When she walks down the streets in Italy, passersby shout greetings to her, addressing her as onorevole. “In a few days,” Italian Parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein said to me the other day in a long, energetic, and remarkably openhearted phone call from Rome, “I will not be onorevole anymore.”
Nirenstein, one of the most prominent members of the Italian Parliament, has chosen not to run for office again. More than that, she has chosen to leave Italy for Israel. She is Jewish. She is making aliyah. And she is leaving politics to return to journalism.
She has mixed feelings about the change. “As a journalist, you’re read. By some. But when you’re an onorevole, all you have to say is that you’re angry about something and a whole lot of people in the press will write about it. And you can write a law, and spread the word, and win support, and get it passed.” In many regards, Fiamma is like former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, not only because both women have made use of their political positions to vigorously challenge Islam and defend its victims, but because both ended up having to be accompanied everywhere by armed guards – and also because Fiamma, like Ayaan before her, is a top-rank European hero of our time who has decided that she has no alternative other than to leave Europe.
Fiamma has stood up for Jews in Italy, for gays and Christians in the Middle East, for the anathematization of Hezbollah. That’s different from just being a journalist. Still, journalism is calling. “A journalist is a journalist, and you have to go back to it.”
There were, to be sure, doubts. “I had to decide. Do I stay or go? If I could have stayed a little more I would have stayed.” But at some point, she wanted to make aliyah. Which is another issue: “When you’re in Parliament, you don’t want to be accused of double loyalties” – of caring more about Israel than about Italy. For her, there’s no conflict. She remains devoted to Italy – its culture, its roots. But she sees, as some Italians don’t, that if they fail to stand up for Israel, Italy is over. “They’re dead. They’re done. They’re destroyed. This is how I feel about Europe.”
She recalls meeting another female senator in the street who introduced Fiamma to her daughter by saying: “This is Fiamma, who has been given the honor to defend Israel in the Parliament.” Indeed she’s done many positive things with her time in politics. I first met her at a 2007 Rome conference she organized on women in the Islamic world. We were reunited two years later, in the same city, at a conference on violence against women. More recently, she brought together a small army of Arab woman to blow the cover, once and for all, on the liberatory pretensions of the so-called Arab Spring. For three years, moreover, she ran a commission on anti-Semitism in Italy, whose explosive report I outlined here.
Yet, she admits, “I didn’t feel much help from the Italian community in all this work. From the elite,” she hastens to add. When she announced her plans to make aliya, “I had a revolution of people writing me to stay, telling me please stay. But the elite didn’t say a word.” Frankly, they prefer for the Jew to leave the scene – just as so many Dutch movers and shakers were relieved to see Ayaan’s back. Fiamma’s absence, quite simply, will make things easier. Certainly it’s been no picnic for her. The personal attacks have mounted. “I am threatened every day.” European Jews, she underscores, need to realize they’re “living in an anti-Semitic continent. It’s coming back again.” All of which propels her to move to Israel. Not to escape – but to fight. Yes, “I want to be defended psychologically and physically” by Israel. But she wants it to work the other way, too: “I want to defend it. I want to be there to defend it.” She laughs at what she apparently considers the absurdity of “a woman of sixty” wanting to defend a country. But on the other hand she insists “I still have strength. I want to help. Israel is threatened by Iran, by all these Muslims from the Middle East. There are many more reasons now to be in Israel than some years ago.” Israel is certainly more directly, urgently, and immediately threatened than Italy.
And yet, in a remarkable and instructive paradox, life is more comfortable for a Jew in Israel than in Italy. “It’s a place where the sense of communality, patriotism, happiness, and the secure life is so beautiful. I have a lot of problems, of course, moving there.” But the “compensation,” she says, more than makes up for it. The problem: in Italy “I feel very alone. That’s the worst thing that can happen in the life of a man. When you are there [Israel], you are never alone. There’s something there that doesn’t exist in Europe anymore, or anyplace – a people that still are trying to survive. Still trying to stand up. An incredibly vibrant democracy and economy and science and culture.”
Still, “it’s very mysterious. This sense of life, democracy, modernity, war. It’s something I’ve always thought about. The main thing is identity. Nobody knows what he is today. What is Europe nowadays? Day after day what you see is the clash between Germany and France, Italy and Germany – the desperate attempt to create a communal sense. It doesn’t work. In Israel you ask yourself who you are, and you find the answer. You’re somebody who tries to survive with the enormous responsibility of saving a thousand-year-old culture that founded all of the values of modernity from the Ten Commandments up to the invention of democracy. And it’s all on the shoulders of this tiny little country, which, if it does not survive, then everything will die.” That’s the bottom line. Not so very long ago, “there were no trees, there was no cultivation, there were no high-tech buildings, no start-ups. And now there is all of this.” Yes, Israelis fight amongst one another – harshly. “But at the same time they’re so close to each other, so cozy,” so that the whole society is “an exercise in democracy.” The current political scene, certainly, seems to be one of stark antitheses – but, she thinks, not really. The opposing parties and candidates “have a lot in common. They are alive, modern, witty kind of people that think. I want to see them in the same government. I want to see what these crazy people are able to do together, so different and yet at the same time so close to each other.”
I remember my first visit to Rome, when I had dinner with Fiamma and a group of her Italian Jewish supporters, one of whom explained to me that she was their community’s fiamma (flame). What of them? Should they, I ask, also high-tail it to Israel? “I understand how important it is that the Jewish community stay in Europe,” she says. “To win this terrible race with history. I appreciate that. What I don’t appreciate is that they don’t understand that the main key to their survival is Israel. They will be destroyed by history if there is no Israel.” The Italian Jews, she underscores, “are wonderful.” But they must learn to “be strong again. You are no longer just the community of the Italian Jews. You are the most ancient community in Europe. Stand up and tell them who you are.”
Indeed, some things about Italian Jews explicitly anger her. At present, for example, the Italian Jewish media are savaging “a young fantastic woman” politician who dares to belong to the center-right People of Freedom (PdL) Party, and who despite her fierce support of Israel is being accused by them of “not representing real Jewish values.” (Alas, this is standard issue these days for European Jewish communities, which live under the folly that if only they sell out Israel they will be left alone.) Fiamma is candid about her anger on this topic. Too many European Jews, she knows, are ready to bad-mouth Israel in the illusion that this will save them. She recognizes this for the illusion that it is. If Israel falls, Europe is next. Then North America.
“My idea of going to Israel, then, is not so personal after all,” she says. “At the end of the day you must do what you think. I am a Zionist. You must do what you are.” Several times the Council of Europe refused to give her a copy of a certain sensitive report on the Middle East for no other reason, she suspects, than that she is Jewish. “There are many such things that annoy me. I don’t want to feel that feeling anymore. And I feel it so deeply.” She admits that she “never felt integrated into the Jewish Italian community”: she found it too riddled with ignorance about, among other things, the Arab countries – their killing of everybody from Christians to “little girls who want to go to school.” For her, what sets Israel apart is that it’s “a sincere country. When it has to make a war, it makes a war – and it calls it a war.” She doesn’t want to live in Obama’s kind of society, dominated by political correctness and the “sense of ‘I want to be good and I want to be even better than you expect from me.’”
So she will go to Israel. And she will write. “First I will continue writing. And my dream is to be able to put my experience and my energies, as long as I have them – because I am beginning to be old – at the service of the country that I love.” And, by extension, at the service of all of us in the Free West. As I said to her at the end of our conversation: “Buona fortuna” – and mazel tov.
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