One on One: Making the case for commonality

Italian journalist and global terrorism expert Fiamma Nirenstein talks about her latest book, 'Israel Is Us.'

Fiamma Nirenstein 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fiamma Nirenstein 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fiamma Nirenstein rushes into her kitchen to brew some Italian coffee before we sit down to discuss her latest best-seller, Israele Siamo Noi [Israel Is Us; Rizzoli Publishers], which sold out in its first week and is already on its second printing. On the table, amid a mound of newspapers - The Jerusalem Post prominent among them - is a laptop with at least three documents on which she is working simultaneously: one, an article she needs to finish by evening to meet her deadline for the Milan-based daily, Il Giornale; another, a lecture she is preparing for her upcoming trip to Rome; yet another an entry for her popular blog, The music of the bubbling espresso pot is accompanied by the repeated Outlook Express jingle signalling she has new mail and the ring of her home and mobile phones. "Pronto," she answers each, practically simultaneously, talking to one caller in Italian and the other in Hebrew. This she does while ushering me into the salon and gesturing that I take a seat on the couch. The spacious, sunny living-and-dining room may as well be a multilingual Mideast studies library, for all the books on the subject lining the walls, and the dozens more piled high on other surfaces - a number of which she herself has either authored, co-authored or contributed to. Given the room's decor, it may as well be located in Florence, where Nirenstein was born and raised; in Rome, where she lives and works (and visits her 25-year-old son, Binyamin) half of every month; or in Tuscany, where she spends her summers. The panoramic view of the Holy City from the floor-to-ceiling windows is the only give-away to the location of Nirenstein's home in Jerusalem - which she shares with her Israeli husband, Ofer Eshed, a TV news cameraman. "Israel is a country of heroes," Nirenstein says in Italian-accented English, now turning her undivided attention to our hour-long interview. "My book tries to destroy the vile myths perpetrated about its being 'colonialist' or an 'apartheid state' on the one hand, and about terrorists 'being militiamen fighting for freedom' on the other." Nirenstein does this, she explains, by dissecting what she calls the "sick words" that have infiltrated the language and consciousness of an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe - terms she and a group of Italian academics plan on collecting for a glossary, "because such word abuse prevents even the possibility of understanding what Israel is all about." She comes by her passion for Israel - and familiarity with the conceptual distortions characteristic of "autocratic ideologies" - honestly. The daughter of Holocaust historian and long-time Al Hamishmar correspondent Aharon "Nir" Nirenstein (who came to Palestine in 1936 from Poland, and went to Italy in 1945 with the Jewish Brigade) and Corriere della Sera journalist Wanda Lattes, Nirenstein was an ardent communist in her youth. And, just as Zionism was part and parcel of her upbringing, so too, she says, was she caught up in the "mental corruption" that caused her generation to look to the likes of Che Guevara for inspiration, while attributing the world's ills to "capitalist imperialism." Nirenstein, who has been reporting from Israel for the Italian print and broadcast media for nearly two decades, after years of being an international columnist (recently, she moved from the Left-leaning La Stampa to the conservative Il Giornale), is a European version of a neocon. Her journey across the political spectrum - like that of her American counterparts - began as a response to the radical climate of the 1960s in her own country. Unlike theirs, however, Nirenstein's was paved with an added complication: To side with anything resembling the right wing in post-World War II Italy meant aligning with the fascists. Still, Nirenstein asserts, "You cannot run away from reality indefinitely. Ultimately, you have to know what's right in terms of values, and be courageous about standing up for them." For her, this endeavor has taken the form of examining, reporting on and writing extensively about terrorism - and defending Israel in the face of it. "This costs something, of course," she says, alluding to the bodyguards who pick her up from the airport every time she lands in Italy, and shuttle her from place to place throughout her stay there. During her most recent stint to promote her book - an appeal to Europeans to emulate Israeli democracy - Nirenstein says she was pleased about the positive reception it received, but stops short of being optimistic. Shrugging and smiling wryly, she sighs: "I'm afraid Europe will only wake up if terrible things happen that none of us would wish on ourselves or on anybody else." Why is it significant that your book has received so much attention in the mainstream Italian press? My previous [eight] books have also been given extensive coverage, but what's significant in this case are the headlines. "Israel: A model for all of us," and "Israel: A model for democracy." Even the newspaper Corriere della Sera - which isn't known for its pro-Israel attitude - titled the review: "Israel - a laboratory of democracy for all of Europe." I got the sense that this book released a cork in European public opinion. Many people have approached me and whispered in my ear, "I am with you." Does this mean that the general attitude in Europe is changing? The attitude in Europe is terrible. It is a public who admires [EU Secretary-General Javier] Solana for telling the Americans that we must be ready to make an agreement with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. It is a public with ideas like one expressed by a reader of my blog, who wrote that the Israelis are the ones who launch American missiles at the poor Palestinians whose only weapons are stones. Americans and Israelis may know that the world is unsympathetic to them. But they don't understand how deep the lack of European understanding of terrorism goes, nor how deep the rejection of the word "war." War to Europeans, regardless of the context, is anathema and has been since World War II. For Europeans, whoever wages a war is a criminal. Even those with a more sophisticated point of view always start from this point. So, for example, another person responding to my blog wrote that for two soldiers who were kidnapped on the Lebanese border, the Israeli army destroyed all of Lebanon by bombing it incessantly and killing women and children. You see, Israel is the country in the world most covered by the press, yet about which the least is known. This is why I wrote the book. In it, I try to describe what Israel is; what its war is all about; how it is possible to be at war and a democracy at the same time; and most importantly, how Israel is the avant-garde of the Western countries. These are crucial points to convey to Europeans, for whom democracy and war simply do not go together. Even though World War II saved European democracy? First of all, there is a lot of revisionism going on now in Europe about the American intervention in WWII - even as far as to view it as imperialistic. Second, since Europeans consider democracy to be their invention, it should be something they're very attached to - like a beloved wife. But history has demonstrated how they betray her all the time with great pleasure. Let's face it: Europe is the cradle of all the autocratic ideologies of our time - fascism, communism… There is a real fascination in Europe with assertive autocracies and ideologies. And it goes beyond the usual justification for terrorism - as though it is the result of the poverty and exploitation of victims of colonialism. It's a genuine fascination. I see the dangerous seeds of a culture of violence in Europe being inspired by the Islamic model - exactly the way that my generation was inspired by [Marxist guerrilla leader] Che Guevara. There is something that indicates not only a growth of a culture of violence, but worse than that. As we had a sexual revolution, we might now have a violence revolution. You know, beheading people, and all kinds of unthinkable phenomena. Are you saying, then, that Nazism was a natural or logical product of Europe? What I'm saying is that there is an illness in Europe that's always been there - one whose main symptom is anti-Semitism. Has the post-WWII taboo against expressing it expired? Well, anti-Semitism in Europe today is very high, and has taken an even sharper rise since the Second War in Lebanon. According to statistics, anti-Semitic incidents all over Europe have multiplied. Not only those perpetrated by Muslims? Not only by Muslims. There are neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist and also leftist global movements that are very anti-Semitic - though they would never acknowledge it. They call it anti-imperialism, and say it's simply criticism of the State of Israel. But if you look at the double standards with regard to civil rights, you know they are being false. We come from a culture of civil rights, which became totally distorted by the communists, who took all of the civil rights for themselves and denied them to others. During the Cold War, civil rights became the medal you received for being on your way to communism. That was the way the communists saw the Third World and Arab countries. So terrorist, autocratic, fascist governments, like the Arab ones, became recipients of civil rights, though they were not upholding them at all. In my book, I tell my own personal story of mental corruption during the time I was a communist. I also speak about the sexual revolution, and about the way we saw the reconstruction of Europe. When we witnessed Italy's reconstruction in the '60s, we didn't see the enormous and marvelous effort being put into creating structures and infrastructures in Europe in general and in Italy in particular. After the complete disaster and havoc that fascism wreaked on Italy, it was now blossoming. But when we saw houses and neighborhoods and factories going up, what did we see? Capitalist exploitation. The gap between the rich and the poor. We didn't see the fantastic ability of the leading classes in Italy to make the country one of the world's first powers. Yet you were also a feminist. Did you not see sexual and other forms of freedom for women being allowed to blossom, as well? Yes, but it's more complicated than that. The burst of freedom that Italian women were experiencing during those years mainly affected the Catholics. We Jewish girls were a different story. I saw my mother working, for example, and my grandmother was a free-thinking member of the bourgeoisie. But I remember an incredible confusion that created the impossibility of living a happy couple life, and much divorce. We thought that love and passion were exactly the same thing. So, when passion became pale, we simply got divorced. We had children here and there from different marriages. We created situations that were very hard to manage. We made our lives very difficult. And what emerged from all that was a terrible selfishness. Couples in Europe now, particularly in Italy, rarely have more than one child. Meanwhile, the immigrants are having many. Which brings us to the issue of demography - the buzz-word in Israel that has been framing the debate since 1967. What about the demographics in Europe? I read that Austria - one of the most conservative countries in terms of public life and behavior - in a few years will have a white Christian minority. Incredible. But it's more than that. People have asked me, "Is it true that 'Israel is us'?" And I say no. Today, we are not able to wage a war, as Israel is; we are not able to have the kind of vibrant and stable democracy that Israel has; and we are unable to behave with internal solidarity the way Israel does. Is Italy really the same as other European countries? After all, Italy sent troops to Iraq… It also took them out of there. Still, you say that people whisper in your ear about being on your side. The book must have touched a nerve. The Italians are much milder than other Europeans in the way they express their views. They are neither vulgar nor violent. This is something that makes the discussion at least possible. On the other hand, don't forget that a third of European Jewry was deported during the war, and Italy was no exception. It had racial laws exactly like those of Germany. Furthermore, today Italy has a large, opportunistic, politically correct petit bourgeoisie. So, when [Silvio] Berlusconi was prime minister - though Italy had different international politics, particularly regarding the US and Israel - nevertheless, even his own television stations (which are filled with leftist journalists) were broadcasting material that wasn't pro-American or pro-Israeli. In fact, one of the most important TV shows discussed the possibility that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the Americans themselves because of the Jewish conspiracy. And this is Berlusconi's TV! Hegemony is something that still almost completely reigns (with the exception of my newspaper, Il Giornale, and a few others). In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, what dominates is a politically correct media. So, maybe the Italians are not aggressive in an argument; maybe they are polite and civilized. But when you sit at a dinner party with them, their basic assumption is that Israel is wrong and the Palestinians are right. And that terrorism is a minor phenomenon which pales in comparison to the domination of capitalism. In spite of their witnessing the carnage produced by radical Islamic violence? And in spite of their seeing certain behavior on the part of immigrants to their countries? Has this not created a racist backlash on the part of many Europeans? Of course, there is a quiet tendency to what I call "democratic racism." In fact, I wrote a book with this title when this dangerous phenomenon started. And it is dangerous because the intellectual elite have not been elaborating the issue properly, since political correctness forbids them from doing so. So, what they say is, "These immigrants are welcome here. We need to have a multicultural society. Terrorism and the madrassas that educate to it are a minor phenomenon. Islam is one of the three monotheistic religions." On the other hand, there is mumbling on the part of ordinary people to the effect that, "We can't stand them any more. Our streets aren't safe.They steal our money. They take our jobs." Which is unjust, of course. And which is why the absence of an intellectual bridge between these two positions is dangerous. It's about time that we created one, because if we don't, the mumbling will become a violent mob shout. How can this intellectual void be filled? For example, by telling immigrants, "If you come to our country, you won't marry four women; you will marry only one." I mean, you know, Italy is a country in which women have been fighting for centuries for freedom - and now you have women living in homes with other wives, and subject to honor killings and female circumcisions. Which is all due to this ill idea of multiculturalism. I'll give you an example of this illness. Recently on Italian TV, a famous Italian journalist defended [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar [believed to be harboring Osama bin Laden]. How he did this was by reading a fictitious letter he had composed as though he were the Mullah Omar - to make a point about how one could put himself in the shoes of the other side. In this letter, the "Mullah Omar" said: "You call me a terrorist. But is it I who is a terrorist, or is it George Bush bombing our country and killing people at weddings? And when we hid bin Laden here, we told Bush to give us proof that he indeed perpetrated the World Trade Center bombings." Then, he ends by saying: "It's true I live with four wives, who are covered from head to toe. But what would you tell me about your own women, who walk around with their underpants showing?" During the week that this broadcast appeared, I was teaching a Mideast history class [at Luiss University in Rome], and we were talking about terrorism. I asked my students what they thought of the equation this journalist made between Bush and Mullah Omar. And they said they found it quite interesting. I asked them why, and then a discussion ensued. While it was going on, the other person teaching the class with me interrupted to say, "Fiamma, don't you get it? These kids don't want to face the fact that there is terrorism in the world, because they are not ready to fight. There is no compulsory conscription in Italy, and they will never join the army." So I turned to the students and asked them, "If you were threatened, like Israel is, would you go into the army?" And they all said no. Then I asked them if their brother or sister were being threatened, would they go into the army, and they said no. Then I thought about what I wrote in the book about Israeli youth. And I thought of the stupid saying by Bertolt Brecht, "Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes." Well, I think, "Happy the land that is in need of heroes," because it gives the people the possibility of loving and being committed to something. Of course, I'm not referring to warriors against democracy and for conquering the world, like the Islamists do. I'm referring to wars of defense, like those of Israel. When you speak to Israeli boys and girls - even during this time of the Winograd Committee findings about the failures of the government and upper echelons of the IDF - you realize how unique they are. None of this stops them from wanting to serve in the army. Nor does it stop them from wanting to go to pubs at night. This duality is a fantastic creation of the State of Israel. Indeed, Israel is special for the fantastic men it has created. Which is why I feel so bad whenever I see it despised and destroyed by Israelis themselves. Give an example of this self-destruction. One recent example is the Israeli film, Beaufort [directed by Joseph Cedar and based on the novel by Ron Leshem, about the last battle at the Beaufort Castle during the first war in Lebanon in 1982]. It's a good movie, in the sense that it gives you the sense of who these Israeli boys are. It destroys the international myth of the ferocious Israeli soldier. The trouble is that it introduces a different myth: that war is the stupid invention of the upper echelons in Israel, in order to be assertive about incidents which could just as easily have been ignored. The movie portrays the suffering of the soldiers - suffering that was certainly genuine - but these soldiers appear weepy and mournful. I know Israeli soldiers. They laugh a lot; they make a lot of jokes. And they not only love this country, but they are ready to die for it. And this isn't mere rhetoric. In fact, earlier this month, I went to the North to observe the situation as it stands nearly a year after the war. There I met a 25-year-old officer who, with a shy smile, told me: "I know it must sound funny to Italian ears, but I'm ready to die for the country." In the movie, you see these boys full of fear and a feeling that the whole thing is senseless. Senseless?! - since they left Lebanon, the Hizbullah has been growing and building up its arsenal! The movie also has Haaretz's Gideon Levy interviewing soldiers' parents on the TV, and one main theme comes out of those interviews: We don't blame anybody; we don't blame the Hizbullah; we don't blame the terrorists; we blame ourselves for not giving our children the sense of how important their lives are and how they must not die for any reason. Now, that's true that children must not die for any reason - please go and tell that to [Hizbullah chief Hassan] Nasrallah! Why are you explaining it to the people being assaulted? So, the aim of your book is to tell anybody who believes in liberal values that Israel is a model to identify with and emulate? Yes. And to stop paying so much heed to all the corruption allegations and other assaults against Israel. Speaking of which, how do you respond to Italians who point to widespread corruption in the Israeli government? What I say is that people are not perfect. And that democracy involves the circulation of information that exposes everybody. I'm sure that in Syria and in China, there are scandals of this kind. But we don't know about them. In Israel, as everywhere else, human nature is what it is. When I'm asked which errors I admit to Israel's having committed, I say that Israel has made many mistakes, but for the most part, they are political ones. One can argue about whether it was right or wrong to withdraw from Gaza. My own opinion on that has changed, by the way, because originally I thought it was a good idea, but now that I have seen the results, I say, "Mea culpa, mea culpa." I think I'm not alone in that. Isn't the response to your book an indication that Europeans are beginning to grasp what you're talking about? No. I'm afraid they'll only wake up if terrible things happen that none of us would wish on ourselves or on anybody else. Having said that, there is some level of awareness that the Islamist jihadists hate not only Israel, but also the rest of the Western world. Ahmadinejad has his Shihab-3 missiles pointed at European capitals - which they realize to some extent. But still, things are not really getting better. What has dominated European life is laziness on the one hand, and loneliness on the other. There isn't the kind of solidarity that exists in Israel - where everybody has something to say to everybody else - even if it's done in a hutzpadik manner. In my book, I describe a traffic jam on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, with one driver asking another how much he's selling his car for; another accusing someone else of not knowing how to drive; another hitting on a woman. The point is that in Israel, there is a sense of communication - and of being in the same boat. This is something not found anywhere else. And it is something Israel should be stressing about itself: that it is a country full of solidarity - one which is so insanely democratic that the likes of Azmi Bishara went to the Hizbullah and the Syrians immediately after the war and passed on information to them - as a member of the Knesset! It's a country whose prime minister and defense minister are being treated like dishrags, and exposed to the public like clowns, as a result of a government-initiated commission of inquiry! It is said of Italians that they have a lot in common with Jews - in terms of their mothering and nurturing, etc. Doesn't this mean that they would be naturally more susceptible to the ideas you are expressing? [She laughs] My son says that he suffers terribly, because he's got a mother who's both Italian and Jewish. But otherwise, I don't think there's any real cultural similarity- not in modern times, anyway. Since 1945, the Italians haven't had the experience of having to fight to protect their children, for example. World War II vaccinated them. But also, their army - other than the Partisans - was a fascist one that sided with the Nazis, which caused a double sense of disaster, not only about war, but being on the wrong side of the war. So, on the one hand it's true that people are starting to sense that [radical] Islam is against democracy. On the other, it's not clear whether this feeling will develop any further. You see, there is a complete disconnect going on. Using my students as an example again: They say, "It's true that we are a superior culture because of civil rights and women's rights and freedom and democracy. But, precisely because we are superior, it is we who have to find a way to an agreement." When you tell them, "But they don't want an agreement. They are a revolution. Think about Ahmadinejad. He doesn't want an agreement. He's a revolutionary. It's his revolution," they say, "This is impossible!" They think reaching an agreement is always possible. Don't Israelis also think that? Fewer and fewer, I think. Look at the Winograd Report. At the end of the day, what is the issue? The issue is that Israel must still win the war. In other words, what's wrong with [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz is that they fared badly, not that they went to war - that they were incompetent to lead a country surrounded by enemies. But it's not only Europe that doesn't understand this. I fear that Israel doesn't understand this about itself the way it should. Israel is at the heart of the greatest adventure not only of this century, but of this millennium.