Editor-in-chief of Italy's la Repubblica shares thoughts on the world

An illuminating, candid conversation about the state of today’s world with Maurizio Molinari in Milan.

 THE ‘LA REPUBBLICA’ editor-in-chief, at work. (photo credit: ‘La Repubblica’)
THE ‘LA REPUBBLICA’ editor-in-chief, at work.
(photo credit: ‘La Repubblica’)

I meet Maurizio Molinari on a cold winter morning in a fancy hotel in the heart of fashionable Milan. A sweet lady takes my coat and shows me the lounge where to wait for him.

I sit nervously and admire the beauty of this hotel. It is early Sunday morning; most Italians are probably still sleeping or having a family breakfast. My kids and husband are home in Israel, and I am here, dressed all formal, waiting to interview a man who, for anyone who does my job, is a sort of myth.

Molinari is a young 57, an Italian Modern Orthodox Jew who runs the second most important paper in Italy, la Repubblica, akin to the country’s New York Times.

He is married to a very sweet woman, Micol, and they have four children.

He earned degrees in political science and history from the prestigious Sapienza University of Rome. He worked as a correspondent in Brussels, New York City, Jerusalem and Ramallah for La Stampa, one of the oldest newspapers in Italy, and became its editor-in-chief in 2015. In 2020, he became editor-in-chief of la Repubblica.

 WITH THE writer at Milan’s Bulgari Hotel after the interview. (credit: ‘La Repubblica’) WITH THE writer at Milan’s Bulgari Hotel after the interview. (credit: ‘La Repubblica’)

Known for his powerful work ethic, Molinari’s incredible success probably lies in his ability to balance a 16-hour workday, knowing what to delegate and how to choose his collaborators.

He appears just a few minutes late and comes right toward me with a warm smile. “Hi Hadassah, we finally made it to meet. Congratulations on the work you do, your articles and interviews; I see them all.”

OK, now I can’t breathe.

You have to understand that for us Italians, to have a director of such a main newspaper like la Repubblica, who is not only Jewish but an observant Jew, who rubs shoulders with the giants of the century and at the same time can be seen at the town’s Hanukkah parties (when he can), presenting the annual school fund dinner or opening an evening for Holocaust remembrance, it is quite amazing! 

Whenever a Jewish organization needs a voice, he is always available wherever possible; and if he can’t, he will try to make it happen – with full heart and soul. Yet he is humble and gives you that feeling of never taking himself too seriously.

I AM a bit embarrassed to be in the presence of all this knowledge, the man has been producing a book every year for the past 18 years – with the exception of the year 2017 when he published two books within six months.

He has written on American politics, ISIS, terrorism, Italian foreign policy and Italian Jewry. His first book, The Jews in Italy, a Problem of Identity (1870-1938), was published by La Giuntina in 1991. 

I wouldn’t be surprised to see his image now on one of these screens in the lobby, as he is often a guest on the many talk shows on Italy’s main channels. 

We are seated in a quiet corner of the pretty room. I order coffee; he has orange juice. I place my napkin on my lap as my mother taught me, take out my recorder and my paper, but I can’t find my pen.

And now? As the waiter brings me coffee, I gently ask him whether he would lend me his pen.

He saves me.

We can start.

Molinari has a gentle face and seems easy to talk to. I have all my questions ready to be asked, but little did I know that once we would start chatting, Molinari is like a train ride that takes you on and you can’t get off. He is a tornado of information, stories, lessons and so much knowledge on world politics and politicians that my little paper with all my questions was not even glanced at during the entire interview. He is so fluid and clear in his explanations; we just go in and out of scenarios and moments in history without even noticing it. He is a joyride for any writer. 

You can see he loves what he does, and it is his passion. Journalism, history, analysis of world scenarios, politicians; he has a clear picture of the world and sees it like a big chess game, where he just watches the players make their next moves, as he smiles from the side.

The truth is that I don’t know what to expect from him or how to start. His simplicity is so powerful – no formalities, no fancy suit or flashy watch, no request to see the questions beforehand, no fancy assistant sitting next to him timing his precious time with me.

It feels like a coffee with a friend. 

Right!

First things first, straight from the headlines: I mention the current crisis facing Ukraine, with 150,000 Russian troops amassed along its borders. He comments: “[Vladimir] Putin is sending his troops in the Ukrainian Donbass to stress his decision to change the balance of power in Europe, allowing Russia to be back as the major leader in the East. Now the EU and the US have to decide how to react to this strategic challenge, which is much bigger than Donbass.”

I then manage to take a sip of my espresso when he turns the conversation to Israel and surprises me with his first lesson in history, and just like that he says, “You know, [US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger knew about the upcoming Yom Kippur War in ’73 but didn’t warn the Israelis; his famous phrase ‘Let them bleed’ was spoken then. 

“Between ’70 and ’73 the same Kissinger, with president Nixon, was part of the biggest diplomatic success of all time when they managed to convince the Chinese to detach from Russia. But there was one problem – the entire Chinese military was built by the Russians. Kissinger decided to turn to Israel, the only state that deeply understood Soviet tanks and artillery, since they fought against them so many times.

“That same Kissinger who lied to Israel about the attack set the stage for the Israeli-Chinese love affair.”

Israel took charge of most of the Chinese army and throughout the years, he notes, they slowly exchanged the Soviet parts with pieces sold from Israel, of course. By the 1980s, he says, the most crucial weaponry of the Chinese army was built or modernized by Israel. “This is a secret story that nobody will ever admit but they tell a lot.”

Incredible, eh?

I swallow my sip of coffee. This guy is a turbo, I think.

“Do you know that China is the only country that hosts Israeli campus universities? And Israel is the only country where Chinese citizens can invest privately, while in the rest of the world they can only invest through a company. This shows that there’s a deep, mutual trust which began in the military. If you meet a high-ranking military Chinese officer today, there’s a huge possibility he had strong ties with Israelis.”

He stares into my eyes with excitement, “It’s difficult to realize what an incredible position Israel finds itself in today in the world.”

 INTERVIEWING US secretary of state Anthony Blinken during his June 2021 visit to Italy (in Rome’s Villa Taverna). (credit: ‘La Repubblica’) INTERVIEWING US secretary of state Anthony Blinken during his June 2021 visit to Italy (in Rome’s Villa Taverna). (credit: ‘La Repubblica’)
Israeli miracles

“Dan Segre” – he tells me, of an Israeli diplomat originally from Italy – “said, ‘When miracles happen, we don’t see them; the whole world does but not us.”

Incredible things happen before our eyes, but we don’t even take the courage to see them, to glorify them.

“Israel is the only Western country that has strong ties with China and with Russia. It’s a unique position. The best US ally is also the only Russophone country outside the old USSR and a crucial partner for China.”

OK, I start to understand how our conversation will be. He will just throw one bigger story than the next at my face, and I will have to keep up and try to figure it out on my own. 

So this is how the big brains work, I think. I feel sweat behind my neck; I feel challenged, yet fascinated. He talks with enthusiasm, not chutzpah, as we say here.

The problem today? According to Molinari, there are no great leaders. When Benjamin Netanyahu was around, he asserts, “he would talk with [Chinese leader] Xi [Jinping], [US president Donald] Trump and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They had their own language; they had mutual respect and understanding. The real key element of Bibi’s success was bringing Israel into that elite club of countries where leaders interact between themselves. Today the world has changed: it has become a relationship between countries, not leaders.

“Do you follow me?”

Yes, as the second sip of my by now cold coffee is being swallowed.

“It is not bad, though, for Israel that Bibi is out of power,” he says. “I always tend to look at the positive side, since now the world needs a new kind of relationship.”

The Middle East & Iran

Now let’s face the Middle East.

“America pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving the Arab world forced to sort out things between themselves; it’s good, they have to figure it out on their own. Now they talk between themselves; the Emirates talks to Turkey, Saudi Arabia with Iran; Qatar and Israel are handling Gaza. 

“The Emirates, Jordan and Israel have also this incredible project of water desalination, solar energy in exchange for purified water. This means that in the Middle East everyone talks to everyone,” and Israel may get the best out of all these scenarios, so many opportunities for our country.

“The challenge for Israel lies in knowing how to handle it,” he notes, which brings us back to Netanyahu.

The former premier’s strength is knowing how to guess trends before they happen.

“Did you meet Bibi?” I ask.

“I met him in 1985 when he was the UN ambassador. He would soon go on to publish a great book called Terrorism, How the West Can Win. These were the years when terrorism was [beginning] to show its face as the real enemy of the Western world, and Netanyahu was ahead of the times in asking democracies to take a common stand against it.

“I met him at the Israeli Embassy in Rome. He sat sunk on a green couch and was just blurting out scenarios before they happened that have eventually marked our history. [He is] incredibly smart and charismatic.”

For example, “In his battle against Iran becoming a nuclear power, Bibi understood that he would have won even by losing.”

I am confused.

“I was at the US Congress when he made his famous speech [on March 3, 2015, blasting the US nuclear deal with Iran],” Molinari tells me. “Bibi had understood that his crucial audience on that challenge was not the Americans but the Arabs, and he was very clear about it. He did speak to the Americans, and he knew he was going to lose his battle there, since president [Barack] Obama wanted to sign, yet he didn’t care. He used this conflict with the Americans to show the Arabs that he was willing to go against even his biggest ally in order to have with the Arab world a common denominator, to face the common Iranian threat.”

That was the turning point with the Arab world for us, which came funnily enough through a defeat.

“The ground for the Abraham Accords was laid then by Netanyahu,” he stresses.

“Jared Kushner, another extraordinary, sharp man whom I met when he was at the head of The New York Observer [who later served as senior adviser in the Trump administration and played a pivotal role in the Abraham Accords], picked up what Bibi had started and smartly followed the line all the way to success: the Abraham Accords.

“He went first to UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is today the strongest leader of the Sunni world.

“The Arab states see Israel as a shield against Iran, exactly because the US looks distracted in the Indo-Pacific scenario.”

Did I hear correctly?

“Yes,” he responds, “now you understand why I like to quote the phrase ‘We don’t see when miracles really happen.’”

The world game is fascinating, and Israel seems to be in a position to have incredible new opportunities. Again, the challenge is up to us to know how to build on this intricate puzzle and gain as much as we can.

“Developing the channel of science and medicine, for example, is something very attractive for Israel. Almost all the Arab countries have very backward medical facilities; all the Arab princes go to Europe to be cured. Think of a Hadassah Hospital in Riyadh? And aside from the medical knowledge, Israel has doctors who speak Arabic.”

Illuminating.

What’s ahead for Israel

Molinari is full of enthusiasm as he describes the world almost as if it is a book of his. 

I start to understand that he loves dearly Judaism as a culture and as his way of life, and Israel as his home, and he feels he has to protect it and take care of it. He is also a proud Italian with an incredible knowledge of Italian history. These two strong sides that live within him lead him every day in his work and in his life. 

“The challenge now,” he continues, “is for the new Israeli government, which has two sides. On one hand, it doesn’t have a real leader [in Naftali Bennett], yet it is a very diverse government. In a world scenario where there is a lack of real leaders everywhere, this government can be actually very effective in this season.

“On the other hand, the hot topic in Western countries is the gigantic issue of diversity, which goes way over LGBTQ and women’s rights, and the Israeli government is one of the most diverse. It includes LGBTQ people, women, the disabled, white, black, left-wing, right-wing, Jews, Arabs. This can be an incredible tool to be able to talk to everyone and an extraordinary opportunity in the narrative of the State of Israel.

“I think Netanyahu understood that he had to pass,” Molinari muses. “He put himself aside, although he may be planning a move that will take everyone by surprise.

“The only real problem with this new government – and correct me if I’m wrong, because I don’t live in Israel – it’s an internal problem: the Israelis are a people that need a leader.”

“So true,” I reply.

“Israelis have no patience, too.”

“Also true,” I reply.

“I learned a fascinating word in Arabic,” he shares, “taqreeban, which means ‘approximately.’ This is an Arabic mindset. Since it is difficult to set an exact time for anything, the main thing is to meet; ‘when’ is not an issue. It’s a way to make things easier, to look for compromises, even if Western people so often don’t get that.”

Israelis need everything, now.

“The last point I want to underline is that the world has been attacked by a pandemic, and remember” – he stresses – “that whenever there is a conflict, the global balance of power among countries is being redefined by its outcome.” 

That’s why “those who will emerge victorious from the pandemic are the countries that will have the greatest role at an international level.

“Israel is positioned as one of the first countries for that role, for it was one of the first countries that reacted faster, and has become in the collective imagination the most advanced lab in the response to the pandemic. When other countries ask themselves what do we do now, they turn to Israel.”

This is again thanks to Bibi.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not a ‘Bibist,’ as they call them in Israel. I have a passion for history and Israel, and Netanyahu has made history a few times.

“Shimon Peres once told me that [David] Ben-Gurion told him, ‘Jews will succeed if they have the courage to dare.’ I love it.”

We need to dare, always.

A Chabad twist

He finally takes a sip of juice, although I can see he is busy formulating his next story to me. It feels as if we are alone in the room. I suddenly look around and forgot that there are people, there is music, there are waiters. I feel like I am in a movie.

When he is finished with his juice he shocks me again by taking me to a totally different scenario, when he says to me, “In 1989 I had the honor to meet in [New York City’s] Crown Heights an incredible man, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The day I met him, on that exact date five years later, I married my wonderful wife, Micol. I realized it only during our honeymoon when, by chance, the famous dollar I received from the Rebbe fell out of my purse and I noticed the date on it.

“Allow me to tell you that Chabad shows what real diversity is all about, because they accept everyone and don’t judge. We should all learn from their openness.”

This is Molinari’s greatness, to shift from politics to religion with the same spirit and sparkle in his eyes.

“How hard is it to be a Jew in the influential position you are in now?” I finally dare to ask.

“Not easy,” Molinari replies, as he shifts on his chair, “but if the roots are strong in the ground, nothing can scare you.

“I’ll finish with a little story about that,” he says.

“A few years ago I was set to interview [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. I had worked hard for two years for that to happen. Finally, I am in Istanbul and getting ready to meet him when one of his aides comes toward me and tells me, ‘I am sorry, Maurizio, this interview has a problem. You are Jewish, and we cannot trust you.’

“To which I answered, ‘It’s the opposite; you can trust me exactly because I am Jewish,’ and I did the interview in his palace.

“Flexibility on everything, but strong roots, don’t forget,” he says with a smile, as he prepares to depart.

“Which is the interview you still wish to do?” I ask, as he gets up from his chair.

“[The UAE’s] Sheik Mohammed. This guy is amazing, ruthless but a revolutionary in the Sunni world. He has understood the need for modernity in Islam. I never give up on challenges, but I fear it will never happen, because he doesn’t give interviews at all.”

“Who is your favorite leader of Israel?”

“Golda Meir. She led the state in very difficult times but was never afraid to dare.”

“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

“If I will ever retire, in Jerusalem, teaching at the university. We need to give to the new generation the right tools to understand the past and face the future.”

“I thought your heart is in Rome?”

“You always need a few countries to love; never be stuck with one.”

“Maurizio,” I laugh, as I turn to him, “we are approaching Purim, and I feel like you have taken me through the story of the megillah, where scenarios keep on changing, Ahasuerus might be Trump, and you can be Mordechai.”

He laughs out loud and tells me, “Don’t tell anyone, but my Hebrew name is Mordechai.”

I am officially blown away.

“Take care, Maurizio, and keep doing great things.”

As I leave the hotel in the cold February wind, I think to myself that the real miracle under our nose here is the fact that a paper like la Repubblica is now run by a Modern Orthodox Jew, a God-fearing man like Maurizio.

Arrivederci e grazie! ■

The writer is from Italy, lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four kids, and heads HadassahChen Productions. She hosts a weekly talk show, “Real Talk with Hadassah Chen,” on Arutz7. [email protected]