Isi Leibler on Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss?

, March 1, 2006

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)

Manfred Gerstenfeld has established a reputation for skillful interviews extracting the core views of leading scholars and politicians, which he then aptly summarizes.  He has published several books on various themes employing this technique, and it is utilized effectively in his ongoing Post- Holocaust and Anti-Semitism series sponsored by the JCPA.

His most recent volume on Israel and Europe is mainly based on interviews with participants in a recent conference jointly held by the JCPA and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The fourteen interviewees include some of the major scholars in the field and provide an encyclopedic overview of the subject from different perspectives.

 

A Change for the Worse

It is still difficult to assimilate the dramatic change in Europe’s relationship with Israel and Jews that has taken place over the past decade.

Only a few years ago Jewish leaders were describing European anti-Semites as a virtually extinct species, restricted to the lunatic Right.  Yet, as Robert Wistrich observes in his interview, whenever people began writing obituaries for anti-Semitism, it was usually followed by a paroxysm of anti-Jewish agitation.

In retrospect, the warning bells started ringing after the Six Day War in 1967. The change in Israel’s image from victim to bully was spearheaded by de Gaulle’s reference to Jews as an “elitist and domineering people.” European politicians began increasingly muttering that Israel was the intractable party in the Arab-Israeli conflict. What began as biased statements soon escalated into outright vilification of Israel, the “colonial oppressor.” The Jewish state became the principal target for the human rights NGOs, which used double standards to demonize the Israeli army and the administration of the West Bank.

Dore Gold describes how this was exemplified at the United Nations, where the Europeans at best stood aside while the Arabs and the Soviets ensured that Israel became the most debated agenda item at the General Assembly. They regularly initiated bizarre anti-Israeli resolutions, climaxing with the Zionism Is Racism resolution that heralded Israel’s transformation from underdog to supposed brutal occupier and international pariah.

Gerald Steinberg’s interview highlights the Orwellian behavior of the NGO human rights groups, which denigrate Israel while brazenly closing their eyes to the behavior of Islamic states confronting it. He also discusses European funding for the Palestinians, a substantial part of which has found its way to the coffers of terrorist groups.

 

The Need for a Demon

The liberal and left-wing media have created stereotypes of the Jews as satanic fiends that evoke the medieval Christian image of the Jew and have helped escalate popular anti-Semitism in Europe. The demonization of Israel was accelerated by mainstream media caricatures that could easily have been replicated from the Nazi press. Trevor Asserson, the expert in the field of BBC bias against Israel, provides a succinct overview of how the BBC played an important role in shifting public opinion against Israel.

This revival of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe was intensified by the growing influence of immigrants from Muslim countries recruited for Europe’s cheap-labor requirements. Nevertheless, while Muslim immigrants were responsible for much of the overt violence against Jews in Europe, the cultural and ideological basis for the “new” anti-Semitism emanated from liberal and left-wing indigenous Europeans who succeeded in transforming contemporary Jews and Israelis into a mirror image of the Jewish stereotypes of the 1930s. As Andrei Markovits describes it, the former negative image of the Jew as a Shylock was replaced with a cruel Israeli Rambo.

It is somewhat grotesque to observe Europeans beating their breasts over the Holocaust while simultaneously reverting to their former prejudice against Jews-even though hatred of Israel is used as a surrogate for overt anti-Semitism. What were the causes for this revival of hatred?

The contributors reject the irrational notion that the “people that dwelleth alone” make anti-Semitism inevitable. Although there is a case for associating a mystique with the oldest hatred, the renewed surge can be explained in worldly terms.

Anti-Semitism was undoubtedly in decline during the immediate postwar period as the horrors of the Holocaust were disclosed. It is now clear, however, that the hatred was not eliminated but simply went into remission.

Wistrich refers to the social pathology of Europe’s need for an anti-Semitic demon.  He also views European anti-Semitism as more of a continuity of the past than a new phenomenon and considers the demonization of Israel as the central component of the renewed assault on world Jewry.

 

An Array of Causes

There are many complex elements contributing to this revival. A major factor is the emergence of European postcolonial guilt, much of which is being directed against the Jews. Yehezkel Dror observes that turning on Israel also diverts attention from European guilt during the Holocaust. This has to be viewed in conjunction with the prevailing postmodernism in the political arena and the consequent blurring of distinctions between concepts like good and evil. That, in turn, leads to applying moral equivalency to perpetrators and victims; the combined impact of anti-Americanism and the antiglobalist Left, both of which incorporate anti-Semitism; and Israel’s role as victor rather than the traditional underdog.

There are also external factors to be considered. Unlike their American counterparts, European Jews do not take an aggressive approach to defending Israel and combating anti-Semitism. British Jews, in particular, are known for relying on quiet diplomacy rather than vigorous lobbying or public protest.

Israel itself has been severely incompetent in promoting its own case. As Johannes Gerster notes, Israeli leaders’ failure to grasp the importance of the war of ideas has made the situation increasingly difficult. Had the hypocrisy of the so-called European evenhandedness been more effectively confronted and exposed, it might have made a considerable difference.

Some observers are tempted to write off Europe as a lost cause. All the participants reject this approach, recognizing that Israel cannot afford to become permanently identified as an adversary of Europe while forced to rely exclusively on the Americans-whose differences with the Europeans over Israel could well be mitigated in the context of a reconciliation.

Indeed, over the past year there have been some successes at the top levels of the European Union. The OSCE meetings have identified the danger of anti-Semitism, realizing that it also threatens the health of their own societies. The chairman and others at the OSCE formally stated that crude demonization of Israel must be recognized as a form of anti-Semitism. But the tide has still to turn and the grass-roots attitudes toward Israel and Jews in general remain hostile. This is exemplified in public opinion polls and in the popularity of such an outright anti-Semite as London mayor Ken Livingstone, who has assumed the role of a twenty-first-century Oswald Mosley.

What is needed is a greater awareness of the problem beyond clichés. Dror calls for a “grand strategy” aimed at improving relations and upgrading cooperation with the European Union.

Gerstenfeld’s book is an excellent introduction to the issue, summarizing the state of affairs for both laymen and scholars.

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ISI LEIBLER chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the JCPA and is a former chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.

About Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler now resident in Jerusalem is a veteran Jewish leader, He was a former head of the Australian Jewish community, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress Governing Board and global leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. He is a widely read political commentator and his columns appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.