Defensive Berlusconi cites longtime friendship of Israel, Jewish people

ROME (JTA) – Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy, reiterated his claim to be a friend of the Jewish people and Israel, and said it was “surreal” to call him anti-German.

His assertions, made in a statement posted Monday on the website of his Forza Italia party, came in the wake of international outrage over remarks that seemed to imply that Germany did not acknowledge the existence of Nazi concentration camps.

Berlusconi, 77, is campaigning for his party in upcoming European Parliament elections despite a conviction for tax fraud. He accused leftist opponents of taking out of context a remark he made about center-left German politician Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament, who is running to head the European Commission.

Berlusconi has sparred in the past with Schulz, once comparing him to a concentration camp kapo. At a rally on Saturday, he accused Schultz of being anti-Italian and added, “According to the Germans, there never were concentration camps.”

His words sparked a furor, with Jean-Claude Juncker, the center-right candidate for European Commission chief, saying the statement had “sickened” him. He called on Berlusconi to withdraw his remarks “immediately” and “to apologize to the survivors of the Holocaust and to the citizens of Germany.”

In his statement Monday, Berlusconi called it “surreal to attribute anti-German sentiments to me, or a presumed hostility to the German people, of whom I am a friend.” He said he claimed his “role as a longtime friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, which is and remains a unique defense of freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.”

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