Europeans’ Israel Problem

by David Harris, JPOST

At the risk of generalization, Europeans have an Israel problem. That’s far from breaking news. It’s been especially evident in recent decades, and is most pronounced in Western Europe, a region of critical importance to Israel. Obviously, it also depends on who’s in power at a given moment.

As a frequent traveler to Europe, I’ve often wondered why this is so, especially in contrast to the US, where support for Israel is far more deeply rooted in public opinion.

In a visit to Europe last week, I was asked by several journalists to try to explain European attitudes. Here are ten reasons (in no particular order) I offered:

First, realpolitik. For many Europeans, Israel can’t hold a candle to the lure of the Arab world. When push comes to shove, their vast markets, energy resources, geographic proximity, and political clout in multilateral bodies usually trump anything Israel can offer. And with growing Muslim communities in their midst, many Europeans are increasingly concerned about antagonizing potentially volatile groups who could express their anger in the voting booths or the streets.

Second, anti-Americanism. While there has been a welcome shift in some leading governments’ attitudes toward Washington – the cover of the current issue of Newsweek is entitled “The End of Anti-Americanism” in Europe – this hasn’t been reflected in public opinion, as evidenced by the Pew Center Global Attitudes Project. There’s a syllogism at work: We don’t like America (or George Bush). America (or George Bush) supports Israel. Therefore, we don’t like Israel.

Third, colonial guilt. Europeans were the world’s leading colonial powers. Their policies were often rapacious and deadly. The Europeans of today – living in a zone of peace and prosperity – can’t easily accept their past legacy. To atone for it, they simplistically and, at times even romantically, transfer their sympathies to the Palestinians as the designated “colonized” or “underdog,” and vent their anger at the Israelis, the presumed modern-day “colonialists.”

Fourth, the Shoah. To get out from under the crushing weight of this unbearable burden, some Europeans are quick to ascribe to Israel the attributes of the Third Reich, however absurd the notion. Thus, the point is made that, given power, Jews are “no better” than the Nazis and, therefore, cannot be allowed a permanent moral claim on Europe.

Fifth, post-nationalism. Europeans see themselves as having created a post-nationalist society, where borders are increasingly vanishing and a new regional identity, built around a grouping of nations and multicultural expressions, has emerged. Given this European self-image, Israel, regarded as a bastion of nationalism, is viewed as an artifact of an earlier age. Too few Europeans today comprehend the historical and legal bases for Israel’s journey to nationhood.

Sixth, secularism. Similarly, Europeans, by and large, believe they have entered a post-religious era, where religion, long dominant in the public sphere, has been relegated to the margins, evidenced by empty churches on Sunday mornings and periodic pleas by the Vatican for a restoration of faith. Israel, again, is seen as outdated, with its self-identity as a Jewish state evoking little understanding and even less sympathy.

Seventh, soft power. Europeans proudly tout soft power for conflict resolution. Given their own history of countless wars, they have laudably opted, whenever possible, for dialogue and negotiation to settle differences. Realistically, they also realize that their armed forces, with the exception of those of Britain and France, are underfunded and limited in capability. They place faith in the decisions of the UN and other international bodies to provide legitimacy.

In this light, Israel, seen as wedded to hard power and determined to use its military as necessary, is criticized for being behind the times and too dismissive of the UN, however politicized it may be. Of course, the fact that Israel is wedged not between Sweden and Finland but Syria and Hamas-dominated Gaza isn’t given too much weight in this highly theorized global view.

Eighth, international human rights law. Here again, Europeans believe that the postwar body of legal measures adopted to shape the way nations behave, especially in times of conflict, ought to be fully respected and adhered to. Israel, however, is often criticized for its failure, in European eyes, to do so.

Easier said than done, of course, in the Middle Eastern neighborhood, where Israel’s very survival continues to hang in the balance and there’s no easy way to fight an enemy that hides among civilians and uses suicide bombing as a weapon of choice.

Ninth, extremism. What’s sometimes overlooked in European politics is the presence of extremist parties of both the right and left. For example, in the first round of the 2002 French presidential elections, nearly one-third of the nation’s voters supported either the far right or left.

Far-right parties tend to begin by despising Jews and extend that hatred to the Jewish state. Far-left parties (and, it should be added, trade unions) start by hating Israel, which they view through an “imperialist” or “colonialist” lens, and extend those feelings to anyone associated with Israel’s cause.

These groups, and especially those of the far left, have some weight, especially in academic and union circles, as recently witnessed in Britain. They can also at times draw on wider circles of hostility towards Jews and perceptions of Jewish “power” in Israel and elsewhere

And tenth, the media. One doesn’t have to be paranoid to recognize that fairness and objectivity are too often thrown to the wind in coverage of Arab-Israeli issues by some major European media outlets. (See, for example, “Israel in the European Media: A Case Study, 2000-1,” available at

This issue alone could take up pages. Consider the coverage of the alleged Jenin massacre to see how quickly mainstream outlets were prepared to believe the worst accusations about Israeli behavior, even though they were all proved untrue. Or the head of the British association of cartoonists who, when asked on camera about the choice of a cartoon showing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian children as the winner of its annual competition, admitted that, had it been reversed with Yassir Arafat eating Israeli children, it would never have been considered because of fear of a “fatwa” against him and his colleagues. Or the ease with which Israelis critical of their country can find space in European papers compared to those who seek to defend their nation’s policies.

This is not an exhaustive list. I could add to it. So, too, of course, can others—especially spokesmen for local Jewish communities, Israeli diplomats, and steadfast non-Jewish friends in every European country— who have had long experience in seeking to explain Israel’s policies to a variety of European audiences.

For those tackling the problem of Israel’s image among Europeans, the task is challenging, yes, but not impossible. To accomplish it requires cultural sensitivity, nuance, a well-tuned diplomatic ear, and, not least, perseverance.

Is it worth it? Some have argued that Europe is a lost cause, a continent overcome by Jew-hatred and obsequiousness to the Muslim world. But they utterly fail to understand Europe’s complexity and importance to Israel.

Put simply, Europe is critical to Israel’s future, and I’d like to believe that Israel is no less important to Europe’s future.

Some recent strides have already been made, helped by those, like former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who urged his European colleagues to restore a sense of balance in relations with Israel, and leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who have voiced support and understanding for Israel.

But European public opinion, which, in a poll taken a couple of years ago, declared Israel the world’s number one threat to peace and security, lags far behind.

Given Europe’s importance, and mindful of the complex landscape, working to reverse this troubling trend deserves priority attention.

September 12, 2007 | 8 Comments »

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7 Comments / 8 Comments

  1. BPoster: the Europeans have been given a position only insofar as we allow them any input. Most is superficial for photo ops and the like ;and some use of their good offices has been used with mostly marginal effects and mostly negative results. This however has never deterred them from seeking to be a major player and influence here. There disdain for America today borders on the pathological which seemed to blossom openly when they felt they no longer had a Russian and Soviet threat hanging over their heads.
    I think somebody ought to let them in an an open secret the the Russians are back and have never discarded their Imperialist objectives, even after major setbacks. Likewise the Americans who thought the cold war over and realigned their whole foreign policy vis a vis a weaker castrated Russia better wake up soon and smell the coffee. With a ME going Nuclear and uncontrollable Crazy fanatics seeking to thus dominate first their own regions and later the World? That the Europeans are still locked into Anti Americanism and Anti Israelism (antisemitism). I still do not believe there is much we can do about it if if we wanted too. Their problems seem to be pathological and not based on any realism. Beneath the facade of neo -enlightenment, the Europeans, today have been conditioned by America to assume little or no responsibilty for their own defense. They are so lazy and greedy that when they view the alternatives of spending the vast sums required by modern warfare they chose to abandon the notion of independence and security mainly as they have no wish to reduce their living standard by taxing and spending what would be required of them to supply and project needed force for their own national and regional protection and defense. Not having the mil. capability to project their will and not being able to defend themselves against even minor powers the REFUGE of the Europeans becomes pathological in defaming and being super critical of those who are their opposits. America and by extension Israel. The Europeans may be crazy and delusional about themselves and the World but they are not stupid. They need America but not Israel. This is why we are still # 1 on their evil list and America only #2. What redeeming values does one suppose America has that Israel DOES NOT IN THEIR EYES? The ans. is fear of American Power, Fear of Americas wealth, plus envy, plus an inflated sense of superiority. This is a large mix of factors and conditions that may be defended or debated by some, in the end it all comes down to the Questions :Europe? who needs them? who wants them? and why should we care what they do or say? Can they really hurt us? and if yes how much? Should we build false dipl. positions and invest heavily to change their perceptions of us and the global realism it would entail? Those that preach Yes to these questions for the most part do not allude to either my questions nor give any sensible answers to them when they preach The European Conections Importance to Israel and the West!

  2. I’m not sure how we can make the EU more equal with the US in the so called “peace process.” They already have equality with the Americans in this process. I think that the Europeans are dominated by extremely short sighted thinking. The EU like all other entities seeks to enhance its position. Many of them seem to think that if the US loses in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere in the Global War on Terrorism that this decrease in American power will result in an increase in power for them. What they cannot or will not realize is that if the US loses in Iraq, Al Qaeda will gain control of the Sunni areas. Iran will gain control of the Shia areas, and Kurdistan will likely be annihalated by Turkey and/or Iran. If the US loses in Afghanistan, this means Al Qaeda and the Taliban regain control. The end results of this would be catastrophic for the entire free world. In all honesty, many American politicians suffer from short sighted thinking as well.

    With all of this said the lack of knowledge about the world possessed by Western Europeans is staggering. According to the poll cited the Western Europeans view Israel as the number one threat to world peace. I think I remember this poll. As I recall, the US was listed as the number two threat to world peace.

    A cognitive case could be made that the US is a danger to world peace. It has a very powerful military force that can strike any where in the world at almost any time. A strong case could be made that the invasion of Iraq was not a wise use of this military power and it has made things worse. If this is so, then the US cannot be trusted to use this power wisely. It is understandable why some people might view the US as a major danger to world peace.

    In the case of Israel, there is no rational basis to view Israel as a danger to world peace. Israel’s military is incapable of striking any thing outside of its immediate vicinity. There is no conceivable way that Israel could effectively attack Western Europe even if it wanted to. Even if it did so, it would be unable to do enough harm to actually win in such a conflict. This is in contrast to Iran and Saudi Arabia. The terrorist proxies who they control are all over the world and they can strike any where at almost any time. They can inflict severe damage on anyone they wish to. They have also shown a willingness to attack anyone they have disagreements with and they have shown that they can do so without warning. These people are a real danger to world peace. Israel is a danger to no one in Western Europe.

    The fact that Western Europeans would list Israel as a threat to world peace reveals an astonishing level of ignorance. This is made worse by the fact that Western Europeans seem to think that they are the smartest people on the planet. I’m not sure how one convinces someone of the errors of their ways when they think they already know every thing. Ultimately we have to try. If we are going to win the Global War on Terrorism and contain a resurgent Russia, we are going to need them to work constructively with us.

  3. The only way the European governments will warm up to Israel is if we let them in on the peace process. By elevating them to an equal place along with the Americans and even replacing America with EU. This hope by them of being relevant here has been keeping them at bey for a long time. The EU economy is growing around 2% or less and a population decreasing of Native Europeans except Italy, and a high growth rate among their Muslim residents and citizens. In every category they are lagging far behind the Americans. It will take some time but they will implode as a failed enterprise as soon as we hit the next world recession. I believe European Nationalism and Some form of fascism is just around the corner for Europeans. i predict within next 10 years there will be a strong reactionary movement that will turn present day European Leftist norms on its head. The question is will it be old fashioned European Nationalism and fascism or the other varity known today as Islamic fascism or we might have some form of both varieties.
    When the next overdue world recession hits, it will hit the Europeans harder than anyone else as they already have double figure unemployment and their social welfare systrem is bleeding the EU trasuries dry even before recession hits. This may be the catalyst and trigger more major internal upheavels in Europe leading to what I have predicted a return to Nation state concept and hardcore right wing fascist or semifascist governments and policies.
    When this happens our trade will be cut to negligible proportions in any case so Israel must in any case diversify its economy and market pennetration to places we are not strong in today such as S. America and Mexico, Canada, Australia and the emerging Giants India and China. These markets if we are successful will more than make up for any losses in EU through recession and or sanctions and boycotts.

    So I do not agree with any of your cessandra assessments re: our relationships with the Europeans. In any event, I still believe they are too greedy to let their hate of dislike of Israel to modify their appetite for money. I can’t see them in the present climate forgoing 20-40 billion in Israeli purchases ea. year. But if the do seek divestment from Israel we still have leverage!

  4. Charles you are absolutly correct that a third of our exports go to Europe and Our economy would really go South if that were to happen all of a sudden but it will happen sooner or later and I see no way in Hell that except for comitting national suicide how we can avoid this eventuality. In expending wasted resources and national energy and treasure in pursuing EU neo pro Islamists. I have laid out a combined perscription to either avoid and or delay this enevitable event. What Harris failed to mention is that in Anti American West Europe, Israel is seen as Americas extention and this also adds to their anti Israel policies. It is my understanding that in order to apply EU sanction all of the members must be on board and vote as one. I don’t think in the near term this is a possibility. In the meantime Israel has time to adjust and wherever possible to try to find replacements for European Markets. While EU is Israels largest trading partner the PA is or was Israels 2nd largest trading partner. Since the 2nd intifada this trade has been reduced considerably and I havent seen any dire economic consequences as a result. I look at the types of exports we ship to Europe and at the top of the lists are agricultural produce and flowers, Diamonds, some chemicles, wine, some processed foods, security electronic products and software. the total is some 10 billion dollars per annum and we import 2-4 times as much from Europe which includes high ticket items like cars and airbus planes. Some of the stuff they buy from us is either the best on the market or unique products with no buyer alternative. All Pali exports come through Israeli ports so any move against us automatically hurts the very darlings they are supposed to want to help. Same with imports. They hurt us they by default hurt the Palis. They may hate us but those greedy bastards would not be so quick to lose automaticly 20-30 billion in trade with no possibility of replacement buyers. If we barred them from being part of any negotiation, or having even a prescence here, besides any presteige involved they would be placed in their rightful position and that being irrelavent. No I do not think those bastards are yet ready to cut off their noses to spite their faces. In any case it behoves Israel to begin to prepare for the eventuality. There are many things we can do and we should begin. I am afraid though that Israel like most western democracies will continue to legislate by disaster.

    Bill by your own words to change Europeas attitudes to Israel will be most challenging? The word challenging is an understatement. I would say near impossible. Now if there were to be Major terror events in Major EU capitols then there might be a backlash against the Muslims or what is equally likely that they will blame Israel for any attacks. Take your pick which way they go! after 60 plus years after the Shoah to see the spectre happening all over again and we Jews grovelling before them because of money,? makes me feel a lot of shame for the Jews and if it were up to me I could think of some nice replys to some Europeans. Like releasing bubonic plague in certain countries etc. Charles independent nations with pride and determination to survive do not sucum to evil just because it may be an expedient thing to do for the moment. There is a price to be paid either way.

    Bill it is time for Israel to discount the Europeans in any positive way. In 20 years you will not recognize them. Their economy will breakdown and the Unity will disolve, Muslims will gain enough of the populations to determine all national policies, I also predict a resurgence of fascism in Europe either The Islamic variety or more common European variety or some combination of the two. The Term Eurabia is no joke!I would not want to be a Jew living on the continent when this occurs. I would not want to be a Jew on the continent today either!

  5. David Harris and AJC do a lot of good work on behalf of Israel, particularly walking the fine line between vociferously defending it’s interests while playing the diplomacy game that sometimes pay dividends.

    I agree with Bill that of the ten reasons offered for Europe’s anti-Israel attitude, only the first is legitimate or reasonable. The others — having to do with post-nationalism, secularism, human rights, etc. — provide a far better intellectual justification for Europeans to be anti-Arab, which they are decidedly not.

    I see anti-Israel sentiment as a toxic mix of 1 part residual antisemitism, 1 part unchallenged media propaganda, 1 part noble savage romanticism, 1 part realpolitik, and 2 parts fear. If Israel supplied the world’s oil or Jews represented a sizable and militant population on the continent, the craven Europeans would not be quite so smug in their anti-Israel politics.

    Btw yamit, my understanding is that over 1/3 of Israeli exports go to Europe. Although I would love to see Israel tell the Europeans to go to hell, I don’t see how the Israeli economy could survive a loss of that magnitude.

  6. Contrary to your view Yamit, what European nations think and do vis a vis Israel, is significant to Israel. Until now, the significance of European attitudes and actions as regards Israel has had a negative impact for a variety of reasons I needn’t spell out for you.

    I therefore concur with Harris’ view that focusing attention on improving relations with Europe is critically important for Israel and to do that will be most challenging.

    Of the 10 reasons for Europe’s anti-Israel attitude, only the first is grounded in reality. The other 9 reasons portray a descent from reason and intellect into the depths of irrationality and illogic.

    Its kind of tough to get an insane person to see his own insanity and from there begin the climb back to sanity.

    It is almost that difficult a challenge that Israel faces in trying to get Europeans to climb out of the pit of irrationality back to ground level.

    One of the things not mentioned by Harris that will have to be overcome in this challenge is to unite Jews and pro-Israel advocates, Jewish or not to pull together for this extremely difficult task. It should go without saying that a house united is stronger then a house divided and that strategies and tactics must be devised to meet these challenges vis a vis turning European attitudes vis a vis Jews and Israel from nonsense to sense.

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