It is well known how deeply concerned European states and the EU are about anything Israel is doing. The Europeans worry about every apartment building approved in a Jerusalem neighborhood, they worry about the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens – indeed, their “to worry” list is so long that even the way chicken are raised in Israel is considered a newsworthy topic by a major media outlet…
It is in no small measure due to Europe’s keen interest in every Israeli move that, as Alan Dershowitz recently noted, the “sad reality is that there are no purely domestic issues in Israel.” In part, the lavish attention Europe devotes to Israel is motivated by Europe’s desire to be a player at the world stage.
Arguably, Europe is not just engaging in empty talk: as noted in a recent Jerusalem Post editorial, European governments reportedly “spend more on left-wing NGOs operating in Israel – between $75 million and $100m. a year – than their total contributions to nonprofit human rights groups in other Middle East countries.”
How’s that for priorities?
Unfortunately, it seems that in their dedication to keeping Israel on the right (i.e. left) political track, Europeans haven’t gotten around to dealing with some very worrisome developments closer to home.
As Walter Russell Mead writes in a recent essay under the ominous title “‘Fascist Zombies’ From Hungary Threaten EU”:
We already have 1930s style economic problems in much of Europe; is fascism next?
If the current Hungarian government gets its way, maybe so. The government of Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, is pushing the country away from democracy and toward authoritarian nationalist rule with anti-Semitic undertones. […]
These developments are troubling in themselves; even a mild and watery form of fascism should have no place in Europe today. But the problem with Hungary is more than a local problem. It testifies to the impotence and weak governance of Europe as a whole. The laws and regulations of the EU fill thousands of volumes and binders and the lush growth of its many institutions and bureaucracies is the envy and inspiration of civil servants around the world.
But as we have seen, Europe is incapable of managing the problems of monetary union; and as we are learning in Hungary, its resources to defend democracy in an erring member state are not great. The EU is better at writing laws than enforcing them, better and enunciating grand principles than at working things out on the ground. […]
Hungary could be to Europe’s political project as Greece has been to its economic goal — a small country whose failures exposed the weakness of the wider European agenda. The rise of fascism in a European country is a greater threat to the EU project than the prospect of bankruptcy in some peripheral economies; it is not at all clear that the EU could do anything at all about the destruction of what remains of Hungarian democracy.
Commenter N.Friedman provides a very interesting link to a 2006 article by Richard L. Rubenstein who argues that European policies towards Israel have been heavily influenced by “Europe’s surrender” in the face of the 1973 Arab oil embargo.
In his conclusion, Rubenstein writes that “Europe’s new anti-Semitism is the result of a foreign policy rooted in European dependence on Arab oil.” While I think there is much merit to this argument, I believe there are additional factors that are entirely independent of Europe’s energy “Realpolitik”. Rubenstein himself quotes the results of a German study conducted by the University of Bielefeld that showed in 2004 that 68 percent of native Germans believed “that Israel is waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians, while 51 percent believe there is not much difference between what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians and what the Nazis did to the Jews.”
In order to appreciate these results, it’s important to note that in German, the term “war of extermination” clearly refers to the “Vernichtungskrieg” conducted by the Nazis; another point to keep in mind is that the results must be evaluated against the background of the media coverage on the so-called “Al-Aqsa” intifada, which was arguably also reflected in the results of a 2003 Eurobarometer poll that found that 59 percent of EU citizens regarded Israel as the greatest threat to world peace.
While embarrassed European officials tried to dismiss these poll results as some kind of aberration, subsequent polls showed similar results. To quote just one example: A BBC poll published in March 2007 revealed that Israel was viewed as the country with the most negative influence in the world; interestingly, Germany was the European country with the largest percentage of respondents who viewed Israel in these terms: 77 percent of Germans rated Israel’s influence as negative — even in some Muslim countries, Israel actually fared slightly better.
For Europeans, and Germans in particular, there is an obvious psychological “benefit” to viewing Israelis as comparable to the Nazis, because it helps to retroactively cast the victims of European and German antisemitism as people who might have done a lot of harm had they lived to get the chance.
In other words – and to put it bluntly – there is a “politically correct” translation of the Nazi slogan “die Juden sind unser Unglück”, i.e. the Jews are our misfortune: unfortunately, even without Arab prodding and irrespective of Muslim sentiments, all too many Europeans are inclined to believe that the tiny Jewish state that, ever since its modern rebirth, has been surrounded by implacably hostile neighbors should be compared to the Nazis and be seen as a frightening threat to the world.
This is arguably one major reason why criticizing Israel is much more popular in Europe than paying attention to some of the alarming developments in Hungary.