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Jewish Group to Salute Italian Premier

September 18, 2003

ROME (AP) _ A New York-based organization that fights anti-Semitism is giving Premier Silvio Berlusconi its Distinguished Statesman Award next week, despite controversy over the Italian leader’s recent comment that Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini never killed anyone.

The Anti-Defamation League’s award highlights mixed feelings raised by Berlusconi, who shows strong support for Israel while sometimes serving up awkward public comments.

``People have been calling me, ’Are you canceling the dinner?‴ said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which will give the award Tuesday. ``The answer is no. He’s a friend, he’s a good friend. But he’s a flawed friend.″

Foxman said by phone from New York that the Jewish community appreciates many of Berlusconi’s policies, such as his support of the United States in its war in Iraq and against terrorism, as well as his approach to Israel. As for the Mussolini comment, Foxman characterized it as an inappropriate and regrettable gaffe.

The statement, which appeared last week in London’s conservative weekly The Spectator and in a small Italian paper, was made after an interviewer equated Iraq after Saddam with Italy in the years after Mussolini.

``Mussolini never killed anyone,″ Berlusconi was quoted as saying. ``Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile.″

Berlusconi later said he’d never intended to recast the history of Mussolini. ``Simply, as an Italian, I didn’t accept his comparison, or the comparison of my country to another dictator or another dictatorship, that of Saddam Hussein, which caused millions of deaths,″ the premier said last week.

Berlusconi sought to patch up his relationship with the Italian Jewish community in a meeting with its leaders Wednesday. After the encounter, Berlusconi’s office said the premier had expressed ``regret″ for the community’s pain, while blaming the matter on unfair interpretations of his views.

Jewish leaders indicated that they would have preferred a more direct apology addressed to the entire nation.

``He apologized to us and to me in particular, but he didn’t apologize to Italians,″ the president of the Union of Jewish Communities, Amos Luzzatto, said Wednesday.

Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 until his ouster in 1943. Widespread persecution of Italian Jews began in 1938 when Mussolini’s regime issued racial laws. In 1943, German troops occupied northern and central Italy, and almost 7,000 Jews were deported, 5,910 of whom were killed.

The Italian Jewish community now numbers about 30,000, mainly in Rome and Milan.

In July, Berlusconi found himself in another awkward situation when he responded to criticism from German lawmaker Martin Schulz by telling the man he should appear in a movie as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Berlusconi said the remark was meant as a joke and later expressed ``regret,″ but he did not apologize. The incident led to a brief diplomatic spat with Germany.

One longtime Italian Jewish leader, Tullia Zevi, suggested to the Anti-Defamation League that it shouldn’t give Berlusconi an award now. But Foxman was sticking by the decision.

Italian Jews are not all critical of Berlusconi. On the contrary, many strongly support the conservative Berlusconi, in part because he is more favorable to Israeli policies under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon than is the center-left opposition.

When Berlusconi traveled to the Middle East last year, he met with Sharon but not with Yasser Arafat, following the U.S. approach of isolating the Palestinian leader. Berlusconi has also suggested that Israel be considered for membership in the European Union.

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