Confronting European-Israeli Misunderstandings

, January 1, 2005

Dr. Johannes Gerster is the representative of the Adenauer Foundation in Israel and, as such, a privileged observer of Middle Eastern developments. He believes that Europeans and Israelis increasingly misunderstand each other: “The reasons are evident. The Israelis perceive themselves rightly as a minority in a large Arab world. They feel like small David versus big Goliath.

“Europeans have seen frequently one-sided portrayals of the Middle East conflict for more than four years now. Common images are of big Israeli tanks confronting little boys throwing stones. The European media often show videos from Palestinian rather than from independent photographers. The viewer usually sees the Palestinian stone-throwers from behind facing huge tanks.

“Thus, in Europe another image of the conflict has emerged. Israel is perceived as a Goliath fighting the small Palestinian David. The common perception in Europe is that Israel is a Middle Eastern superpower. The Palestinians are seen as poor, weak, and locked in. The reality is that Israelis have been over the years, more than citizens of any other country, the subject of murderous terrorist attacks.”


A Double Standard

At the beginning of April 2004, Gerster wrote an article titled “A Double Standard on the War on Terror” that was published in the International Herald Tribune, German papers, and the Israeli daily Haaretz. Its gist was that Israel was the victim of Sheikh Yassin’s terror and that it was unfair for the Germans to present the country as a criminal.

Gerster noted that Israel was convicted all over the world for the assassination of the Hamas leader. He concluded that this and other assassinations were indeed a violation of international law, as Kofi Annan had claimed. Yet he emphasized that Israel was living in a war and that Middle East terrorism had destroyed the basis of civilized life.

Gerster added: “the Hamas leaders who were assassinated without trial are the very ones who have made statements such as, ‘We will fight until the last Jew is gone from Palestine,’ i.e. Israel. Hamas activists have ruled: ‘Death to every home in Israel.'” He pointed out that this was not Oriental exaggeration but fact, and revealed the true intentions of the murdered terrorists.


Israeli Voices in Germany

Gerster comments on Israeli voices in Germany. “The Israelis one hears most are not necessarily extremists, but leftists who have many difficulties with the Sharon government. The Israeli political battle should, however, take place within the country and not in the European media.

“Those who go abroad and heavily criticize their country create problems for it. It has been my policy during a long membership of German parliament to avoid criticizing our government when visiting other countries. This was also the case during the time my party was in opposition.

“The strong criticism uttered by Israelis abroad is heard by people who do not understand the country’s internal and security problems. This creates antipathy to Israel rather than understanding for the situation of its citizens. One could ask, however: are there German speakers in Israel, with the ability to represent their government’s position abroad?”


Two Different Conflicts

Gerster points out that Europeans do not comprehend that in the Middle East, two conflicts partly overlap. “The first one is regional in nature and concerns the battle for the same land. Hamas, Jihad, and Arafat – the latter at least in Arabic – have always proclaimed: ‘We want to liberate the whole of Palestine and raise our flag in all Arab cities such as Haifa, Acco, and Jaffa.’ These radical Palestinians do not fight for a Palestine next to Israel, but instead of it.

“Many Europeans do not realize that the terrorist groups are financially supported by the Arab world. They have both the power and weaponry to conduct a total war against Israel. Besides this regional conflict, Israel has also been for many years the main focus of Islamic fundamentalism’s war against Western democracies.

“It is mistaken to think that Islam is concentrating its fight against Christianity. The Islamic fundamentalists view Christianity as too secularist and weak to be counted as a religious power. It is rather Western democracy they consider a threat to their Islamic fundamentalist culture. The best proof was that one of Khomeini’s first political decisions, upon returning to Iran from French exile, was to legislate that all women had to wear a veil. This demonstrates that it is a cultural battle, mainly confronting Western democracy.”


Defeating the Americans First

“For Islamic fundamentalists, Israel’s democracy is a major battleground in the war against the Western democratic world. This perception has changed somewhat since the Iraq War. This Islamic fundamentalist war against democracy, which previously operated against Israel, is now largely fought in Iraq. Much money was diverted from Hamas and Jihad into this battle.

“The Muslim fundamentalists believe they can throw the Americans out of Iraq by force. This, they expect, will be the first military victory of Islamic fundamentalism against Western democracy. If this were to occur, then Islam, with its many inferiority complexes, would have defeated the American superpower.

“The international conflict thus now has two fronts. I assume that when the conflict in Iraq ends, Islamic fundamentalism will turn anew against Israel. The Iraq War is a diversion, which has temporarily made the Israeli issue a secondary one. Many Europeans do not realize that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is part of this larger battle. A democracy located in the Arab world is a thorn in its side. It is important for Israel to make that clear to the Europeans.

“On the other hand, many prominent Israelis do not serve their country well when they regard Europe’s growing distance from Israel as a result of anti-Semitism. It is a wrong conclusion that Europe’s increasing criticism of Israeli policy stems exclusively from European anti-Semitic currents. The thread of discussion between Europe and Israel is partly torn. Many misunderstandings have emerged that could be eliminated by adult attitudes.”


Anti-Semitism

“We have indeed our own problems in Europe with anti-Semitism. Yet it is wrong when Israelis come as arbiters to Europe and say: ‘All your criticisms result from anti-Semitism.’ Just reproaching and confronting each other cannot lead to a friendly relationship.”

Gerster elaborates: “Nowadays anti-Semitism is no longer a problem of the extreme Right in Europe. It also has a large place on the extreme Left. There is an old unholy alliance of radical groups that have chosen Israel as a target. Several extreme left-wing parties have already since the 1960s strongly backed the Arab and Palestinian side.

“One cannot view the European-Israeli tensions only as a political issue. In Europe, the influence of politics on intellectual discussion is limited. One sees this in Germany and many other European countries, where the population increasingly distances itself from politics.

“This expresses itself for instance in the declining percentage of those Germans entitled to vote who participate in elections. In 1972 it was 92%, while today we are glad if 70% go to the polls. Yet another indicator is that in 1972, the CDU/ CSU and the SPD received together 90% of the votes. Today the two large parties get around 60%.”

Gerster also points to Israel-related issues in German politics, which worry him: “The CDU/CSU and the SPD have been the most reliable friends of Israel from its creation. The Shoah led to a deep feeling of responsibility in both parties for the right of the Jews to live in a safe Israel. Both the impact of this commitment and the ability of these large parties to make a difference are declining. At the same time, within these parties the feeling of responsibility for Israel is also diminishing.”


Israel: Weak in Presenting Its Case

“At the beginning of the second Intifada, I spoke with a number of important Israelis in the government. In all conversations, I said: ‘A war is always fought with soldiers and logistical support troops for supplies. Today the war is being operated with a third activity – propaganda.’

“Such propaganda has always been around. Nowadays, however, the media have new possibilities. When there is an attack in Jerusalem, the news about it is in the European media a few minutes later. Israel is weak in presenting its side of what is happening in the Intifada. When there are incidents in the Palestinian territories, the Palestinians always produce photo material that they present in Jerusalem both at 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock to Western agencies.

“I told Israeli officials: ‘These are one-sided pictures from Palestinian society and political groups. You must provide the same from your side.’ The Western agencies and TV offices do not send their people into the lines of fire. They get the material anyhow from the Palestinians. The Palestinian film material influences the European climate toward Israel much more than the written comments in the media.

“When one sees a tank and a young boy confronting each other in a warlike situation, it is a deeply Christian reaction to support the supposedly weak. One cannot reproach people for that. The European watching television who sees this confrontation every night would not be very human if he supported the stronger side. In the interest of objective information, Israel has to provide more material to the Western media. Some of those media have correspondents here but these cannot be everywhere.

“Israeli counterparts told me literally: ‘We regret when the Europeans cannot see for themselves what is happening. We cannot help them with additional material.’ This is a very wrong and arrogant attitude. However one defines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is today conducted not only with soldiers but with propaganda, which includes factual information. In the first one and a half years since the Intifada, Israeli democracy, including its civil society, failed in this. Today the situation is a bit better.”


The Separation Fence

“In every society there are opinion leaders. Israel should ask itself how it can reach the heads and the hearts of the European population again. Israel should not take the easy approach by saying, for instance, that the decision of the International Court of Justice against the separation fence is pro-Palestinian. This decision was mainly made against its location, which is partly not on Israeli territory. The United Nations position should not be regarded as total opposition to Israel.”

Gerster explains: “I do not support the unified European position on this issue against Israel in the United Nations and regret that Germany voted for it. What happened with the moderating influence of the German foreign minister who claims to be such a great friend of Israel? In my time as vice-chairman of the German parliamentary faction when Helmut Kohl was the German chancellor, we always ensured that Germany abstained on decisions against Israel in the UN and the European Union.

“Israel should not turn the European Union’s negative position on the separation fence into a fundamental criticism of it. This strengthens the European perception that Israel is indeed the wrongdoer in this case. By totally negating an issue, one maneuvers oneself into a corner. The key consideration for Israel is that it has to get out of this position. It is not the troublemaker, and there is a need to argue differently about conflicts rather than building up walls between Europe and Israel.”


In the World’s Focus

“There is no country and region that is so much in the news as Israel and the Middle East. The anecdote goes that an Israeli visitor was once asked in Peking by a Chinese leader whether the country had a hundred million inhabitants. He replied at the time that it had only five million. The Chinese said he couldn’t understand it, saying: ‘You are in the newspapers every day.’

“For a variety of reasons the Middle East conflict is different from any other in the world. The roots of Judaism and Christianity are in Jerusalem. The city is also very important for Islam, even if its main cities are Mecca and Medina. There is no town in the world about which there are more poems, psalms, songs, and stories than Jerusalem. Sometimes this is an advantage, sometimes a disadvantage. Both the interest and the emotional link with Jerusalem are incomparable with that for an African capital, for instance. Whether one likes it or not, this region will always be in the world’s focus.

“It disturbs me, on the other hand, that almost every European politician thinks he is the specialist to solve the conflict. From the (still) secure Europe, it is easy to give advice about bomb terror. Yet I do not know whether Israel should complain or be happy that the world takes a more active part in this conflict and gets more emotionally involved with it than with a million Sudanese refugees who are at risk of dying of hunger.”


Israel: A Major Front of Europe’s Battle

Gerster elaborates on this subject: “Such an interest can be expressed in two ways. On the one hand, that one identifies oneself with this region and hopefully also with the people who live here. Alternatively, it can mean that when matters do not work out as in one’s idealistic dreams, there is a stronger condemnation. I do not believe that Israel and people here would be better off if the contrary happened – absolute disinterest.

“These matters have other sides. The European Union turned a cold shoulder on Austria, one of its member states, when J?rg Haider’s FP? party became part of the government. There are thus EU decisions that depend on how matters evolve.

“Yet there are also simplistic and brutal opinions in Europe that if the troublemaker Israel did not exist, Europe would be left in peace by Islamic fundamentalism. Europeans have to realize that the key war of Islamic fundamentalism is against democracy and Israel is a major front of that battle. If Israel did not exist, the front would get closer to Europe. Europeans should be better aware that it is in their own interest for Israel to be a stable nation.”


Radicals are Like Wolves

“Radicals are like wolves. The first prey that stills the initial hunger does not satiate them; on the contrary, it makes them more hungry. Also for that reason it is in Europe’s interest that a democracy is not destroyed by fundamentalists. I am thus in favor of a closer relationship between Israel and the European Union. This can perhaps at a later stage develop into full membership. That would make it clear that Israel, in the battle of Western democracies against undemocratic societies, is not an opponent of Europe but part of it. That must be the determining point in political interaction between Europe and Israel.

“Furthermore, the Arab world should not be treated as a monolithic bloc. People like President Mubarak of Egypt or King Abdullah of Jordan are more afraid of Islamic fundamentalism than of Israel. It would be a major mistake if we accommodated the radical fundamentalist wing of the Arab world. Through a variety of mistakes, it has not been possible to develop a common strategy against Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.

“Israelis are right when they say the Arab League is united against Israel. That is the only thing that body can agree on. They are divided about fundamentalism, as their summits show. The art of politics is to differentiate and consider how one can find allies against the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. It would be a terrible illusion and a wrong strategy to assume that one can peacefully influence it by giving in to people who have zero respect for women, children, the elderly, and anybody else.”


The Integration of Muslims

“The issue of Muslim-European relations also involves the aspect of integrating immigrants. This problem is significant in Germany and many other European countries. Among 82 million Germans, we have about three million Muslims. They are not a homogeneous group. My children were in elementary school together with Turkish children. The integration process often functions in the second and third generation. But one cannot draw general conclusions.

“The German parliament has accepted a new immigration law supported both by the government and the opposition. It puts major emphasis on the integration of immigrants. It must be self-understood that a Turkish or Kurdish child, like any other who goes to school in Germany, must learn to speak and write German. They should learn together with German children. That requires, along with knowledge of the language, participation in school life, also outside school hours. It should not be possible that children in the schools of a Turkish organization are being educated for life in a small Turkish enclave in Germany.

“After the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the U.S., and after the attack on March 11, 2004, in Madrid, many representatives of the Turkish community in Germany made ambiguous statements about their position on major terrorist acts. This was partly out of fear. A clarification process has to take place; one has to know where these people stand.

“Turkish leaders in Germany, whom I know well, waffled in their replies when questioned by journalists, saying things like ‘we do not want this’ and similar vague remarks. There was no clear statement distancing themselves from the terrorist attacks, condemning them explicitly, and saying that these were against the religion and culture of Islam.

“Israelis, who live in a classic immigration country, understand that integrating newcomers requires two or three generations. This is also the case with the Turkish immigrants in Germany. The road to integration is the only acceptable one for German society at large. That means immigrants have to fully accept Western democracy, the constitutional state, pluralism, and tolerance.”


Rights and Duties

“These are the basic values of Germany, which after the Second World War made a major effort to build a new civil society. The Turkish immigrants living in Germany must understand that they can only be accepted as citizens in this state in the long run if they adhere to these basic values. This does not contradict their living as they wish on individual matters.

“The basic rights guaranteed in our constitution not only oblige the state organs but also the citizens. There are both rights and duties. Whoever lives in Germany – Germans as well as foreigners – has to accept this catalog of basic values. One example: Muslims living in Germany can claim the right to religious liberty and everyone can live according to his culture. This right is limited, though, when other basic rights are concerned, for example, equal rights for men and women.

“Consequently, nobody in Germany could derive from Islamic tradition a right that discriminates against women. Shari’a and basic rights may be in contradiction. In Germany, such conflicts must be resolved so that the same rights apply for all. Many good approaches can be found so that, for example, at least among the second generation of Turks and Kurds these issues are less problematic. They more and more accept the basic rights formulated in our constitution.”


Turkey’s Entrance into Europe

“The immigrants’ integration problems also play against the background of Turkey’s possible entrance into the European Union. Turkey was a reliable NATO partner when the Soviet Union still existed. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Turkey was much more important for Western Europe than it is today for the extended European Union. Many Western advances were made to the country over the decades. Hopes were created in its population that it would become a member of the European Union, so that the EU now finds itself in a dilemma.

“Turkey must, however, adopt the European standards of democracy and constitutional justice. The European Union is not only an economic community; it is also one of values. At present, Turkey is a heavily divided society. Western Turkey is much more European influenced than the eastern part of the country. A long road will have to be traversed before it can be considered for full EU membership. The proposal of the CDU chairperson, Angela Merkel, for a qualified partnership between Turkey and Europe is a better way. Such a partnership is possible in the coming years.”


Initiating a Dialogue

Gerster returns to the European-Israeli dialogue and says: “The crucial question is how to minimize the misunderstandings. The pictures the two parties have of each other do not represent the full truth but instead are partial ones. Sometimes they are even falsifications. It is thus important to intensify the European-Israeli dialogue by trying to understand each other again. One has to consider the facts and seek to speak a similar language.”

Gerster says that the Adenauer Foundation intends to organize an intellectual dialogue where prominent people from both sides can speak about the existing dissonance between Israel and Europe. “These will include politicians, publishers of journals, writers, and intellectuals. The discussions should focus on analysis. They should deal with questions such as: what is happening and why is Israel perceived as the main troublemaker in the Middle East?

“We start from a situation that has not only led to a cooling of attitudes but to almost hostile ones. This dialogue should not be held in a seminar form that lasts a few hours, but should take place in a quiet location for a number of days. Participants can say what they think to each other. One doesn’t have to hide what one thinks because only businesslike debate between intellectuals can clear up the climate a bit.”

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.