February 24, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Reversal of Culpability

Sometimes, the little articles in the back of the newspaper tell you more about global trends than do the big pieces on the front pages. A few days ago, a small Associated Press item was headlined: “Norway: Swastika Art Removed.”

The item read: “A painting that featured the words Israel and the United States and replaced each ‘s' with a Nazi swastika was removed from an Oslo art exhibition.”

How is it possible to confuse the tiny Jewish state with the vast Nazi empire that attempted to exterminate the Jews? And how is it possible to confuse the United States, which liberated Europe from Nazi shackles, with the Nazis themselves?

This would appear to be a phenomenon that French author Jean-Francois Revel has called “reversal of culpability.”  It is particularly disturbing when it is propagated not at secret meetings of Osama-worshiping jihadis but at an “art exhibition,” in Oslo, the cosmopolitan capital of Norway, an exceedingly civilized country.

Nor was this an isolated incident. Just last month in neighboring Sweden, there was another “art exhibit,” this one honoring a woman who murdered 22 people in a Haifa restaurant last fall.

Meanwhile, a shelf of new books has been published in Europe arguing that America is the real “evil empire” A book blaming the CIA and Israel's Mossad for 9/11 became a best-seller in France and Germany. And the International Herald Tribune's Serge Schmemann has written of “a tsunami of anti-Americanism” on the continent.

Where does this extravagant hatred for, and slander of, America and Israel come from? Possibly from the Middle East where the level of anti-American and anti-Semitic calumny has reached dizzying heights, while terrorism is routinely condoned and not infrequently celebrated.

On the West Bank, dolls of Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center are sold openly and are quite popular.

Throughout the Middle East, Al Manar — Hizbollah TV — broadcasts videos that purport to show Jews ritually slaughtering gentile children to use their blood for holiday pastries.

Some will argue that these are predictable, if excessive, responses to the “oppressive polices” of America and Israel. But are they? Start with the US. In recent years, when Americans have sacrificed blood and treasure, it has generally been to defend Muslim communities. Think of Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Somalia, Afghanistan – and, of course, Iraq where we removed a tyrant who had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children.

Each year, billions of US taxpayer dollars go to such Arab nations as Egypt – as well as to the Palestinian Authority. Much of those funds are misspent, but whose fault is that?

It's true that America supports Israel – or rather Israel's right to exist. But President Bush is the first U.S. leader also to publicly back an independent Palestinian state – so long as it's not a terrorist state.

President Clinton went to enormous lengths to try to bring peace to the Middle East. Under his influence, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered 95 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state. But Yasser Arafat rebuffed the offer and countered with a terrorist offensive that has been responsible for the murder of more than 900 Israelis.

Despite that – or because of it — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now talking seriously about pulling out of Gaza entirely, and asking nothing in return. His primary strategy for dealing with terrorists from the West Bank is to build fences to prevent terrorists from entering Israeli communities – a non-violent response that has aroused a fury in both the Middle East and Europe, including hearings at the UN's court in The Hague.

Disagree with these policies if you like – but such disagreement cannot rationally justify labeling Israelis or Americans as Nazis, or blaming them for 9/11. So what is the source of the venom?

No one seems to have quite figured that out yet. Revel, who has written a book called “Anti-Americanism,” believes European regret over loss of its great-power status is part of the explanation. The eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis has a similar theory about Militant Islamism. Islam once was the world's dominant civilization. Now it is not. One can ask: “Where did we go wrong?” Or one can ask: “Who is responsible for this humiliation and how do we exact our revenge?”

In any case, Revel believes anti-Americanism has become a European “obsession.” He points out that thousands of Europeans took to the streets to protest President Bush's invasion – of Afghanistan, not just of Iraq.

Too many Europeans, Revel adds, “clamor – not only against the United States but against their own interests, and against the interest of democracy and the liberation of oppressed peoples everywhere … The European Left has clearly learned little from the history of the twentieth century. It remains fanatically opposed to moderates, and moderate towards fanatics.”

And Israel is seen by many as a kind of Little America, an outpost of American values inserted where it doesn't belong, as inappropriate as a McDonalds at Versailles. As British columnist Polly Toynbee has written: “Ugly Israel is the Middle Eastern representative of ugly America.”

The most optimistic thing one can say is that none of this is really new. Anti-Semitism is an ancient disease. Anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism are merely contemporary manifestations.


Revel notes that as far back as he can recall many Europeans have found America “loathsome.” When it wasn't over Iraq it was over Vietnam, when it wasn't over Vietnam it was over Korea. There were even those who charged that America waited longer than necessary to liberate France from the Nazis. (The Nazis whom the Americans now resemble.)

The deeper truth, Revel adds, is that Americans “console us for our own failures, serving the myth that they do worse than we do, and that what goes badly with us is their fault. America is the scapegoat, made to bear all the sins of the world.”

To which Israelis might say: “Amen.”

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.




Egypt Hezbollah Palestinian Politics