“Her name is Fiamma,” the young man said to me over dinner, “and that is what she is to us – our fiamma! What is that in English?”
It took me a second. “Flame,” I said.
“Yes, that is what she is. Our flame! Our heroine!”
The year was 2007. I was in Rome for a conference called “Fighting for Democracy in the Islamic World” and the man speaking to me was a conference participant and a member of Italy’s Jewish community. The woman he was speaking of with such enthusiasm, who was sitting at a nearby table (a bunch of us from the conference had pretty much taken over the restaurant), was Fiamma Nirenstein.
If you don’t know her name, you should. A prolific newspaper columnist, author of widely read books on Israel, Islam, democracy, and anti-Semitism, and winner of a long list of awards (most recently from the Israeli Knesset and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), she is one of the most prominent members of Italy’s Jewish community and has held a seat in the Italian Parliament since 2008. She has used her government position as a bully pulpit, speaking out in support of freedom and human rights, against terror and anti-Semitism, and for a clear-eyed view of Israel and Islam. On a continent where most politicians hesitate to say certain things for fear of offending certain groups, Nirenstein is a straight shooter of the first order, standing up foursquare for Western values and against the “leftist ideologies” which, she proclaims, have been used to “justify…violent crimes” and “disgusting verbal attacks” against Jews and Israel.
She is also an exceedingly gutsy woman. That evening in 2007, when three or four dozen of us from the conference made our way to that restaurant to have dinner, we were accompanied by two armed men – Nirenstein’s bodyguards – who checked the place out before we went in, and who, while we ate our dinner, sat together at a strategically placed table with their eyes on the door. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, Nirenstein has said things about Islam that have earned her death threats. And like Hirsi Ali and Wilders, she has refused to be silenced. Witnessing her immense energy and charisma, her grit and eloquence, and her ever-present warmth and humor and charm, you would never know she was a marked woman.
She was born in Florence. “I’m the daughter of a soldier named Aron,” she told me recently, “a very young Polish Zionist who lost half of his family in the Holocaust and had the other half saved in Israel, and who in 1945 came to Italy from Palestine with the Jewish brigade. He wanted to save Europe from Nazism, and in Florence he met a young Jewish partisan, my mother, Wanda, and they called me Fiamma so that I would remember forever the value of resistance.” The lesson she learned from her parents about the importance of fighting for freedom was further nourished, she says, “in the streets of Florence were I was born, nourished by the marvelous art that I was blessed with, and grew in Jerusalem where I lived for twenty years before coming to the Italian parliament. I came here with a beautiful set of baggage. I’m very lucky.”
I first met Nirenstein at that 2007 conference. I was reunited with her two years later at the International Conference on Violence against Women, also in Rome. That remarkable event, sponsored by the Italian government and helmed by Nirenstein, focused largely on the status of women in Islamic countries and communities. Last year I was honored to be invited to another important gathering she put together, also in the Eternal City, called “For the Truth, for Israel,” at which several dozen politicians, writers, and other public figures from across Europe made remarks in support of Israel before an audience of thousands. (Alas, I wrote a speech but missed my plane.)
Nirenstein has spent much of her life observing, and contemplating, the anti-Semitism that infects today’s Left. A few years ago, she wrote in a long, incisive essay on the subject about how her experience in Israel during the Six-Day War converted her from “a young Communist” – a person whose politics made her an acceptable Jew in the eyes of her left-wing Italian friends – to the wrong kind of Jew, “because I simply thought that Israel rightly won a war after having been assaulted with an incredible number of harassments.” She has since learned her lessons about the Left. Once upon a time, she writes, the Left “blessed the Jews as the victim ‘par excellence,’ always a great partner in the struggle for the rights of the weak against the wicked.” But now “the game is clearly over. The left has proved itself the real cradle of contemporary anti-Semitism.”
All too many people on the Left, she has come to realize, are fond of Jews who suffer: they define Jews as a people who are “bound to bear the worst persecutions without even lifting a finger,” and who, by suffering helplessly, earn “compassion and solidarity.” But the Jew who rejects this role, who does not wish to suffer, and who “can and wants to defend himself, immediately loses all his charm in the eyes of the Left.” To be sure, the Left “wants to continue being considered the paladin of good Jews. It pretends to continue mourning the Jews killed in the Holocaust, crying together with the Jews shoulder to shoulder. And it does so because this gives it the moral authorization to go on a second later and speak of the ‘atrocities’ of Israel.”
Why, I asked her recently, is there so much anti-Semitism in Europe? Her answer was firm and comprehensive. “Because it [Europe] is afraid and opportunist, oil-oriented, confused about values, doesn’t believe in itself, doesn’t know anymore what is good and what is bad. Because anti-Semitism, very alive today, mixes in a lethal poison with a sense of guilt, because they are afraid of Iran…Look at the way the exchange of 1027 disgusting mass murderers and criminals with a young innocent soldier was treated as an equal trade by CNN and the BBC! Those prisoners with innocent blood on their hands were convicted legally, legally judged, had a very decent life in jail, were visited by the Red Cross, and by international organizations, while you know how Gilad was detained and who he is. Still the media kept calling the terrorists militants, criminals only in the judgment of Israel. In obliterating the differences between Israel and its enemies terrorism becomes a minor crime in our culture. The Palestinians that shoot at schools, streets, shops, homes, are the darling of the Europeans – what a perversion!”
As for Europe itself, she describes it as “an artificial creature. Each and every state in Europe is basically different – in languages, in history. The attempt to form an international power and identity like the United States clashes with different interests, awakens antagonistic memories, even hatreds. We are also riddled with guilt over the Second War World, a guilt that created a web of values that permits everything. Just look at the Council of Europe, whose main concern is how to allow the burka. Europe doesn’t know how to be selective in dealing with immigration; we don’t have a certain, clear identity to propose to [immigrants], but only a fake, politically correct ideology.” What would she change about Europe? “I would change the public discourse, the way we deal with fundamental problems, the bla-bla of the chattering class. I can’t stand it. Myself, having been living for many years as a correspondent in Israel, I’m used to realistic ways of relating to each other and of dealing with problems. No nonsense, please! Call evil evil, good good, murder murder, self-defense self-defense.”
If Nirenstein is so concerned about Israel, it is not only because she is Jewish but also because she recognizes that country as the front line in a struggle between Western liberty and Islamic tyranny – a struggle, she knows, in which many people on the Left have objectively taken the wrong side. As she put it to me the other day, “Israel matters because it is the little Hans with his finger in the hole in the dike against political Islam and terror….It matters because if we don’t understand how marvelous it is, we lose every sense of what is good and just, and we are lost.”
Yet to her, ultimately, this is deeply personal territory. “My story with Israel is a love story, and is a story of continuous rage and worry when I see how misunderstood it is. I have just finished my new book: it’s about Jerusalem, without any pretension to be the history of the capital town of Israel – it’s about myself getting to know it. It’s a very personal book. While writing it, I wondered more and more how it is that the world can compare the immense love of the Jews for Jerusalem, and therefore for Israel, to the desire for possession that characterizes the Arab pretense. The Jews have kept the town opened to all the religions; Jordan never allowed the Jews and the Christians to pray everywhere, and in the Arab world that is not permitted. Jerusalem in their hands would become a prisoner.”
What of Berlusconi? Nirenstein gives him a thumbs-up: “He is one of these men who, belonging to Christian-democratic culture, has been blessed by a feeling of deep sincere friendship with the Jews. It’s a matter of being clever, of being sensitive, it’s a matter of chance and of having a taste for going against the stream.” And she has no illusions about the “Arab Spring”: “I appreciate the courage of the people that defy death in the streets, I am with their fight against awful tyrants that dominated their life for decades, but I know that this doesn’t guarantee at all a democratic development. These people have been educated to hate the West and the Jews, and also not to take responsibility and blame imperialism, capitalism, and fantastic ghosts for all of their problems. We must give them conditional help, connected to women, sexual and human rights, and to peace with Israel, and to stopping the politics of hate in schools and media.”
Nirenstein is always busy, and seems never to tire. A committee she chaired has produced a comprehensive – and disturbing – report on anti-Semitism in Italy that has just been released by the Italian Parliament. (I will outline its findings in a later column.) Her book on Jerusalem will be published on November 23. And she will soon host yet another an international conference, taking place in Florence and focusing on violence against children.
There are not very many reasons to feel hopeful these days about the future of Europe. But Fiamma Nirenstein is most definitely one of them.
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