‘Europeans see Israel as a reminder of the demons of their own past, but it has also been presented as the cause of terrorism’
When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated in 1993, it had no equivalent in continental Europe. Berlin’s Jewish Museum only opened to visitors six years later. Yet America’s sins during the Holocaust were, at most, sins of omission. For continental Europe, it was a different story.
Today, the landscape has changed. Holocaust museums and memorials are springing up like mushrooms across much of the continent which — both as witness and accomplice — hosted the slaughter of six million Jews. The infamy of the Shoah has been elevated to the incarnation of the purest form of evil, and stands at the centre of united Europe’s new identity. Europeans reclaim Europe’s Jewish past as their own, through museums and lovingly restored synagogues. Klezmer and Yiddish are in; jackboot extremism is out.
Nevertheless, there remains an intense and disturbing ambiguity in Europe’s relationship with its own past — sublimated in Europe’s relations with Israel. This ambiguity was on display recently, as Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary. Zionism — the movement for Jewish self-determination — long predated the Holocaust. Israel was not born out of a sense of guilt for the near extinction of European Jewry. Yet the tragedy of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to Israel’s birth. Europe’s commitment to Israel’s survival should be a fixture of Europe’s foreign policy, at least as much as the perpetuation of memory is a fixture of its identity — especially now, in the light of mounting threats by Iran to annihilate Israel. The Iranian parliamentary speaker, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, recently announced that “the countdown for Israel’s destruction” had begun.
American politicians have no difficulty committing themselves to Israel’s survival. Hillary Clinton recently declared that if Israel were attacked by an Iranian nuke, the US, under her leadership, would “obliterate” Iran. John McCain defined Iran’s nuclear programme as the most serious crisis “since the Cold War” and identified Iran as “a danger to the region”. Barack Obama has also said that an attack on Israel — “America’s closest friend in the region” — would be unacceptable and threatened “appropriate action” in response.
European leaders have fulfilled their duty: they condemned Iran’s attacks on Israel and decried its obscene flirting with Holocaust denial. They have also flocked to Israel to celebrate its 60th anniversary. But when it comes to Israel’s right to defend itself, or Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or Europe’s readiness to stand by Israel if Israel were attacked, the language is not so straightforward. Of 27 heads of government, only Italy’s former prime minister, Romano Prodi, has explicitly acknowledged Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. So did the European commissioner Franco Frattini, in a speech in Israel earlier this year — and for which he was roundly criticised by his Brussels colleagues.
Europe defined Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s aggression as “disproportionate”. Israel’s actions in Gaza were also “disproportionate” — though Brussels officials find it hard to explain what they think would be a proportionate Israeli response to over 7,000 rockets fired by Hamas at Israeli towns. Similarly, Europeans have consistently criticised any suggestion of military action against Iran as a measure of last resort. European activism on Iran’s nuclear file was driven more by a desire to prevent military action against Iran than by a fear of Iranian success in its nuclear quest. Europe might voice concern for Israel — and it might condemn Iranian rhetoric. But European action would by no means be guaranteed if Iran’s rhetoric were followed by matching deeds.
This is to say nothing of unofficial Europe, where calls for boycotts of Israel remain unhindered and a whole literature devoted to delegitimising and demonising Israel is flourishing. This contempt for Israel finds its roots in anti-Westernism, in post-colonial guilt, and in the new post-nationalist and post-faith ideology of Europe’s elites.
Europeans do see Israel as the embodiment of the demons of their own past. But to many, Israel has also been presented as the cause of radical Islamic grievance and therefore of terrorism. Commitments to its defence therefore cause discomfort — if not utter consternation. With all the trouble Israel is accused of causing, is it any wonder that even decent people might wish it away?
They should know better. A recent message by Osama bin Laden voiced dark threats against Europe — on account, not of Israel, but of the reprinting of the Danish cartoons: “If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.” Freedom of speech, including the freedom to deride cherished religious beliefs, remains central to Europe’s identity. That is what radical Islam wants Europe to renounce. And that is the meaning of reaffirming Europe’s commitment to Israel: a commitment to our European values and a refusal to compromise them, in the name of convenience or misguided ideology.