By Steve Scherer
Silvio Berlusconi caused outrage in Italy’s Jewish community on Wednesday after the former prime minister said he and his children felt persecuted like Jews in Nazi Germany because of hounding by leftist magistrates.
The comments came from an advance excerpt released on Wednesday of an interview by television journalist Bruno Vespa for his latest book. They were later posted on Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party website.
Replying to a question about whether his five children had asked him to sell his media empire and leave Italy to escape his legal troubles, Berlusconi said: “My children say that they feel like Jewish families in Germany under Hitler’s regime. Truly, everyone is against us.”
Nazi Germany murdered about six million Jews in the Holocaust before and during World War Two.
Italy’s Jewish community reacted with outrage to the comparison, the latest attempt by the 77-year-old media magnate to paint himself as an innocent victim of politicised judges.
The centre-right leader, who has angrily protested his innocence in a long series of court cases, is well-known for making controversial remarks, such as calling President Barack Obama “suntanned” after he was first elected in 2008.
During a heated 2003 exchange in the European Parliament, Berlusconi compared Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat who is now president of the assembly, to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Berlusconi, 77, and his family rank among the 200 wealthiest people in the world, with an estimated fortune of $6.2 billion according to Forbes magazine.
Berlusconi was immediately lampooned on Twitter and Facebook, with his comments running above a picture of his family posing in designer clothing in his finely furnished home next to a photograph of emaciated concentration camp prisoners.
Comparing the affairs of the Berlusconi family to the victims of the Holocaust “is not only inappropriate and incomprehensible, but is offensive to the memory of those deprived of all rights and, after being subjected to atrocious and unspeakable atrocities, their lives,” said Renzo Gattegna, head of Italy’s Jewish community association.
Responding to the criticism, Berlusconi said his friendship and support for Israel while prime minister “leave no doubt about my awareness of the tragedy of the Holocaust and respect for the Jewish people.”
Berlusconi is fighting for political survival after dominating politics for 20 years. A coming Senate vote is expected to ban him from public office and throw him out of parliament because of a tax fraud conviction earlier this year.
Nevertheless polls show millions of Italians would still vote for him.
“To trivialize a terrible tragedy like the Holocaust for everyday political polemics, as Berlusconi has, is chilling,” said Nichi Vendola, leader of a left-wing opposition party, on his Facebook page.
Berlusconi is also appealing against a conviction for having paid for sex with a minor and then abusing his powers as prime minister to have her released from jail after she was arrested for theft.
Berlusconi has threatened repeatedly to bring down Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s broad left-right coalition government if the Senate votes on Nov. 27 to expel him from parliament.
Despite his legal troubles, Berlusconi said in the interview he would never consider leaving Italy because it was “the country that I love”.