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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lecturing Europe about Israel

What I find wrong with this essay is that lecturing Europe is not going to change it. Everyone understands the problematic relationship of the EU to Israel, but that is their opinion. Everyone may have their opinions of why it is so, but simply saying "you are wrong" will not help, and hoping for resurgence of reactionary tendencies will not help either. Those who think differently have to understand how to change it, and how to live with it until it is changed. Simply telling them they are wrong is not going to cut the ice.
Europe and Israel: Worlds Apart?

robin shepherd  |  june 2008

ASSESSING EUROPE'S RELATIONSHIP WITH ISRAEL involves a barrage of questions. What do we mean by "Europe?" Are we talking about the European Union? Are we talking about the member states? If so, which ones? Do we judge the relationship with Israel by what is said in Madrid, to take one example, or Warsaw, to take another?
Which part of the "relationship" are we talking about? The blossoming trade and technology relationship? The increasingly close diplomatic relationship which has brought Israel to a position in which some have argued that the Jewish state is only one or two steps from EU membership? Or are we talking about Europe's anti-Israeli stance at the United Nations or the widespread, though not uniform, hostility in the media? Where do we position that complex set of ideas and attitudes which some have dubbed the "new anti-Semitism?"
All these questions make it clear that Europe's relationship - perhaps relationships might be a more appropriate term - with Israel is multi-layered. The answers, to a great extent, hinge upon the question that is being asked. Yet we also know that in raising these questions, we are acknowledging that, especially when compared with the US, the Europe-Israel relationship is a much more troubled one. What interests us here is why that is, what has changed in Europe and Israel over time to make these problems worse, and where are we headed in the future.
I will concentrate on four key areas: some preliminary observations about the challenges inherent in building a congenial relationship at a time of profound internal changes on both sides; an outline of the way in which Europe sought to reconstruct itself following the end of World War II, and why this sometimes conflicts with Israeli realities; some pointers to Europe's historic difficulties in recognizing and confronting totalitarianism, particularly militant Islam; and a few final thoughts about the shifting currents of political ideology in Europe especially as that relates to the old, socialist Left and the established, paleoconservative Right.
Making Sense of Transition
It is something of a truism in international relations that when two parties to a relationship are in a state of transition, it is hard to establish a stable equilibrium. Each side presents the other with a moving target. Misunderstanding and mistrust are frequently the order of the day. Hence, before we discuss the content of the relationship, it is helpful to recognize that, even at the formal level, the terms of engagement have not been propitious.
Israel, of course, is a new state. The Zionist movement built a country largely from scratch, absorbing millions of immigrants, teaching them the Hebrew language, finding them homes and jobs. Critically, the enterprise of building a state remains incomplete. Israel's borders are not defined and even its capital city is disputed. Relations with neighbors range from the dire to the awkwardly manageable.
 ...Europe's relationship - perhaps relationships might be a more appropriate term - with Israel is multi-layered
Europe also has been undergoing a transition which in important respects continues. The European project, which began in the aftermath of a war in which 45 million Europeans died, has changed the continent fundamentally. The process has moved through easily identifiable stages: the post-war reconstruction itself; the "unification" of Europe following the end of the Cold War; and ongoing efforts to stabilise and integrate the countries of the western Balkans and other post-communist states. This has involved vast changes to the way in which European countries interact, both with each other and with the outside world.
By appreciating the content of these parallel transitions, the true nature of the problems between Israel and Europe becomes clearer.
Consider the following statement from the preamble to the European Coal and Steel Community - the forerunner institution to the European Union, which was formed six years later - signed in April 1951. The leaders of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg declared that they were:
"Resolved to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an economic community, the foundation of a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny..." [1]
Treaty preambles are important because they showcase the spirit in which the legal principles elaborated later on are formed. As the first great statement about the European project, these words are replete with meaning. The two key elements - a backward looking revulsion at the horrors of the past, and a determination to recreate Europe through a common destiny - set the ideological tone for decades to come. Its central elements, developed and refined throughout the post-war era, speak to a deep distrust of the manifestation of political destiny through the nation state and a yearning for a peaceful future in which conflicts are resolved without bloodshed.
It is remarkable just how pacific European political culture has become over the years. A recent survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States asked respondents in several European countries and the US whether they thought that, under some circumstances, it was appropriate to go to war to secure a just outcome [2]. One would surely expect that most Europeans could imagine at least some circumstances in which they could agree with such a proposition; apparently not. A mere 31 percent of Germans, 33 percent of the French, 35 percent of Italians and 25 percent of Spanish were in agreement. Only Britain, with 69 percent, provided a convincingly large section of the population who could agree. (The figure for the United States was 82 percent.)
In Robert Kagan's famous formulation of America as a masculine, warlike Mars and Europe as a feminine, gentler Venus, the European project has become "a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Immanuel Kant's 'perpetual peace.'" [3]
 It is remarkable just how pacific European political culture has become over the years
Alongside the tendency towards supranationalism, and a diminishing appetite for the use of military force, there is a third factor: the shift to secularism. This has happened both at the public level (with some exceptions in countries such as Poland and Ireland) and, even more emphatically, at the elite level. The leaders of the European Union have expressly rejected the continent's Christian heritage in the key documents underpinning the European project [4].
It should be clear then that, taken together these three pillars of the new Europe make for a bad fit with Israeli realities.
The European temperament is post-national, while Israel is a state built upon Jewish national self-determination. Where Europe has largely cast aside its religious heritage, a nationalist ideology, which has secular and religious as well as socialist and liberal streams, underpins the identity of the State of Israel. European realities are largely peaceful and the continent's institutions project these realities onto their dealings with the outside world. By contrast, Israel deals with the daily impact of terrorism, particularly with the constant streaming of rockets from Gaza, as well as the existential threat of an implacably hostile neighbourhood, epitomized by Iran.
There are other aspects of Europe's political and ideological development in the post-war era that may have also had a powerful impact, especially in terms of the continent's ability to empathize with Israel's conflict with militant Islam.
Many commentators have pointed to Europe's seeming inability to understand the ideological roots of the Islamist challenge, and its preference, instead, for locating the surge of Islamism in the colonial grievances nursed by the Muslim world. This "self-hating" narrative sees Islamist militancy as something which is understandable and to some extent justified. The British writer and parliamentarian Michael Gove has placed this core inability to see the true nature of the Islamist threat in historical perspective:
"The belief that Islamist violence can be explained by these factors is as flawed as the belief in the 1930s that Nazism could be understood as simply a response to the perceived injustices of the Versailles settlement, which could be assuaged by reuniting Sudeten Germans with their Bavarian cousins. That response, the classic appeasers' temptation, betrays profound misunderstanding of the totalitarian mindset. The Nazis were not capable of being satisfied by the reasonable setting of border disputes. They were motivated by a totalitarian dream of a thousand-year Reich, purged of Jewish and Bolshevik influences, in which Aryan manhood could flourish. Their territorial ambitions in the 1930s were not ends in themselves but mechanisms for testing the mettle of their opponents. Hitler's success in realizing his interim territorial goals established, to his own satisfaction, the flabbiness of the West, emboldened him to go further and created a sense of forward momentum that silenced internal opposition. Jihadists today are not conducting a series of national liberation struggles which, if each were resolved, would lead to peace on earth and good will to all infidels. They are prosecuting a total war in the service of a pitiless ideology."[5]
New Left and Old Right
If Europe is unable to come to terms with an Islamist challenge, even when it is mounted against Europe itself, it is hardly a surprise that there are problems empathizing with Israel. But where does this problem come from? What is it about the way in which European political culture is configured that creates so many problems when it comes to understanding Islamism in general and the threat it poses to Israel in particular?
 Many commentators have pointed to Europe's seeming inability to understand the ideological roots of the Islamist challenge
Some answers to those questions have already been offered in relation to the post-war reconstruction - the downplaying of nationalism and the adoption of pacifistic approaches to conflict. These aspects may be said to have engendered a sense of self-doubt in the European psyche. But there are also deeper ideological currents which have made their presence felt through a wrong-headed introspection which has had profound implications for the relationship with Israel.
For many analysts, the great turning point in European relations with Israel came with the 1967 war, the outcome of which left Israel as an occupying power. According to this version of events, sympathy shifted to the Palestinians, particularly on the left, due to a supposedly natural tendency to support underdogs against oppressors.
It is an unconvincing explanation. For one thing, the left may style itself as the champion of the oppressed, but no objective observer could possibly concur; while it is true that some social democrats were in the forefront of opposition to totalitarianism, the "New Left" which emerged during the 1960s largely turned to a blind eye to human rights violations by those regimes it deemed to be "progressive". The greatest human rights violators of the 20th century (with the exception only of the Nazis) were communist governments in China and the Soviet Union. Together with other tyrannies in countries such as Ethiopia, North Korea and Cambodia, they combined to produce a death toll in the high tens of millions. The European left, with few significant exceptions, was hardly at the forefront of the campaign to oppose this despotism, and that is putting it kindly. The idea, therefore, that support for the Palestinians from the European left should be seen in terms of a particular instance of a general predisposition to back the oppressed against their oppressors does not stand up to a moment's scrutiny.
A better explanation is to be found in an understanding of the way leftist ideology itself was reinvented in response to its own internal failings. During the latter half of the 1960s, it was becoming painfully clear to the extreme left that traditional Marxist explanations of historical development were evaporating before their very eyes. The European (let alone American) proletariat was becoming richer rather than poorer; it was more, not less, committed to liberal democratic capitalism. A new vehicle for revolutionary change had to be discovered.
 ...the 'New Left' which emerged during the 1960s largely turned to a blind eye to human rights violations by those regimes it deemed to be 'progressive'
Third World "liberation" movements were the obvious place to go. Since the western proletariat would not function as a meaningful mass movement against capitalism, resistance movements in the Third World, such as the PLO, would take their place. And if ideological changes in Europe (and to some extent in America) at that time helped turn the terms of debate against Israel, events two decades later would accentuate the trend even further.
With the western proletariat having long been written off as a lost cause, the complete collapse of Soviet communism (along with most of its satellites), as well as China's embrace of market economics, narrowed the range of potential opponents to global capitalism even further. Indeed, by the early 1990s the only serious challenge being mounted against western hegemony would come from a militant Islamist ideology for which the Palestinian struggle against Israel was a powerful energizing factor. It is therefore eminently arguable that the European far left, quickly joined by more mainstream elements, took up the cause against Israel because there was nowhere else to go. In other words, a collapsing ideological edifice, rather than a universalist concern with human rights, was the trigger.
In our own time, although increasingly few influential people in modern Europe still adhere to Marxist or neo-Marxist dogma, there are vast numbers of people in politics and in the media for whom such dogma was an important part of their past. While they may have long thrown away the Old-Left text books, it is perhaps understandable that some are possessed of a yearning for a kind of validation that not everything they once believed is worthless. The case against Israel serves that purpose like no other.
 Traditionalist hostility to Israel may in part be motivated by a residual antisemitism of the 'I wouldn't want Jews in my club' variety
For reasons that may at some level be related, Europe's ancien, traditionalist right also functions as a bulwark against the Jewish state, though with less influence than its leftist rival. The traditionalists have largely lost out in right-wing politics to centrist, neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideological currents, all of which are usually sympathetic to Israel. Nevertheless, it retains a presence in some EU foreign ministries and in religious circles such as the Church of England, which recently debated divesting from companies with connections to Israel.
Traditionalist hostility to Israel may in part be motivated by a residual antisemitism of the "I wouldn't want Jews in my club" variety. But it is also linked to a rejection of those forces - America generally and Israel in the Middle East in particular - that are seen to have upset the kind of old world certainties which are constitutive of the traditionalists sense of nostalgia. The quasi-feudalistic, traditionalist character of much of the Arab world resonates with old right values in a way that "upstart" Israel never could.
There is certainly a sense in which anti-Israelism unites people and ideological viewpoints which feel that they have lost out in the modern world. This may yet include the supranationalists of the EU and their deeply held belief that nationalism is an anachronism. For all across the old continent, the evidence in recent years has been pointing to a revival rather than a diminishing of national (and nationalist) loyalties. From Kosovo and Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia to the ongoing friction between Dutch and French speakers in Belgium to the continuing tensions over the degree of Scottish or Basque home rule, it is clear that national sentiment is far from dead in Europe. This does not mean that the European "project" is finished. But it may mean that the supranationalist assumptions of the most committed integrationists in the European Union are going to be increasingly challenged.
This could create a third ideological constituency, filled with resentment and anger that deeply held beliefs have been disproved or cast aside by history. As the battle rages, this may to some extent spill over into the debate about Israel creating a new space for enemies but also a new space for friends as well. As Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, once put it, "the struggle for Europe's soul is still an open one". And so it is. Europe is a work in progress. It remains to be seen how Israel will fare when one or other of the continent's various potential futures finally comes out on top.

[1] Preamble to the treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community.
[3] Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Page 3.
[4] In both the failed "constitution" and the Lisbon Treaty which succeeded it, references to the primacy of Europe's Christian heritage were refused a place against much recrimination from Poland and Spain.
[5] Michael Gove, Celsius 7/7: How the West's policy of appeasement has provoked yet more fundamentalist terror - and what has to be done now. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2006. Pages 11-12.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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