By Robin Shepherd, adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies. He is based in central Europe.
January 30, 2005.
It may not have been apparent on the surface, but Europe’s recent
commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was
steeped in irony.
Even while the Old World stirringly recalls the horrors of Hitler’s death
camps and vows never to forget the Nazi genocide of the Jews, it also
embraces an increasingly — and alarmingly — antagonistic attitude toward the
Jewish state that arose from the ashes of World War II.
As the Middle East conflict burns on, more and more Europeans are turning
against Israel. A growing number subscribe to the belief that the impasse
between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the wellspring of much of the
world’s ills today, and that the blame for all this lies squarely with Israel — and
by extension, with its staunchest ally, the United States. As President Bush
seeks to find common ground with Europe in his second term, he might do well
to acquaint himself more thoroughly with this reality.
For as surely as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict divides Jews and Arabs, it
also divides Europeans and Americans. If you’re looking for root causes of the
growing transatlantic split that go beyond the easy cliches about U.S.
unilateralism, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
Go to a dinner party in Paris, London or any other European capital and watch
how things develop. The topic of conversation may be Iraq, it may be George
Bush, it may be Islam, terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. However it
starts out, you can be sure of where it will inevitably, and often irrationally, end
— with a dissection of the Middle East situation and a condemnation of Israeli
actions in the occupied territories.
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen it. European sympathy for the
Palestinians runs high, while hostility toward Israel is often palpable.
And the anger is reaching new — and disturbing — levels: A poll of 3,000 people
published last month by Germany’s University of Bielefeld showed more than
50 percent of respondents equating Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians
with Nazi treatment of the Jews.
Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed specifically believed that Israel is
waging a “war of extermination” against the Palestinian people.
Germany is not alone in these shocking sentiments. They have been expressed
elsewhere, and often by prominent figures. In 2002, the Portuguese Nobel
Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago declared, “What is happening in Palestine is
a crime which we can put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz.”
In Israel just last month, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Irish winner of
the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, compared the country’s suspected nuclear
weapons to Auschwitz, calling them “gas chambers perfected.”
Moreover, in a Eurobarometer poll by the European Union in November 2003, a
majority of Europeans named Israel as the greatest threat to world peace.
Overall, 59 percent of Europeans put Israel in the top spot, ahead of such
countries as Iran and North Korea. In the Netherlands, that figure rose to 74
Perceptions of Israel in the United States, meanwhile, contrast sharply. A poll
by the Marttila Communications Group taken in December 2003 for the
Anti-Defamation League had Americans putting Israel in 10th place on a list of
countries threatening world peace, just ahead of the United States itself. What
accounts for this transatlantic values gap?
Part of the explanation is that, despite all the Holocaust commemorations, the
memory of that event really does appear to be fading in Europe. Increasing
numbers of younger Europeans have no real sense of what the Nazis did.
In Britain, Prince Harry isn’t the only one who’s oblivious to the realities
of Nazi tyranny. A BBC poll of 4,000 people taken late last year, in the run-up
to Holocaust Remembrance Day last Thursday, showed that, amazingly, 45
percent of all Britons and 60 percent of those under 35 years of age had never
heard of Auschwitz — the Nazi death camp in southern Poland where about 1.5
million Jews were murdered during World War II.
Such ignorance compounds anti-Israeli feelings; for those who have no
understanding of the Holocaust, Israel exists and acts in a historical vacuum.
This faltering awareness of the most vivid example of racist mass murder in the
20th century is accompanied by enduring anti-Semitism.
A poll in Italy last year, for example, by the Eurispes research institute
showed 34 percent of respondents agreeing strongly or to some extent with the
view that “Jews secretly control financial and economic power as well as the
The Eurobarometer survey quoted above also showed 40 percent of
respondents across Europe believing that Jews had a “particular relationship to
money,” with more than a third expressing concern that Jews were “playing
the victim because of the Holocaust.”
Yet while the persistence of anti-Semitism is undeniable, it’s not likely to be the
chief explanation for European hostility to Israel. After all, surveys show that
some anti-Semitic attitudes persist in the United States as well, but they don’t
translate into visceral animosity toward the Jewish state.
Instead, the intense antagonism toward Israel appears to be a subset of
the wider European hostility, emanating mainly from the left, toward the United
States. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the 2003 Eurobarometer survey
put the United States just behind Israel as the greatest danger to world peace,
on a par with Iran and North Korea.
Many European intellectuals see Israel, perhaps rightly, as one of the central
pillars of U.S. hegemony in the modern world. European leftists implacably
opposed to America are implacably opposed to Israel as well, and for exactly
the same reasons.
Over dinner in Berlin not long ago, a Frenchwoman told me emphatically
that Israel was “America’s policeman in the Middle East.” Her companion,
nodding in furious agreement, insisted that the two countries are partners in a
“new imperialism,” leading the world inexorably into war.
In the contorted universe of the chattering classes, Israel is at once America’s
servant and the tail that wags the dog — doing America’s bidding while forcing
it into madcap adventures such as Iraq.
As Peter Preston, the former editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, put
it in an op-ed last October, bemoaning both U.S. political parties’ alleged
servility toward Israel: “Republican policy is an empty vessel drifting off Tel
Aviv, and the Democratic alternative has just as little stored in its hold.”
The left-leaning antipathy toward Israel is moreover buttressed by deeper and
wider pathologies in Europe’s collective memory, particularly in our overriding
sense of guilt about the past, a guilt that springs from the great 20th-century
traumas of war and imperialism.
The first has made Europeans, especially continentals, overwhelmingly
pacifistic: In the German Marshall Fund’s 2004 Transatlantic Trends survey,
only 31 percent of Germans and 33 percent of the French could bring
themselves to agree with the ostensibly tame proposition that “Under some
conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice.” Such attitudes do not mesh well
with television pictures of Israeli helicopter gunships firing missiles at militant
targets in the crowded Gaza Strip, whatever the justification for Israel’s actions.
Europe is also awash in post-imperial guilt, and I frequently get the sense that
Israel’s claim to a piece of land in the Middle East revives guilt-inducing
memories, among my English countrymen and others, of white Europeans
carving up the Third World and subjugating “lesser peoples” in the 19th
While the disturbing view that there’s an equivalence between Nazi
Germany and modern Israel is a relatively new development, another view
equating Israel with apartheid South Africa and referring to Palestinians herded
into “Bantustans” has been around for decades.
Mixed with the supercharged ideological hostility of the European left, the
demons of the continent’s past can make for an intoxicating cocktail of
anti-Israeli sentiment. There is undoubtedly room for criticism of Israel and its
policies in the Middle East, but reasoned criticism appears to be giving way to
emotional and irrational antipathy that is coloring the wider debate. And as that
sentiment grows, American support for the Jewish state will continue to
scratch raw nerves in the Old World.
There is much, of course, that the United States should be doing to improve its
relationship with Europe. But repairing transatlantic relations is a two-way
process. Americans should now be aware that on one crucial issue, at least, it
is Europe, and not America, that needs to clean up its act.