Former Parliament Member and journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, who has been named one of world's most influential Jewish women, decides to leave Rome behind and move to Jerusalem. Is she headed to Knesset? 'Life is full of surprises,' she says.
She was born in Florence, lived in Rome, served as a parliament member on behalf of Silvio Berlusconi's conservative party (and filled a number of senior roles in his government) – and then, one bright day, Fiamma Nirenstein decided that it was time to leave Italy behind and make aliyah.
In a few months, Nirenstein's vacation apartment in Jerusalem will turn into her permanent residence.
"One cannot just talk about Zionism; it's time for deeds too," she says. The woman who was one of the most outspoken activists in Italy in the war against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda has decided it is time to fulfill an old dream and become a citizen of the State of Israel.
12 books, many interviews
"I have gone back to being a journalist!" Fiamma Nirenstein informs me from the other end of the line in her home in Rome. This ideological, energetic woman does not waste any time; after her party lost the recent elections in Italy, she went back to doing what she does best – writing, with a daily column in Il Giornale, one of Italy's leading newspapers.
She has written 12 books, most of them dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict, which have turned her into a local authority on Israel and the Middle East. In an era of new European anti-Semitism, she should probably be given some credit for Italy's sympathetic policy towards Israel, as well as for the fact that the country is a safe haven for its Jewish residents.
Nirenstein was born to a mother from a Jewish Italian family and a Jewish father of Polish descent. She has dedicated most of her adult life to connecting Italians to Israel and the Jews.
During her four-year term in the Italian Parliament, Nirenstein managed to inaugurate a special committee for combating anti-Semitism, encourage Italian lawmakers to participate in pro-Israel rallies, and give interviews to every European news outlet about Israel's right to defend itself in the face of terror.
What one Jewish woman can do
"A major part of my political activity focused on Israel," Nirenstein says. "During the flotilla events, I presented a very clear stand: I explained, demonstrated and gave speeches, until parliament members from all parties chose to come out of the building with flags of Israel in a show of solidarity. I submitted bills to include Iran and Hamas in the list of terror organizations. There are many things one Jewish woman can do at the Italian Parliament.
"I brought to the parliament Jewish refugees from Libya, who recalled how they fled to Italy in great poverty, in order to show that the Palestinians are not the only ones with refugees, and that thousands of Jews from Arab countries were also banished and turned into refugees.
"I asked Italy not to participate in the Durban Review Conference against racism in Switzerland, a conference which was basically a racism conference. I did many other things. How much time do you have?"
And you're leaving all this behind?
"I have a very large group of friends and acquaintances who regret my decision to make aliyah. They are mostly concerned about who will continue the work I have done so far. I ease their fears and say that I'll continue to write, in Italian too, and that I'll definitely miss them. Nonetheless, I belong in Israel.
"At a certain point in the life of every Jew, he must decided if he is choosing Zionism and a connection to Israel as part of his life, and if the answer is yes – then he can't just settle for statements. If you believe in something, you must also do it."
She admits, however, that the decision to immigrate was easier for her than for others. "My sister and her three children are in Israel, my husband Ofer is Israeli, so for me it was really much easier, but I still have some concerns, and I wonder what it will be like in the end. At the same time, I am excited and can't wait to live as a citizen in Israel."
Future is in Israel
In her charming Italian accent, Nirenstein talks about her childhood as the daughter of a Jewish Brigade Group member, who at the end of World War II decided to stay in Florence, where he fell in love with a Jewish partisan.
Her father, who alongside his work as a historian of the Holocaust, used to write in Israeli daily newspaper Al Hamishmar, and her journalist mother, raised her in an atmosphere of deep commitment to Judaism and the Jews.
"Israel was always in our home, as was Zionism, so what I am doing today is a very natural continuation of what I saw and received from them."
She says Italy's Jews are clearly pro-Israel, and despite the small size of the local community, Jewish schools and the community's institutions are thriving.
"The Jews in Italy today are the social elite. They are everywhere: In culture, in business and in the media, and their voice is heard much more than their proportion in the population. How many Jews are there in Italy overall – 35,000? That's not much for a country of millions of residents."
Nonetheless, discussions about aliyah which are becoming increasingly common among the Jews of neighboring France, have crossed the Alps and led to an increase in the number of Italian Jews who have chosen, like Nirenstein, to immigrate to Israel.
"It's true that all over Europe, the Muslim population is bringing expressions of anti-Semitism and a lot of aggressiveness towards Jews and Israel. Our neighbors in France can no longer wear a Star of David or put on a skullcap on the street. In Italy that doesn't happen.
"Here Jews are not attacked by groups of Muslims on the street, because the Muslim immigration is small compared to the rest of Europe. Here there is still a dialogue with them, and you can still confront them and tell them that we won't be persecuted because of them.
"I don't know what things will be like in the future. There are fascist political forces which have also entered the parliament in Italy like they have in the rest of Europe, and we can't know where it will go from here."
According to Nirenstein, the immigration to Israel from Italy stems from the same ideological reasons, and from a feeling of connection and solidarity with the State of Israel.
"Regardless of the Muslims, people, especially the young ones, want to live in a country which matches the definition of their identity. Jews here see Israel as a strong economically-developed country. The 'startup' really speaks to our young people. The military service, which gives young people a feeling of a mission, is an attracting factor as well.
"For the European mind, which doesn't even think in terms of a small country which must defend itself, or about ideals, all this is scarce. So even if there is no anti-Semitism, the future is in Israel."
Starting anew (perhaps as Israeli MK)
While packing and finalizing her previous life in Rome, Nirenstein has been selected to serve as a member of a new intriguing committee called Genesis Prize, which will be the Jewish version of the Nobel Prize and grant an award of $1 million to young Jews around the world who have made groundbreaking achievements.
The fund, which was founded a year ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Jewish Agency, aims to strengthen young Diaspora Jews' connection to Israel through an annual prize which will be awarded to individuals who have achieved international recognition in their professional field, the worlds of science and the arts.
"I am very excited about this prize, especially as I will be judging alongside people like Elie Wiesel, Natan Sharansky, Stan Polovets and other Jewish philanthropists from around the world," says Nirenstein. "The first prize, for which we are now busy selecting the candidates, will be handed out next year in Israel, after I will already have become a citizen, and I am really looking forward to it."
Every mention of her expected permanent residence in Israel gets Nirenstein excited all over again. "For me, being a citizen of the State of Israel is a great joy and the fulfillment of a dream, even if it means giving up on running for another term in the Italian Parliament."
Maybe you'll become a Knesset member in Israel?
"Maybe. Life is full of surprises, and that may be the next chapter."