October 31, 2011 | Standpoint

Empty Gestures

Trying to explain the growing chasm between Israel and Europe, the British journalist and author Anatol Lieven wrote in 2004: “For equally valid and legitimate reasons, Western Europe and parts of the liberal intelligentsia of the United States on one hand and the greater part of the world's Jewish population on the other drew opposing conclusions from the catastrophe of Nazism . . . The Western European elites and many US liberal intellectuals essentially decided that the correct response to Nazism and to the hideous national conflicts which preceded, engendered and accompanied it was to seek to limit, transcend and overcome nationalism.”

Lieven, whose book, America, Right or Wrong (2004) was ferociously critical of US support for Israel and dismissive of Israeli claims, nevertheless sought to explain the reasons for the above seemingly irreconcilable conclusions: “Given the failure of the Western world…to prevent genocide, or even — shamefully — to offer refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazis, it is entirely natural that a great many Jews decided that guarantees from the international community were not remotely sufficient to protect them against further attempts at massacre.”

There is sympathy, then, even on the Left for Jewish concerns about Israel's survival. But there is also an impatience that frequently turns into contempt at what most European leaders see as the Israelis' refusal to bring the conflict with the Palestinians to an end, due to their nationalistic claims and militaristic culture.

Despite Israel's loneliness in the world, Europe blames Israel for lack of progress on the tortuous road to peace — although — the Palestinians turned down three comprehensive peace offers in less than ten years and have refused to return to negotiations since March 2009. Europe condemns Israel's periodic announcements of new apartment units in already existing settlements as if they were the ultimate threat to peace, but cannot bring itself to support Israel's demand that its adversaries finally recognise Israel's right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state.

Instead, it trivialises Palestinian terrorism as a “weapon of the weak” which barely scratches Israel's armoured surface. It downplays the genocidal and anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hamas, in effect condoning its ideology or the devastating impact of its terrorist attacks. And it cannot even agree to define Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, despite its continuous calls for Israel's destruction, its stockpiling of deadly missiles, its openly stated role as Iran's lieutenant in Lebanon, and its alleged complicity in carrying out the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

And despite the fact that Iran's threats to wipe Israel off the map are coupled with its dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons, Europe continues to indulge talk of a Middle East nuclear-free zone — a code word for disarming Israel — and finds an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities a worse option than a nuclear-capable Iran.

Yet these threats are real — and given Jewish history, Israel might be excused for being a tad over-prudent when it comes to enemies who still openly dream of the day when Israel will no longer exist. The Holocaust is seared in Israel's collective memory-preventing another Holocaust is indeed one of Israel's raisons d'être.

The same cannot be said of Europe. Even as Europeans routinely repeat “Never Again!” in reference to the Holocaust, their solemn commitment is not to prevent another Holocaust at all costs — it is rather to prevent war at all costs. For many Europeans, Israel's insistence on its national character as the state of the Jewish people is bound to yield the same tragic results Europe experienced when it toyed with nationalism.

Israelis know what they mean when they say “Never Again!” For them, the slogan means: never again shall the Jewish people stand defenceless on the brink of annihilation, and Israelis are ready to fight if genocide knocks again at their gates. Europeans, by contrast, have repeated the “Never Again!” slogan for more than six decades, and yet they have watched indifferently over repeated genocides across the globe, from Cambodia to Rwanda, Sudan to Srebrenica, China to the Congo.

Lieven would probably blame these horrors on local versions of “hideous national conflicts” such as those which preceded Nazism. It is the wrong conclusion though. They occurred because those who invested themselves with the task of reconstructing Western civility in the second half of the 20th century failed to act upon the commitment that genocide should never be allowed to happen again.

Why then should Israel believe that, if its worst fears about its enemies turn out to be true, anyone will come to its rescue?

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