Europe’s Unified Voice and Passion

November 1, 2002
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by Andrei S. Markovits

Recent events across Europe indicate a vigor-ous passion targeted against Israelis and what they represent. This passion hails from a confluence of many things, all immensely complex, that, when merged together, form a very potent brew. Certainly that passion is driven by a massive reemergence of old-fashioned European antisemitism which — some silly optimists thought — had miraculously vanished from its 1,000-year European existence after the Holocaust. Of course it never did. It merely lay dormant in the post-1945 world of the Cold War. But once this world had come to its definite end in 1991, the discourse on many things changed drastically, among them that on the Jews. The threshold of shame gradually subsided in the course of the 1990s, thus increasing attacks on Jewish institutions (such as cemeteries) and the ever-more open way in which antisemitic insults became socially acceptable.

For example, Daniel Bernard, France’s current ambassador to St. James’s Court, publicly referred to Israel as “that shitty little country” that the world ought to abandon (to what exactly he left to his listeners’ imagination). As well, it has become part of accepted discourse in good society to deride Israel as an entity, not merely (and completely legitimately) its policies. A new tone has also entered all strata of German and European society where criticizing Jews - not merely Israel and Israelis - has attained a certain urgency that reveals a particularly liberating dimension. “Free at last, free at last, we are finally free of this damn Holocaust at last!” In this context Europeans - and not only Germans - posit that Jews, who created a culture of shame and kept Europeans from speaking their minds, behave just like they did. The lid is off; Jews are a target yet again.

By constantly bringing up the truly shameful and disgusting analogy of the Israelis with the Nazis, Europeans absolve themselves from any remorse and shame and thus experience a sense of liberation. As well, one hurts the intended target by equating it with the very perpetrators that almost wiped it off the earth in the most brutal genocide imaginable. Lastly, Israel - partnered with the United States - also represents a certain modernity that European intellectuals of the left and right have always feared. For the right, Jews (thus Israel) and America have always stood for a soulless and disruptive modernity that was antithetical to any kind of an imagined tradition, so dear to the right’s heart. And for the left, America and the Jews were the epitome of an unbridled capitalism that was bad everywhere but that exhibited its most stark characteristics in these two related entities.

Suffice it to say that America and the Jews have always been negatively and fearfully intertwined as particularly despised protagonists of modernity for both the European right and left throughout the 20th century, if not before. Only thus can one explain the anti-globalization movement’s massive support for the Palestinians. Why did Jose Bove show up in Ramallah and not in Gujarat where many more Muslims were slain in multiple pogroms perpetrated by Hindus? Rather than explaining this as simple hostility toward Israel, it is a hostility aimed at globalization, which has become synonymous with the United States, and by extension Israel and Jews.

And this brings us to Europe’s irritation with the United States that has less to do with policy differences than with values. When Europeans in the 1990s embarked on the arduous process of building the European Union, they began to raise the issue of having different, perhaps incompatible, values from those of the Americans. While it will long remain a question what values and identities Europeans themselves share, it is becoming clear that they have begun to embrace one negative value with considerable fervor: not being American.

This helps explain why many Europeans fast abandoned their post-September 11 sympathies for the United States and reverted to their default of seeing America as an uncouth bully. By viewing Israel as an extension of the United States, this mechanism of a negative identity reaches to the Middle East as well. It is not so much sympathy for the Palestinians but antipathy for the Israelis and the Jews that drives European opinion in this crisis - an antipathy that also draws much of its vigor from hostile feelings toward the United States.

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Andrei S. Markovits is Visiting Professor of Social Studies at Harvard University. His regular appointment is at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he teaches courses in European politics with a special emphasis on Germany and Austria. He is currently working on a book on anti-Americanism and antisemitism in postwar Europe.

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