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Despite Remarks, Berlusconi Lauded by Jewish Group

September 26, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has weathered another storm of his own making, receiving a prestigious award from an American Jewish organization despite statements he made minimizing the atrocities of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

With a long history of saying the darndest things, Berlusconi seemed unruffled by the latest controversy, which erupted after he said Mussolini "never killed anybody" and merely would "send people on vacation, in internal exile."

Because Mussolini was an eager ally of Adolf Hitler and launched his own colonial wars, the comments did not go over well with members of Italy's Jewish community, opposition politicians and many others with a knowledge of history.

Already in the works, however, was a decision by the Anti-Defamation League to honor Berlusconi with its distinguished statesman award. The New York-based ADL stuck by its choice and went ahead with the awards ceremony, noting that Berlusconi was being feted because he was a good friend to Israel and an enthusiastic backer of the U.S. war against Iraq.

"I don't ever remember receiving as many phone calls asking me how I feel, am I sure I want to do this, as I have received about tonight," ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said as he opened the ceremony Tuesday night in Manhattan, adding that he was delighted to welcome Berlusconi.

Foxman said earlier that Berlusconi's comments were inappropriate but that the criticism heaped on the Italian leader was politically motivated. He called Berlusconi a "flawed friend" who sometimes speaks without thinking.

Elsewhere, others were less charitable. The Union of Italian Jewish Communities in Rome said Berlusconi owed his entire nation an apology.

"In all Italians, there is a lack of historical memory ... a kind of indifferentism," the group's spokesman, Riccardo Pacifici, said Thursday. "We have a country where the day after we got liberated, all fascists disappeared. We never recognized who had the real responsibilities."

When the uproar over his comments began, Berlusconi met with Pacifici and other representatives of Rome's Jewish community in what was portrayed as the offering of an apology. Pacifici said community leaders reminded Berlusconi of Mussolini's collaboration with Hitler and told him that an apology to the Jews was not enough -- that he should apologize to all Italians.

Still, Pacifici said the group approved of the ADL award to Berlusconi because his government was arguably the best Italian friend Israel had ever had.

Three Nobel laureates in economics were among those demanding the ceremony be canceled and suggesting the award was being bestowed for misguided political reasons.

"Support of Israel should not be sufficient" for the ADL to overlook Berlusconi's "controversial history," said laureates Franco Modigliani, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow, economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The idea of honoring Berlusconi was "shocking," they said in a letter to the editor published Tuesday in the New York Times, before Modigliani's death Thursday at 85.

Berlusconi's Mussolini comment was first published last week in the conservative British magazine the Spectator and a small Italian paper. He later said he did not mean to rewrite history but had objected to his interviewer's attempt to compare Mussolini to Saddam Hussein.

Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 until his ouster in 1943 during World War II. His government instituted racial laws in 1938 that codified discrimination against Jews; about 7,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps, where most died.

Berlusconi did not address the controversy in his ADL acceptance speech.

That Berlusconi is friendly to Israel is not in doubt. He has urged the European Union to admit the country as a member and, going against EU policy, chose during a recent visit to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but eschew Palestinian leaders.

A front-page cartoon this week in the Italian daily La Stampa portrayed Berlusconi as a trained seal, trampling over the United Nations while balancing a Star of David, the symbol of Israel, on his snout.

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