Anti-Semitism in Europe, often in the guise now of anti-Israel rhetoric and actions, has become too big a problem to ignore or rationalize away. And it is taking place on two levels: as official policy, and within societies where, according to recent polls, Israel is considered the most dangerous nation in the world, more of a threat to world peace even than Iran or North Korea.
But getting the word out about this deeply disturbing trend has not been easy.
The latest European Union attempt, in advance of Mideast peace talks, to, in effect, determine Israel’s borders as those of pre-June 1967, underscores the views of national leaders in the sophisticated capitals of the 28 countries making up the EU. Their new guidelines banning support for projects beyond the Green Line indicate that the EU does not recognize the West Bank, Golan Heights or east Jerusalem — including the Western Wall — as being part of Israel.
Defenders of the move say it is a reflection of Europe’s frustration with Israel for the lack of progress in dealing with the Palestinians, and specifically with the continued growth of Jewish settlements. Critics of the EU action say it only adds to Israel’s reluctance to trust the international community in peace efforts, and fails to distinguish between areas that clearly will remain part of Israel in any future deal and those that will not. Is the EU, for example, insisting Israel “give back” the Golan Heights to Bashar Assad in the midst of a civil war that is turning Syria into a failed state? (The EU itself has called for Assad’s removal; to whom, then, should Israel cede the Golan?)
Further, how can the EU maintain its seemingly objective role in advancing the Mideast peace process as part of The Quartet (along with the United Nations, United States and Russia) if it has already determined that Israel should revert to what legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously called “the Auschwitz borders” of 1949?
To be clear, the EU represents Israel’s major trading partner, and its member states call for a two-state solution and insist on their support for Israel. But many of those states are guilty of what Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Austrian-born Israeli economist and author, calls the double standard of “humanitarian racism,” which he describes as “attributing intrinsically reduced responsibility to people of certain ethnic or national groups regarding their criminal acts and intentions.”
In this case, he asserts, “Israelis are blamed for whatever measures they take to defend themselves” while “Palestinian responsibility for suicide bombers, murderous missile attacks, glorification of murderers of civilians, and promoting genocide, is reduced, at best.”
Gerstenfeld, former chair of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, points out that “totally irrational” views about Israel go unquestioned, like accusing Jerusalem of seeking to eradicate Palestinians when in fact Israeli medical facilities treat Arab and Jewish patients with equal care.
He has a new book out entitled “Demonizing Israel and the Jews,” made up of a series of 57 interviews with academics, politicians, journalists and others in Europe, America and Israel who offer testimony of a variety of factors contributing to negative views among Europeans about Jews and Israel. Those influences range from traditional European anti-Semitism and guilt over Europe’s role in the Holocaust, to sympathy for the Palestinians and the influence of Muslim immigrants in European countries.
“There is no one single frontal attack” against Jews or Israel, he says, but rather “a thousand little cuts,” like statements from European political leaders that single out Israel among other nations for alleged wrongdoing, or praising the U.S. for killing Osama bin Laden while criticizing Israel for eliminating terrorist leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Gerstenfeld cites several polls that find about 40 percent of Europeans over the age of 16 harbor anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, feelings, agreeing that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. That comes out to about 150 million European citizens who feel Israel has genocidal intentions, he says.
According to Gerstenfeld, whereas “absolute evil” in medieval Christian society was defined as the killing of Jesus, attributed to Jews, today such evil is seen as behaving like the Nazis did, namely committing genocide.
“It’s a new mutation” of a centuries-old irrational and “diabolical belief” held by many in Europe about Jews, the author says. What’s more, he charges, no one in power really wants to be confronted with this disturbing reality — not the leaders in Europe or foreign ministry officials in Israel.
“It’s tiresome to them and embarrassing,” Gerstenfeld tells me. “Acknowledging this would force them to take some kind of action.” He describes their attitude as, “this shouldn’t be true, therefore it cannot be true.”
Gerstenfeld contends that the European press has been equally reluctant to expose these widespread negative views of Israel and Jews. He says he was interviewed at length about his book three months ago by a reporter from Bild, the German tabloid and largest newspaper in Europe, but to date nothing has appeared in print. Similarly, he says other media, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, have blocked coverage of his book.
What, if anything, can be done to reverse this dangerous development? Some Israeli officials tell Gerstenfeld his efforts are futile, that the problem is too big, that Europeans who pride themselves on human rights don’t want to hear charges against them of ethnic bias. But he points out that the Netherlands instituted a program to combat anti-Semitism among its Moroccan and Turkish populations, and the statistics, though still troubling, indicate improvement. (Positive views of Jews increased from 34 percent to 50 percent.)
He plans to keep up his efforts, and just added 25 interviews to the German edition of his book. “You can’t fool all the people all the time,” he says.
Some will write Gerstenfeld off as an alarmist, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the rhetoric and accusations against Israel in Europe and other countries have deteriorated in recent decades as the demonization factor has increased. Only Israel among the nations of the world must defend its right to exist, the subject of more critical UN resolutions than any other country, etc. Perhaps we’ve grown immune to the bias, just as we take for granted the daily hatred spewed against Jews in the Arab media, or by Arab national leaders.
Ignoring the situation won’t make it go away. Increased attention to the problem, a calm recitation of the facts, and efforts to educate the population are a start on the long path toward righting an awful wrong.
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