In Other Words

A Country Scorned

Eretz Acheret (A Different Land), Autumn 2004, Jerusalem Rising optimism over Middle East peace talks has Israel once again in the spotlight. But all this attention doesn’t change a fundamental fact: Israelis have rarely felt as alone in the world as they do today. When asked which country they regard as a true friend, 69 ...

Eretz Acheret (A Different Land), Autumn 2004, Jerusalem

Rising optimism over Middle East peace talks has Israel once again in the spotlight. But all this attention doesn’t change a fundamental fact: Israelis have rarely felt as alone in the world as they do today. When asked which country they regard as a true friend, 69 percent of Israelis polled by the Hudson Institute last June identified the United States. The next largest response was "No country at all." Only 3 percent said they would put their faith in a European country.

That Europe should rank so low in the eyes of Israelis is hardly a surprise: The survey was itself a response to a European poll showing that Europeans considered Israel the biggest threat to world peace, ahead of North Korea and the United States. Sure, Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner, a top tourist destination for Israelis, and a kindred democratic political system; all factors that should, in theory, feed a friendly alliance. But the history between the continent and the Jewish state — specifically, the fact that Israel rose from the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust — has driven the two apart rather than bound them together.

One need look no further than recent history for evidence. A report issued by the U.S. State Department in January noted the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe since 2000. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly urged French Jews last summer to flee the threat and immigrate to Israel, sparking a minor row with French President Jacques Chirac. Anti-Israel activists in Europe have pressured their governments (mostly unsuccessfully) to ban Israeli products, and British professors have launched an academic boycott of their Israeli counterparts.

It is against this backdrop that Eretz Acheret (A Different Land) — a bimonthly magazine dedicated to exploring questions of Israeli identity — devoted a recent issue to assessing the current relationship between Europe and Israel, including what editor Bambi Sheleg calls the "European zeal to judge Israel on ethical grounds."

Most of the authors — many of them "ex-Europeans" — arrange their arguments around the Holocaust rather than the political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Holocaust, a piece of history that Europe would like to forget, is palpable in Israel: On Holocaust Remembrance Day each spring, cars stop dead in their tracks as a siren blasts for two minutes around the country in memory of the 6 million dead.

Several of the authors view European criticism of Israel as an attempt to absolve Europe of its blame for the annihilation of European Jewry. "Europeans … often note that the oppressed Jews have become the oppressors, a false irony that ignores the context of endless war against Israel’s existence," writes Yossi Klein Halevi, the son of a Holocaust survivor and one of the most prominent Israeli-American journalists. "Demonizing Israel and endorsing the Palestinian cause allows Europeans to ease their double historical burden of anti-Semitism and of colonialism. By transforming Jews into Nazis, Europeans relativize the Holocaust. And by siding with the Palestinians, Europe proves it has overcome its colonial past."

It is this attempt to finally bury the Holocaust that Halevi and others identify as the primary cause behind today’s anti-Semitism. There is undoubtedly a unique discomfort with Jewish power and nationalism among Europeans: Israel is singled out for condemnation more than other countries embroiled in conflict. Halevi believes this deep-rooted hatred of the Jewish state leaves scant hope that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict would ease tensions between Europe and Israel. Anti-Semitic acts in Europe increased after the breakdown of peace talks in 2000, and there’s little reason to think they would decrease significantly should Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas make progress toward peace. But peace could be worth something, even if it only makes Israel bashing a little less fashionable. Then, at least, Israelis might not feel so alone in the spotlight.

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