As the memory of the Holocaust fades, traditional anti-Semitism that turns into anti-Israel attitudes is no longer politically incorrect.
Many Israelis complain about the failures of their country’s public diplomacy. Why is it so difficult to explain what most Israelis see as normal behavior of a state fighting terrorism and abysmal hatred?
Yet it is not easy to make the case for Israel in Europe. There is ingrained antisemitism at all levels of European society. Europe has never been a friendly host for Jews, who for centuries suffered prejudice, discrimination, pogroms, expulsions and finally the worst of all – genocide.
Moreover, as the memory of the Holocaust fades, traditional antisemitism that turns into anti-Israel attitudes is no longer politically incorrect.
Unfortunately, Europe was not successful in purging itself of the antisemitic malaise. The Muslim immigration only added another layer of antisemitism. A Jew wearing a kipah, or displaying a Magen David is not safe on the streets of most West European capitals. It is a shame that Jewish institutions need to be guarded by the local police.
Another angle that places Israel is an unfavorable light for many Europeans is the correct perception of Israel as an American ally. The gap between Europe and the US is gradually widening, particularly since Donald Trump became President.
The strategic culture of the US is very different than the European and much closer to Israeli strategic thinking.
This inevitably reflects badly on Israel.
European feelings of guilt for their colonial past also put Israel at disadvantage as the colonial prism is applied to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Viewing Israel as European colonists displacing native Palestinians is disregarding the Jewish historic connections to their ancient homeland.
Moreover, it fosters a forgiving attitude to the Palestinian corrupt and dictatorial entities (the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-ruled Gaza) and their systematic violation of human rights.
Above all, Europeans hardly have the intellectual capability to grasp the grim realities of the Middle East, which lives in a different time zone. In contrast to peaceful Europe, the Middle East is a conflict-ridden region. In the Middle East, states go to war to attain political goals. The use of force is part and parcel of the rules of the game and of the toolbox available to heads of state.
While in Europe, particularly in its western parts, use of force is viewed as anachronistic, in our part of the world military actions are popular.
Saddam Hussein was the hero of the Arab world when taking Kuwait by force. Ankara’s military intervention in Syria is hailed by the Turkish masses and Riyadh’s bloody war in Yemen elicits no criticism at home. It is hard to envision current European military action without anti-war demonstrations at home.
Of course, the high levels of threat perception of all Middle East states and societies are not fully appreciated by the Europeans, who think they have achieved a strategic paradise.
They are not ready to spend money on defense, taking a ride on the American security umbrella. In contrast, Middle Eastern states devote large chunks of their GDP to national security needs. Moreover, all states in the region are suspicious of and fear their neighbors. The fear of politicide (destruction of a political entity) is not held only by Israel. For years, Syria refused to recognize the independence of Lebanon, while Iraq claimed Kuwait as its 17th province.
The EU states do not experience any challenges to the legitimacy of their borders. In contrast, there are many border disputes among Mideastern states, such as between Syria and Turkey, or Iran and Iraq. In addition, Pan-Arabism that undermined the legitimacy of the Arab rulers and the statist structures was largely replaced by another transnational ideology, Pan-Islamism, having similar repercussions.
Both transnational movements tend toward violent measures
Religion is also a poorly understood political factor in a mostly secular Europe. The intellectual influence of Max Weber and Karl Marx created a blindness to religious behavior. Most people in Middle East are to some degree religious and their identity is shaped by holy texts. This is true of the Arabs, Turks, Persians and Jews.
In contrast to a post-Reformation Europe, the separation of church and state is an alien concept in our part of the world. The tremendous power of religious conviction in motivating people for action and for willingness to sustain great pain is incomprehensible to the average European.
The Middle East is the hotbed for religious radicalism. Europeans are ill-equipped to understand the zealots of the Islamic state.
While there are islands of support for Israel in the old continent, living in today’s Europe does not prepare you for understanding Middle East realities. Therefore, the lack of understanding for Israeli policies and its use of force cannot be corrected by a better public diplomacy. The biased European attitudes are a result of a cultural baggage and an entirely different set of attitudes to defense and foreign policy issues.
Published in The Jerusalem Post 26.06.2018
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.