Grazie, Salvini!

Salvini is deemed to be a controversial figure in the salons of the political left for advocating on behalf of Italian national interests in the face of European Union corruption.

Eric Ruskin

OpEds Netanyahu with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini
Netanyahu with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini

One of the issues characterizing the much-vaunted divide between Israel’s elected leaders and its progressive Jewish critics is the question of how Jews should respond to support for Israel when it is expressed by European populist political leaders. Progressive Jews might have closed their minds on the subject, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to.

This issue was brought to the fore when the Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, recently spent two days in Israel on an official visit. Salvini is head of the populist Lega party, which achieved an unprecedentedly strong showing in Italy’s general election earlier this year. He has also shown himself to be an outspoken supporter of Israel.

Catapulted into the position of kingmaker during the formation of Italy’s governing coalition, he is considered to be at the forefront of a rising movement of European populists, which includes several pro-Israel politicians. Salvini is deemed to be a controversial figure in the salons of the political left for advocating on behalf of Italian national interests in the face of European Union corruption and interference in his country’s affairs, as exemplified by the migrant crisis.

At a Rome Foreign Press Association conference on the eve of his visit, Salvini described Israel as “one of the greatest and most modern democracies on the planet.” In condemning anti-Semitism and indicating his commitment as Interior Minister to oppose it, he stated that "antisemites are imbeciles and delinquents.” He described Islamic extremism as “the prime enemy of civil society and social peace, both in Italy and in Israel.”

Upon landing in Israel the next day, he was greeted by National Security Minister Meir Shabbat and flown to the border with Lebanon to personally survey and condemn Hezbollah’s terror tunnels. He did not shy away from calling Hezbollah “Islamic terrorists.”

These comments raised the ire of not only the Italian media, but of some of Salvini’s political allies as well, including at the Ministry of Defence. Salvini was unfazed and demonstrated his willingness to withstand domestic political attacks for calling a spade a spade while in Israel. Responding to the criticism, he later remarked, “I don’t think [Hezbollah] dug tunnels dozens of meters underground to go shopping.”

Salvini visited Yad Vashem, the Western Wall, and other sites in Jerusalem, which he acknowledges as Israel’s capital. There he met with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, with whom he discussed countering anti-Israel decisions at the UN and EU. Decrying the imbalance of the EU’s approach to Israel, he noted that it “has in recent years been entirely unbalanced, it has condemned and sanctioned Israel left and right, for every step it took.”

He also met with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who described Salvini as “a great friend of Israel.” In meeting with the Prime Minister, Salvini took another opportunity to reject Italian media criticism over his comments on Hezbollah, bluntly stating, “A terrorist is a terrorist.” No meeting was held with any representative of the Palestinian Authority.

Thus Salvini further distinguished himself from scores of politicians who populate European capitals, including ones slithering about the corridors of power in Brussels who routinely throw the Jewish State under the bus without the slightest compunction despite the atrocities carried out against Jews on their continent by Nazis in the past and by Islamist terrorists today.

By any Zionist measure, the visit was a success and the pro-Israel sentiment underlying it is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the progressive Jewish left refuses to countenance any support from figures affiliated with the populist movement. As expected, they lambasted Israel for welcoming Salvini.

These are many of the same people who totally reject the potential for cooperating with a new generation of European political leaders like Salvini but seldom hesitate to work with political leaders and activists on the left who are outright enemies of Israel and/or have atrocious records when it comes to Israel and anti-Semitism.

How many Jewish progressives who condemn Israeli politicians for responding positively to the pro-Israel stance of European populist politicians not only cooperate with a major American political party that with each passing year grows more and more hostile to the State of Israel, but count themselves among its most fervent supporters?

How many have stooped so low as to celebrate the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (if you don’t recognize the names, you soon will), have explained away their political rise or chosen to remain silent in its wake? How many sweep the relationship between the left and genuinely anti-Semitic activists and groups under the rug? The answer is far too many for the rest of us to take their views on the rectitude of the potential for cooperation with pro-Israel European politicians seriously.

Needless to say, when exploring the potential for such cooperation, it is vital for Jews to continue to perform the requisite due diligence. Jews must never allow themselves to be cynically used by politicians of any stripe, especially if this is part of an effort to mask genuine anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, those engaged in Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy around the world need to consider moving beyond illogical comfort zones when it comes to political cooperation. To be sure, we must be cautious and react to unfolding developments but not so overly cautious that historic opportunities with those with whom we share common interests and common enemies are spurned for fear of what progressives might think.

When it comes to this entire subject, a degree of maturity is called for. One might even call it normalcy. The return of Jewish statehood was supposed to inaugurate an era for Jews in which we would have normal, healthy interactions with non-Jewish leaders when possible.

A return to Jewish sovereignty was supposed to mark the end of the extremes of fawning obsequiousness before non-Jewish politicians on the one hand and fear-induced reticence on the other, which so often characterized our interactions in the past. The specifics of the situation, individuals and organizations involved as well as the overall geo-political situation must inform our approach, not the opinion page of The New York Times.

Political cooperation doesn’t mean that one agrees with every policy articulated by the other party, nor does it have to. Needless to say, the Likud and Jewish Home politicians who warmly received Salvini did not intend to endorse every plank of the Lega platform any more than he intended to endorse every policy contained in theirs.

On his visit to Israel, Salvini made a statement that we don’t often hear from progressive politicians these days: “Whoever wants peace, needs to support Israel.” What is an appropriate Jewish response to such an expression of the justness of Israel’s cause when articulated by the Italian Interior Minister on a friendly visit to the Jewish State? That’s not even a question. Grazie, Salvini!