dismissive, which partly explains why Berlusconi might have chosen Pacifici as the recipient of his public apology.
In the weeks following the controversy, moreover, Il Giornale, a national newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother Paolo, published a number of letters in which some Italian Jews defended the former prime minister.
"As a Jewish woman, I have often thought that the visceral and irrational hatred that [Berlusconi] had to face in the past twenty years had something to do with the treatment of Jews in the past centuries," wrote a woman named Cecilia Nizza.
Another reader wrote an angry letter attacking Federica Belli Paci, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who dared to claim she felt personally offended by Berlusconi's remarks: "Would Ms Belli Paci rather have Ahmadinejad?" he asked provocatively.
For decades, Berlusconi has succeeded in depicting himself as a committed friend of Israel—something one may find surprising, since he displayed at the same time a cozy relationship with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, one of Israel's fiercest enemies.
What's even more surprising, though, is that Berlusconi has managed to convince part of Italy's public that his support for Israel automatically makes him a friend of the Jewish people. That the only alternative to Berlusconi is... Ahmadinejad.
The Italian progressive party will hold its primary elections early next month. In case you were wondering, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not among the candidates.