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About the author ESSaY

Europe and Israel: Worlds Apart?

Robin Shepherd By Robin Shepherd June 2008
Robin Shepherd is Senior Research
Fellow for Europe at Chatham House
in London. He has written for The Times
of London, The Financial Times, The
International Herald Tribune and other
leading newspapers. His book on Europe-
Israel relations, “A State Beyond the Pale”,
will be published by Weidenfeld and
Nicholson in 2009.


Z Word is an online journal focusing on

the contemporary debate over Zionism,
anti-Zionism, antisemitism and related
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Jewish Committee. To learn more about Assessing Europe’s relationship with Israel involves a barrage of questions.
Z Word, visit us online at:
What do we mean by “Europe?” Are we talking about the European Union? Are we talking about the member states? If so, which ones? Do we judge the relation-
or contact the editors at: ship with Israel by what is said in Madrid, to take one example, or Warsaw, to take another?
Which part of the “relationship” are we talking about? The blossoming trade
CREDITS and technology relationship? The increasingly close diplomatic relationship
© Copyright the American Jewish which has brought Israel to a position in which some have argued that the Jew-
Committee (AJC). All content ish state is only one or two steps from EU membership? Or are we talking about
herein, unless otherwise specified, is Europe’s anti-Israeli stance at the United Nations or the widespread, though not
owned solely by the AJC and may not
disseminated in any way without prior uniform, hostility in the media? Where do we position that complex set of ideas
written consent from the AJC. All rights and attitudes which some have dubbed the “new anti-Semitism?”
reserved. All these questions make it clear that Europe’s relationship—perhaps rela-
tionships might be a more appropriate term—with Israel is multi-layered. The
answers, to a great extent, hinge upon the question that is being asked. Yet we
also know that in raising these questions, we are acknowledging that, especially
when compared with the US, the Europe-Israel relationship is a much more
troubled one. What interests us here is why that is, what has changed in Europe
and Israel over time to make these problems worse, and where are we headed in
the future.
I will concentrate on four key areas: some preliminary observations about
the challenges inherent in building a congenial relationship at a time of pro-
found internal changes on both sides; an outline of the way other post-communist states. This has involved vast
in which Europe sought to reconstruct itself following the changes to the way in which European countries inter-
end of World War II, and why this sometimes conflicts with act, both with each other and with the outside world.
Israeli realities; some pointers to Europe’s historic difficul- By appreciating the content of these paral-
ties in recognizing and confronting totalitarianism, par- lel transitions, the true nature of the problems
ticularly militant Islam; and a few final thoughts about the between Israel and Europe becomes clearer.
shifting currents of political ideology in Europe especially Consider the following statement from the pre-
as that relates to the old, socialist Left and the established, amble to the European Coal and Steel Community—the
paleoconservative Right. forerunner institution to the European Union, which
was formed six years later—signed in April 1951. The
Making Sense of Transition leaders of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands,
Belgium and Luxembourg declared that they were:
It is something of a truism in international relations that “Resolved to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion
when two parties to a relationship are in a state of transi- of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an
tion, it is hard to establish a stable equilibrium. Each side economic community, the foundation of a broad and
presents the other with a moving target. Misunderstanding independent community among peoples long divided by
and mistrust are frequently the order of the day. Hence, bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable
before we discuss the content of the relationship, it is of giving direction to their future common destiny...”1
helpful to recognize that, even at the formal level, the Treaty preambles are important because they showcase
terms of engagement have not been propitious. the spirit in which the legal principles elaborated later
Israel, of course, is a new state. The Zionist movement on are formed. As the first great statement about the
built a country largely from scratch, absorbing millions of European project, these words are replete with meaning.
immigrants, teaching them the Hebrew language, finding The two key elements—a backward looking revulsion at
them homes and jobs. Critically, the enterprise of building the horrors of the past, and a determination to recreate
a state remains incomplete. Israel’s borders are not defined Europe through a common destiny—set the ideological
and even its capital city is disputed. Relations with neigh- tone for decades to come. Its central elements, developed
bors range from the dire to the awkwardly manageable. and refined throughout the post-war era, speak to a deep
distrust of the manifestation of political destiny through
the nation state and a yearning for a peaceful future
in which conflicts are resolved without bloodshed.
It is remarkable just how pacific European political
“It is remarkable just how pacific European culture has become over the years. A recent survey by
political culture has become over the years” the German Marshall Fund of the United States asked
respondents in several European countries and the US
whether they thought that, under some circumstances,
it was appropriate to go to war to secure a just outcome2 .
Europe also has been undergoing a transition which One would surely expect that most Europeans could
in important respects continues. The European proj- imagine at least some circumstances in which they
ect, which began in the aftermath of a war in which 45 could agree with such a proposition; apparently not. A
million Europeans died, has changed the continent mere 31 percent of Germans, 33 percent of the French,
fundamentally. The process has moved through eas- 35 percent of Italians and 25 percent of Spanish were in
ily identifiable stages: the post-war reconstruction agreement. Only Britain, with 69 percent, provided a
itself; the “unification” of Europe following the end convincingly large section of the population who could
of the Cold War; and ongoing efforts to stabilise and agree. (The figure for the United States was 82 percent.)
integrate the countries of the western Balkans and In Robert Kagan’s famous formulation of America

Transitions in Collision: Europe’s Relations with Israel 2

as a masculine, warlike Mars and Europe as a feminine, surge of Islamism in the colonial grievances nursed by the
gentler Venus, the European project has become “a Muslim world. This “self-hating” narrative sees Islamist
self-contained world of laws and rules and transna- militancy as something which is understandable and to
tional negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post- some extent justified. The British writer and parliamentar-
historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the ian Michael Gove has placed this core inability to see the
realization of Immanuel Kant’s ‘perpetual peace.’”3 true nature of the Islamist threat in historical perspective:
“The belief that Islamist violence can be explained by
these factors is as flawed as the belief in the 1930s that
Nazism could be understood as simply a response to the
“The European temperament is post- perceived injustices of the Versailles settlement, which
national, while Israel is a state built upon could be assuaged by reuniting Sudeten Germans with their
Jewish national self-determination” Bavarian cousins. That response, the classic appeasers’
temptation, betrays profound misunderstanding of the
totalitarian mindset. The Nazis were not capable of being
satisfied by the reasonable setting of border disputes. They
Alongside the tendency towards supranationalism, and were motivated by a totalitarian dream of a thousand-
a diminishing appetite for the use of military force, there year Reich, purged of Jewish and Bolshevik influences, in
is a third factor: the shift to secularism. This has happened which Aryan manhood could flourish. Their territorial
both at the public level (with some exceptions in countries ambitions in the 1930s were not ends in themselves but
such as Poland and Ireland) and, even more emphatically, mechanisms for testing the mettle of their opponents.
at the elite level. The leaders of the European Union have Hitler’s success in realizing his interim territorial goals
expressly rejected the continent’s Christian heritage in established, to his own satisfaction, the flabbiness of the
the key documents underpinning the European project. 4 West, emboldened him to go further and created a sense
It should be clear then that, taken to- of forward momentum that silenced internal opposition.
gether these three pillars of the new Europe Jihadists today are not conducting a series of national
make for a bad fit with Israeli realities. liberation struggles which, if each were resolved, would
The European temperament is post-national, while lead to peace on earth and good will to all infidels. They are
Israel is a state built upon Jewish national self-determi- prosecuting a total war in the service of a pitiless ideology.”5
nation. Where Europe has largely cast aside its religious
heritage, a nationalist ideology, which has secular and New Left and Old Right
religious as well as socialist and liberal streams, underpins
the identity of the State of Israel. European realities are If Europe is unable to come to terms with an Islamist
largely peaceful and the continent’s institutions project challenge, even when it is mounted against Europe
these realities onto their dealings with the outside itself, it is hardly a surprise that there are problems
world. By contrast, Israel deals with the daily impact of empathizing with Israel. But where does this problem
terrorism, particularly with the constant streaming of come from? What is it about the way in which European
rockets from Gaza, as well as the existential threat of an political culture is configured that creates so many
implacably hostile neighbourhood, epitomized by Iran. problems when it comes to understanding Islamism in
There are other aspects of Europe’s political general and the threat it poses to Israel in particular?
and ideological development in the post-war era Some answers to those questions have already been
that may have also had a powerful impact, espe- offered in relation to the post-war reconstruction—
cially in terms of the continent’s ability to empa- the downplaying of nationalism and the adoption of
thize with Israel’s conflict with militant Islam. pacifistic approaches to conflict. These aspects may
Many commentators have pointed to Europe’s seeming be said to have engendered a sense of self-doubt in the
inability to understand the ideological roots of the Islamist European psyche. But there are also deeper ideological
challenge, and its preference, instead, for locating the currents which have made their presence felt through

Transitions in Collision: Europe’s Relations with Israel 3

a wrong-headed introspection which has had pro- less, committed to liberal democratic capitalism. A new
found implications for the relationship with Israel. vehicle for revolutionary change had to be discovered.
For many analysts, the great turning point in European Third World “liberation” movements were the obvious
relations with Israel came with the 1967 war, the outcome place to go. Since the western proletariat would not func-
of which left Israel as an occupying power. According to tion as a meaningful mass movement against capitalism,
this version of events, sympathy shifted to the Palestinians, resistance movements in the Third World, such as the
particularly on the left, due to a supposedly natural PLO, would take their place. And if ideological changes
tendency to support underdogs against oppressors. in Europe (and to some extent in America) at that time
helped turn the terms of debate against Israel, events two
decades later would accentuate the trend even further.
“…the ‘New Left’ which emerged during the With the western proletariat having long been writ-
ten off as a lost cause, the complete collapse of Soviet
1960s largely turned to a blind eye to human communism (along with most of its satellites), as well as
rights violations by those regimes it deemed China’s embrace of market economics, narrowed the range
to be ‘progressive’” of potential opponents to global capitalism even further.
Indeed, by the early 1990s the only serious challenge being
mounted against western hegemony would come from
It is an unconvincing explanation. For one thing, the a militant Islamist ideology for which the Palestinian
left may style itself as the champion of the oppressed, but struggle against Israel was a powerful energizing factor. It
no objective observer could possibly concur; while it is is therefore eminently arguable that the European far left,
true that some social democrats were in the forefront quickly joined by more mainstream elements, took up the
of opposition to totalitarianism, the “New Left” which cause against Israel because there was nowhere else to go.
emerged during the 1960s largely turned to a blind eye In other words, a collapsing ideological edifice, rather than
to human rights violations by those regimes it deemed a universalist concern with human rights, was the trigger.
to be “progressive”. The greatest human rights violators In our own time, although increasingly few influential
of the 20th century (with the exception only of the Nazis) people in modern Europe still adhere to Marxist or neo-
were communist governments in China and the Soviet Marxist dogma, there are vast numbers of people in politics
Union. Together with other tyrannies in countries such and in the media for whom such dogma was an important
as Ethiopia, North Korea and Cambodia, they combined part of their past. While they may have long thrown away
to produce a death toll in the high tens of millions. The the Old-Left text books, it is perhaps understandable that
European left, with few significant exceptions, was some are possessed of a yearning for a kind of validation
hardly at the forefront of the campaign to oppose this that not everything they once believed is worthless. The
despotism, and that is putting it kindly. The idea, there- case against Israel serves that purpose like no other.
fore, that support for the Palestinians from the European
left should be seen in terms of a particular instance of a
general predisposition to back the oppressed against their
oppressors does not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. “Traditionalist hostility to Israel may in part
A better explanation is to be found in an understand- be motivated by a residual antisemitism of
ing of the way leftist ideology itself was reinvented in the ‘I wouldn’t want Jews in my club’ variety”
response to its own internal failings. During the latter
half of the 1960s, it was becoming painfully clear to the
extreme left that traditional Marxist explanations of
historical development were evaporating before their For reasons that may at some level be related, Europe’s
very eyes. The European (let alone American) proletariat ancien, traditionalist right also functions as a bulwark
was becoming richer rather than poorer; it was more, not against the Jewish state, though with less influence than

Transitions in Collision: Europe’s Relations with Israel 4

its leftist rival. The traditionalists have largely lost out
in right-wing politics to centrist, neo-liberal and neo-
conservative ideological currents, all of which are usually
sympathetic to Israel. Nevertheless, it retains a presence
in some EU foreign ministries and in religious circles
such as the Church of England, which recently debated
divesting from companies with connections to Israel.
Traditionalist hostility to Israel may in part be moti-
vated by a residual antisemitism of the “I wouldn’t want
Jews in my club” variety. But it is also linked to a rejection
of those forces—America generally and Israel in the Middle
East in particular—that are seen to have upset the kind of
old world certainties which are constitutive of the tradition-
alists sense of nostalgia. The quasi-feudalistic, traditional-
ist character of much of the Arab world resonates with old
right values in a way that “upstart” Israel never could.
There is certainly a sense in which anti-Israelism unites
people and ideological viewpoints which feel that they
have lost out in the modern world. This may yet include
the supranationalists of the EU and their deeply held
belief that nationalism is an anachronism. For all across
the old continent, the evidence in recent years has been
pointing to a revival rather than a diminishing of national
(and nationalist) loyalties. From Kosovo and Montenegro
in the former Yugoslavia to the ongoing friction between
Dutch and French speakers in Belgium to the continu-
ing tensions over the degree of Scottish or Basque home
rule, it is clear that national sentiment is far from dead in
Europe. This does not mean that the European “project”
is finished. But it may mean that the supranationalist
assumptions of the most committed integrationists in the
European Union are going to be increasingly challenged.
This could create a third ideological constituency,
filled with resentment and anger that deeply held beliefs
have been disproved or cast aside by history. As the battle
rages, this may to some extent spill over into the debate
about Israel creating a new space for enemies but also a
new space for friends as well. As Dore Gold, Israel’s for-
mer ambassador to the United Nations, once put it, “the
struggle for Europe’s soul is still an open one”. And so
it is. Europe is a work in progress. It remains to be seen
how Israel will fare when one or other of the continent’s
various potential futures finally comes out on top.

Transitions in Collision: Europe’s Relations with Israel 5

1 Preamble to the treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community.
2 Figures refer to the 2004 survey.
3 Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Page 3.
4 In both the failed “constitution” and the Lisbon Treaty which succeeded it, references to the primacy of Europe’s Christian heritage were refused a place
against much recrimination from Poland and Spain.
5 Michael Gove, Celsius 7/7: How the West’s policy of appeasement has provoked yet more fundamentalist terrorand what has to be done now. Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
London, 2006. Pages 11-12.

Transitions in Collision: Europe’s Relations with Israel 6