Not My Father’s Rome

The Rome I live in is a very different city than the one my father left in the mid- 1960s. I am reminded of this every time I take the metro (I still prefer subway, that arcane Americanism). The trains are always full of readers, and I am a curious observer of public reading material. I am frequently struck by the sheer metropolitanness of a ride: while reviewing my weekly Hebrew lesson, a woman across from me is reading from the Koran, the man next to me is flapping a Chinese newspaper, and all around us is a Babel of incoherent voices babbling sundry languages. This is not my father’s town, by a long shot.

Some people tend to think of Rome—and to some extent Italy—as the Pope’s backyard. An Australian once remarked to me that he was shocked to find condoms on sale in the pharmacies. “But I thought this was a Catholic country,” was his lament. He seemed disappointed that his medieval fantasy had been crushed. Indeed, condoms are readily available, even in supermarkets. And so is alcohol, which will be a surprise to many Americans whose local mega-markets are still “dry” in the year 2009. In many ways, we might do well to think of  Italy as a post-Catholic country.

Another institution in crisi is marriage. Yes, you read correctly. For the record, divorce wasn’t legally established in Italy until the early 1970s. Despite the recent scandal of Berlusconi and his soon-to-be ex-wife Veronica Lario, divorce has never taken on epic proportions here as in the United States (each of my parents has been married three times, for instance). I often meet Italians who are “divorced,” a euphemism meaning “separated.” “It’s too much trouble to get divorced,” they say. “And it’s money wasted.” Better to stay married and live with other people. Or, to note a modest new trend, not to marry at all.

According to a 2007 Istat poll, children born out of wedlock were 15%, or about 80,000 a year. Once, such children were modified by adjectives like “illegitimate”, then the more politically correct “natural.” No longer.They are now simply children, born to parents, with extended biological families and hereditary rights.

Many of my friends have children, and almost none of them are married. In fact, I hardly know one Italian couple under the age of fifty who is married with children.

So the news that I am getting married comes as a surprise to many, especially those who had me pegged as anti-conformist. My answer is: can there be anything more anti-conformist than to be married with children in Italy these days?

Sadly, my father is not around to witness the legacy of these reforms and counter-reforms in his country of birth. In a way, though, he anticipated them. In a time when the traditional institution of the family was iron-clad and Italians still hung on the pope’s every syllable, my father fell in love with a Jewish-American woman from Boston. They were married at the Campidoglio in Rome in a secular ceremony. Both eschewed their family’s tradition. Both crossed the uncrossable boundaries laid before them by history.

More than forty years later I am crisscrossing the same boundaries in the same city. But I come from a different time and place. Like Bellow’s Augie March, I boast playfully, “I am an American, New England born…” I have inherited my parents’ idiosyncratic heresies, and I have found a heterodox woman with which to share them. A friend will be officiating our wedding ceremony next month at the Campidoglio, another innovative touch in a city for which the puzzling expression “everything changes but nothing changes” was coined.

But many things have changed, both in Italy and the world. I am a dual-citizen, which my father never was. He lived for twenty-three years in America as—in his words—an alien. I used to wonder why he wasn’t green. In his day, long-distance phone calls were expensive and infrequent, air travel even more so. Today I Skype my family for free. We email. We are in touch with an alarming frequency. Being a citizen of Italy I am also a citizen of the European Union. One-quarter of the developed world is my domain. This is not my father’s world.

On the eve of marriage, I wonder what kind of world our eventual children will inherit. Technology develops at Planck speed. Borders and boundaries are going up and coming down all over the globe. One of the last memories I have of my father is watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on television, an event that symbolized a new era to Europe and the world. I was fifteen. Three months later he died of a heart attack.

Our children will be heirs to the post-9/11 world, perhaps the post-American world (to quote a recent bestseller). They will be Italians and Americans and, if they choose, Israelis—assuming no walls go up in the meantime to keep them in or out. Walls could fall, too, making those distinctions meaningless. We cannot know.

In the meantime, I still need to buy a suit for the wedding. Did someone say mazel-tov?

Published in The American

“Racist! Racist!”

Empty seat at Durban 2
Empty seat at Durban 2

Things aren’t going so well after day one up in Geneva. Clowns were arrested, Ahmadinejad called Israel all sorts of bad things and was called a racist himself (but only by the clowns, mind you). There was apparently a move by the already diffident EU delegates to walk out on the Conference once his rant got underway. It isn’t clear from today’s papers whether France and England are there for day two or not. There was a “severe” condemnation from Sarkozy. The Vatican is staying put.

There was soft condemnation of Ahmadinejad’s words, but apparently the UN cannot allow itself to say anything that might be misconstrued as an opinion. They “condemned” Ahmadinejad’s choice of words, though he didn’t apparently pronounce the name “Israel.” Perhaps this means he was speaking of another country when he called it a “racist government” in the Middle East. Maybe he meant Syria, or Lebanon? Maybe he was being self-referential, post-modern, over our heads by talking about himself?

Anyway, the big news from Geneva is that there is no big news. Day one went just as most of us thought it would. Navi Pillay just doesn’t get it:

“A boycott isn’t the best response.”

Apparently this was the extent of her emotion at the hijacking of her Conference by a fanatical head of state who happens to be the world’s most visible Holocaust denier and potential genocidal maniac. Perhaps we should go back and take a look at Jeffrey Goldberg’s painstakingly compiled dossier of Ahmadinejad’s money quotes on Israel.

It’s business as usual at Durban 2.

Pope Blesses Durban 2

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI

This morning’s Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading newspapers, has a snippet article on Durban 2. Germany and Sweden have pulled out at the last minute, while France and Great Britain are attending. The Pope chimed in with a blessing over the heads of all the participants, calling for:

“strong, concrete action, on an international scale, in order to eliminate all forms of discrimination and intolerance.”

Which begs the question: is Joseph Ratzinger completely insane? Is he unaware that his own church still condemns homosexuality? Are homosexuals not deserving of the same rights as others who suffer discrimination: Jews, women, blacks and minorities of every stripe and creed? After having scandalously reinstated a Holocaust-denying bishop a few months ago, it hardly seems that Pope Benedict XVI is qualified to make such universal-sounding pronouncements.

Of course the Pope is no ignoramus. He’s just a cynic. What can a blessing from such a man possibly augur?

For a gloss on the anti-Semitic dimensions of April 20, read Yaacov Lozowick.

Holland and Australia Boycott Durban 2

According to today’s Jerusalem Post, Holland and Australia have announced that they will boycott Durban 2:

Hours after the US said it would boycott a UN conference on racism starting Monday in Geneva over objectionable language in the meeting’s final document that could single out Israel for criticism, Australia and Holland followed suit on Sunday morning, saying they were concerned the conference would be derailed by some countries to issues other than human rights.

So let’s see,  that makes the US, Israel, Canada, Italy, Holland and Australia the only countries officially willing to admit that tomorow’s conference actually has nothing to do with racism or human rights? Where is the EU? According to JPost,

The European Union was still weighing its own participation.

Well, they still a few hours left to save themselves from embarrassment.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali


On the eve of Durban 2, it might be worth recalling the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I just rushed through the last hundred or so pages of her autobiography, Infidel. It was a much different book than I had imagined, having approached it expecting a sort of female Christopher Hitchens–a snide wit ridiculing Islam, getting in a few punches below the belt for good measure. Of course, Hitchens is better than that much of the time, but Hirsi Ali is different altogether. She has a patient style, judicious even, and tells her tale bluntly. She is not angry with God (she is an atheist, so that would be contradictory), nor is she burning with rage against the Muslim world into which she was born. Her story is probably typical of many Somali women, except that her father was a high-profile revolutionary while she was growing up. Her genitals were excised at the age of six, as is the tradition of her clan. She was educated as a traditional Muslim, and even sympathised with the Muslim Brotherhood for a period while she lived in Kenya. She believed Islam was perfect and held the answers to all of life’s questions. Then something snapped, and she grew up.

She was betrothed to a man she had never met, and pretty much forced into marriage. The facade of tradition was already cracked, and while on a stopover in Germany (on her way to Canada to become her new husband’s property) she snuck into Holland, applied for refugee status, and was eventually accepted. She learned Dutch (which, from what I can gather, is her sixth language–after Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Arabic and English), studied political science, obtained a degree, and then began to wonder what to do with so much freedom.

Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. Hirsi Ali began to speak out about Islam, about how suicide terrorism is not the result of ignorance and poverty. She said the attackers were acting in perfect harmony with their faith. The more she spoke, the more people began to listen. She began to receive death threats, which she didn’t take seriously at first. Then, once a member of the Dutch Parliament, Hirsi Ali dedicated herself politically to the betterment of Muslim women’s lives. That was her bone to pick. She said the Prophet Muhammad would be considered a pedophile and tyrant in modern-day Holland, which some people didn’t like. The death threats began to get serious.

Then she made this film with Theo van Gogh:



Van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight in Amsterdam not long thereafter. He didn’t take the death threats seriously. Hirsi Ali was immediately whisked into hiding, shuttled from apartment to apartment, finally ending up in a motel in smalltown Massachusetts. At times even she couldn’t know where she was being hidden. She could not use a telephone or go online for any reason. She could not risk being traced. Her potential killers could be anywhere, ready at a moment’s notice to make good on their promise to cut her throat.

Even Hirsi Ali admits in her book that all this top-security mishaguss was a bit much. But she was a member of the Dutch government, so she got the star treatment. When she was finally allowed back in Holland, she was made to resign and had her citizenship revoked on a technicality. Her neighbors even complained that her presence made them feel unsafe. They rallied to kick her out of her home. So she became a refugee, again.

Long story short, she was offered a job in the United States, where she now lives and works. Her Dutch citizenship has been reinstated.

So why all the fuss? Ask the guys in Geneva.

Durban 2: An Imminent Fiasco

Days away from the Durban 2 conference in Geneva, and the only major coverage seems to be in the Israeli media. Which isn’t a big surprise, seeing as they have more to lose from the backlash than anyone. Today’s Jerusalem Post explains why Israelis are worried:

Already in advance of Durban II, a two-day anti-Israel NGO conference is scheduled to meet on April 18 and 19th, called “The Israel Review Conference.” An anti-Israel rally is also scheduled in Geneva for April 18.

Israel Review Conference can only mean one thing:

United Against Apartheid, Colonialism and Occupation, Dignity & Justice for the Palestinian People

So this is the secret meaning of the Durban conference. It’s a kind of primer for the real event, when the hevyweights show up to do the big Israel-bashing.

Is there still anyone out there who cannot see this facade for what it is? It is thinly disguised Jew-hatred (oh, but there will be anti-Zionist Jews there doing the bashing–so don’t call them anti-Semites!) sanctioned by the UN–an organization which has completely lost its bearings. And everyone will be there–everyone except Israel, the US, Canada and–I never get tired of repeating this–Italy. The EU will be there “in good faith”, which is how things are officially done these days in Europe.

The UN High Commissionerfor Human Rights,  Navanethem Pillay, had this to say:

“The goals set out in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action have not been achieved. This reality should prompt us to seek common grounds to move the struggle against racism forward. The tools and capacity for achieving the goals outlined in the Declaration and Programme of Action are within reach if we remain committed to those objectives.”

I take this to mean that Israel still exists, and it takes another doleful “conference” of racists, xenophobes, Holocaust deniers and their appeasers to strike another blow at the Jewish State and its supporters.

Tell me, a week from now, if I was wrong.

Italy Loves Israel!

Today’s Ynet Culture report has an edifying proclamation: “Italy loves us!”

Liron Bar Sadeh of the Israeli embassy in Rome said that Italy’s treatment of Israel was uniquely positive. “They love us and do a lot to strengthen the ties. It’s important to remember that Italy is the only country in Europe, and one of the only ones in the world, after the US and Canada, which withdrew from the Durban 2 anti-racism conference.

 “Italy said that it is appalled by the systematic discrimination of Israel and the fact it is branded a threat to the world, while other countries are not considered a threat despite their actions. Italy published positive statements and supported us throughout the war, during which the Italian media, unlike other news outlets in Europe, has been very balanced.”

None of this means that all Italians really love Israel, just that–perhaps from an Israeli perspective–things aren’t quite as bad here in Italy as in the rest of Europe. Italy has its fair share of naysayers, haters and all-around anti-Zionists, of course. Some of them even have television shows, newspapers and the like. But it’s nothing like England, one place in Europe no Israeli could exactly call chummy.

So what keeps Italy from devolving into a pit of anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic hatred–a sickness which is sucking Europe down into its vortex a mere sixty years after it nearly committed suicide? How come Italy is still the only European nation to have pulled out of the upcoming Durban 2 conference, allied only with the United States, Canada and Israel against the likes of the rest of the world. This is from yesterday’s Durban 2 draft negotiations, courtesy of UN Watch:

Syria “will never be party to a ceremonial or redundant activity,” which fails to address “the agony of millions of victims, especially within countries with a blatant, institutionalized basis of racism” (read: Israeli “racism” against Palestinians). It added, “We will never support the surviving apartheid regime.” It also railed against those who have threatened boycott of Durban II, arguing, “Threatening to boycott or walkout is no longer acceptable within the framework of international cooperation.”

No longer acceptable? What does Syria propose to do, kick them out on their behinds?

As long as freedom of speech–and freedom to criticize religion–are on the line, as well as explicit condemnation of Israel (but no other countries), the entire conference will be nothing but a farce. The fact that so few countries have had the balls to pull out is a telling sign. Will they sit still and listen when Israel is bashed to bits, as they did in 2001?

Italy, always fearful of lagging behind the rest of cultured Europe, for once is way ahead of the pack.

They Call it Lawfare

Two weeks ago I saw Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor give this speech at the Italian Parliament. Italy is so far the only European country to have pulled out of the Durban II Conference in Geneva, which will be held next month from April 20-24.

Anyway, the point is that NGO Monitor has assigned itself the task of carefully monitoring all those saintly NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc…who are themselves on the prowl for every Israeli human rights violation–even when there are  none. These NGO’s display what is called the “halo effect”, which is basically a form of infallibility. Many people feel that their humanitarian status makes them unbiased and therefore moral, and people like to have their morality spoon fed to them, especially when it comes to Israel.

In Durban, NGO participants singled out Israel for attack. Palestinian NGOs distributed copies of the anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and leaflets depicting Hitler and the caption, “What if I had won?” The answer: “There would be No Israel and No Palestinian bloodshed.”

So much for blessed neutrality.

War crimes, human rights violations and International Law are invoked these days in the destruction of Israel’s credibility. As Melanie Phillips wrote, “Israel and the Jews are being systematically delegitimized and dehumanized–a necessary prelude to their destruction.” This is the new strategy, same as the old. If you can’t destroy Israel with human bombs, Kassam rockets, daily death threats and Israeli bulldozers, you might as well give lawfare a shot.

Hannah Arendt on Caryl Churchill

“One can hardly overestimate the disastrous effects of this exaggerated goodwill on  the newly Westernized, educated Jews and the impact it had on their social and psychological position. Not only were they faced with the demoralizing demand that they be an exception to their own people, recognize “the sharp difference between them and others” and ask that such “separation…be also legalized” by the governments, they were expected to become exceptional specimens of humanity. And since this, and not Heine’s conversion, constitutes the ticket of admission into cultured European society, what else could these and future generations of Jews do but try desperately not to disappoint anybody?”

This is Hannah Arendt writing about the illusion of Jewish emancipation in Europe. Of course, in those days the difference was between Jewish Jews (you know, the ones with the full beards and yarmulkas) and cultured, Europeanized Jews. The latter, Arendt is saying, in order to be admitted into the bosom of European society, were expected to distance themselves from their brethren in the East (Russia, Poland), i.e. to become non-Jewish Jews.

I bookmark this page from The Origins of Totalitarianism in order to draw a quick parallel. In today’s Europe, “good Jews” are still asked–perhaps more than ever–to distance themselves from their brethren in the East, namely Israel. Of course, not only in Old-New Europe, but even in brand new North America this is true. Jews everywhere are told that they must choose between their troublemaking brethren in the East or the goodwill of their non-Jewish neighbors.