In Europe, an Unhealthy Fixation on Israel (WASHINGTON POST) By Robin Shepherd BRATISLAVA, Slovakia 01/30/05)
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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 and 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. As President Bush seeks to find
common ground with Europe in his second term, he might do well to
acquaint himself more thoroughly with this reality. For as surely as
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict divides Jews and Arabs, it also
divides Europeans and Americans. If you´re looking for root causes of
the growing transatlantic split that go beyond the easy cliches about
U.S. 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 palpable.
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 Eurobarometer 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 United States, 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 United States itself.
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 Auschwitz -- the Nazi death camp in southern Poland where
about 1.5 million Jews were murdered during World War II. 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 United States 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, toward the United States. It´s
unlikely to be a coincidence that the 2003 Eurobarometer survey put
the United States 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 U.S. 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 East." 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
Iraq. As Peter Preston, the former editor of Britain´s Guardian
newspaper, put it in an op-ed last October, bemoaning both U.S.
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
imperialism. 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
militant 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 Israel is a relatively new development, another view equating
Israel with apartheid South Africa and referring to Palestinians
herded into "Bantustans" has been around for decades.
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 There is undoubtedly room for
criticism of Israel and its policies in the Middle East, but reasoned
criticism appears to be giving way to emotional and irrational
antipathy that is coloring the wider debate. And as that sentiment
grows, American support for the Jewish state will continue to scratch
raw nerves in the Old World.
There is much, of course, that the United States 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 its act. Author´s e-mail: email@example.com
Robin Shepherd is an adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and
International Studies. He is based in central Europe. (© 2005 The
Washington Post Company 01/30/05)
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