Europe´s growing hostility to Israel (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By ROBIN SHEPHERD 02/01/05)
JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-Top
It may not have been apparent on the surface, but Europe´s recent
commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
was steeped in irony. Even while the Old World stirringly recalls the
horrors of Hitler´s death camps and vows never to forget the Nazi
genocide of the Jews, it also embraces an increasingly and alarmingly
antagonistic attitude toward the Jewish state that arose from the
ashes of World War II.
As the Middle East conflict burns on, more Europeans are turning
against Israel. A growing number subscribe to the belief that the
impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the wellspring
of much of the world´s ills today, and that the blame for all this
lies squarely with Israel – and by extension, with its staunchest
ally, the United States.
If you´re looking for root causes of the growing transatlantic split
that go beyond the easy cliches about US unilateralism, it´s time to
sit up and take notice. Go to a dinner party in Paris, London or any
other European capital and watch how things develop. The topic of
conversation may be Iraq, it may be George Bush, it may be Islam,
terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. However it starts out, you
can be sure of where it will inevitably, and often irrationally, end –
with a dissection of the Middle East situation and a condemnation of
Israeli actions in the occupied territories.
I can´t count how many times I´ve seen it. European sympathy for the
Palestinians runs high, while hostility toward Israel is often
And the anger is reaching new – and disturbing – levels: A poll of
3,000 people published last month by Germany´s University of
Bielefeld showed more than 50 percent of respondents equating
Israel´s policies toward the Palestinians with Nazi treatment of the
Jews. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed specifically believed
that Israel is waging a "war of extermination" against the
Germany is not alone in these shocking sentiments. They have been
expressed elsewhere, and often by prominent figures. In 2002, the
Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago declared: "What
is happening in Palestine is a crime which we can put on the same
plane as what happened at Auschwitz."
In Israel just last month, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Irish winner
of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, compared the country´s suspected
nuclear weapons to Auschwitz, calling them "gas chambers perfected."
Moreover, in a poll by the European Union in November 2003, a
majority of Europeans named Israel as the greatest threat to world
peace. Overall, 59 percent of Europeans put Israel in the top spot,
ahead of such countries as Iran and North Korea. In the Netherlands,
that figure rose to 74 percent.
Perceptions of Israel in the US meanwhile, contrast sharply. A poll
by the Marttila Communications Group taken in December 2003 for the
Anti-Defamation League had Americans putting Israel in 10th place on
a list of countries threatening world peace, just ahead of the US
WHAT ACCOUNTS for this transatlantic values gap?
Part of the explanation is that despite all the Holocaust
commemorations, the memory of that event really does appear to be
fading in Europe.
Increasing numbers of younger Europeans have no real sense of what
the Nazis did. In Britain, Prince Harry isn´t the only one who´s
oblivious to the realities of Nazi tyranny. A BBC poll of 4,000
people taken late last year, in the run-up to Holocaust Remembrance
Day last Thursday, showed that, amazingly, 45 percent of all Britons
and 60 percent of those under 35 years of age had never heard of
Such ignorance compounds anti-Israeli feelings; for those who have no
understanding of the Holocaust, Israel exists and acts in a
This faltering awareness of the most vivid example of racist mass
murder in the 20th century is accompanied by enduring anti-Semitism.
A poll in Italy last year, for example, by the Eurispes research
institute showed 34 percent of respondents agreeing strongly or to
some extent with the view that "Jews secretly control financial and
economic power as well as the media."
The Eurobarometer survey quoted above also showed 40 percent of
respondents across Europe believing that Jews had a "particular
relationship to money," with more than a third expressing concern
that Jews were "playing the victim because of the Holocaust."
Yet while the persistence of anti-Semitism is undeniable, it´s not
likely to be the chief explanation for European hostility to Israel.
After all, surveys show that some anti-Semitic attitudes persist in
the US as well, but they don´t translate into visceral animosity
toward the Jewish state.
Instead, the intense antagonism toward Israel appears to be a subset
of the wider European hostility, emanating mainly from the Left, to
It´s unlikely to be a coincidence that the 2003 Eurobarometer survey
put the US just behind Israel as the greatest danger to world peace,
on a par with Iran and North Korea.
Many European intellectuals see Israel, perhaps rightly, as one of
the central pillars of US hegemony in the modern world. European
leftists implacably opposed to America are implacably opposed to
Israel as well, and for exactly the same reasons.
Over dinner in Berlin not long ago, a Frenchwoman told me
emphatically that Israel was "America´s policeman in the Middle
Her companion, nodding in furious agreement, insisted that the two
countries are partners in a "new imperialism" leading the world
inexorably into war.
In the contorted universe of the chattering classes, Israel is at
once America´s servant and the tail that wags the dog – doing
America´s bidding while forcing it into madcap adventures such as
As Peter Preston, the former editor of Britain´s Guardian newspaper,
put it in an extraordinary op-ed last October, bemoaning both US
political parties´ alleged servility toward Israel: "Republican
policy is an empty vessel drifting off Tel Aviv, and the Democratic
alternative has just as little stored in its hold."
The left-leaning antipathy toward Israel is, moreover, buttressed by
deeper and wider pathologies in Europe´s collective memory,
particularly in our overriding sense of guilt about the past, a guilt
that springs from the great 20th-century traumas of war and
The first has made Europeans, especially continentals, overwhelmingly
pacifistic: In the German Marshall Fund´s 2004 Transatlantic Trends
survey, only 31 percent of Germans and 33 percent of the French could
bring themselves to agree with the ostensibly tame proposition
that "Under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice."
Such attitudes do not mesh well with television pictures of Israeli
helicopter gunships firing missiles at targets in the crowded Gaza
Strip, whatever the justification for Israel´s actions.
Europe is also awash in post-imperial guilt, and I frequently get the
sense that Israel´s claim to a piece of land in the Middle East
revives guilt-inducing memories, among my English countrymen and
others, of white Europeans carving up the Third World and
subjugating "lesser peoples" in the 19th century.
While the disturbing view that there´s an equivalence between Nazi
Germany and modern-day Israel is a relatively new development,
another view equating Israel with apartheid South Africa and
referring to Palestinians herded into "Bantustans" has been around
Mixed with the supercharged ideological hostility of the European
Left, the demons of the continent´s past can make for an intoxicating
cocktail of anti-Israeli sentiment.
American support for the Jewish state will continue to scratch raw
nerves in the Old World.
There is much, of course, that the US should be doing to improve its
relationship with Europe. But repairing transatlantic relations is a
two-way process. Americans should now be aware that on one crucial
issue at least, it is Europe, and not America, that needs to clean up
The writer, an adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, wrote this article from Bratislava, Slovakia.
(© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 02/01/05)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY