Tag Archives: Europe

The successful demonization of Israel

The recent release of a new study by the London-based think tank Chatham House brought Israel-haters some widely cheered news, because the study includes the finding [pdf; p.12] that 35 percent of the British public feel “especially unfavorable” towards Israel. Writing at his Electronic Intifada blog, Ali Abunimah noted with great satisfaction that the Chatham House study showed that “Israel ranks as one of the world’s most unfavorably viewed countries among the UK public” and he concluded triumphantly that “these numbers indicate […] that the vast sums Israel has spent on propaganda or hasbara have made no dent in its unpopularity, while its continued occupation and repeated massacres in Gaza continue to affect public perceptions.” Linking to a post from 2013, Abunimah also pointed out that “results from the Chatham House survey confirm trends seen in other polls across the world, showing that Israel is consisently [sic] among the world’s most negatively viewed countries.”

While Abunimah’s last point is correct, both his blog post and a tweet that was popular among Israel-haters were wrong in asserting that only North Korea was seen more unfavorable than Israel.

Celebrating Israel demonizationApparently, Israel-haters all work from the same cherry-picked talking points and can’t be bothered to check them – because if they had checked the relevant table in the study, they would have realized that Russia was entitled to their “gold medal” as the country that was seen as “especially unfavorable” by a majority (56%) of the British public. But it would have been really awkward for Abunimah to crow about Russia’s propaganda efforts not paying off, since some of his best friends – like Max Blumenthal, for example, or Electronic Intifada contributor Rania Khalek – are popular guests on Putin’s well-financed mouthpiece RT. The channel has also featured various Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists, and neo-Nazis, and it reportedly provides a nice source of income for British politician George Galloway, who has been honored for his devotion to the Palestinian “cause” by Hamas leader Haniyeh and who supplements his salary as Member of Parliament with appearances on RT as well as Iranian and Lebanese TV.

While there is no reason to downplay the truly dedicated efforts of Abunimah and his ilk to do their part in order to ensure that the world’s only Jewish state is among the world’s least favorably viewed countries, the negative image of Israel that is once again reflected in the Chatham House study has long been promoted by a wide array of opinion shapers. As the Simon Wiesenthal Center put it in reaction to a 2003 poll that showed a majority of Europeans viewing Israel as the foremost threat to world peace, this result indicated “that Europeans have bought into the vilification and demonization campaign directed against the State of Israel and her supporters by European leaders and media.” However, other polls show that this is not only a European problem. World-wide polls conducted by the BBC for 2012 and 2013 ranked Israel as a country seen to have a mainly negative influence along with North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.

This is actually somewhat unfair to North Korea, Pakistan and Iran – at least if you form your world view on the basis of reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW). A recent post by blogger Elder of Ziyon provides a stark illustration of the pervasive demonization of Israel in a chart that tracks how often countries are mentioned in the new HRW 2015 “World Report.” According to this chart, only Syria – a country where in recent years not only hundreds of thousands have been killed, wounded or displaced, but where also more than 10 000 people have been systematically tortured to death – is mentioned more often than Israel.

EoZ HRW biasAnyone who needs some additional illustration of HRW’s preposterous bias should note that when the organization’s Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson recently learned that the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. was exhibiting some of the gruesome evidence of systematic torture in Syrian jails, she immediately demanded that the museum “should also show pics of death and destruction in #Gaza.”

In an exchange with Jeffrey Goldberg, Whitson later protested that she had neither intended to equate the recent war between Hamas and Israel with the Holocaust nor to suggest that Israel was guilty of genocide in Gaza; instead, she claimed she had just “urged showing of images of #Gaza destruction.”

Of course, one can hardly argue that images of the destruction in Gaza from the last war have been ignored by the media. Indeed, one recent example that would perhaps have pleased Whitson was a Sky News program on Holocaust Memorial Day that featured images of this destruction while the interviewer questioned the UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis about possible connections between Israel’s actions and the rise of antisemitism in Europe. Contrary to countless misleading media reports, Sky News did not apologize for suggesting a connection between Israel’s actions and rising antisemitism and merely acknowledged “that the particular circumstances of the use of the pictures from Gaza was unfortunate.”

Opinion shapers in the media and in NGOs like HRW have obviously a large part in the public’s long-documented negative view of the world’s only Jewish state. As Matti Friedman put it so well in a recent presentation:

“How have the doings in a country that constitutes 0.01 per cent of the world’s surface become the focus of angst, loathing, and condemnation more than any other? We must ask how Israelis and Palestinians have become the stylised symbol of conflict, of strong and weak, the parallel bars upon which the intellectual Olympians of the West perform their tricks.”

Friedman has previously explored the problematic media coverage of Israel in several superb articles; in this presentation, he argues that “the minute state inhabited by a persecuted minority in the Middle East is in fact [seen as] a symbol of the ills of the West – colonialism, nationalism, militarism, and racism.”

“The West today is preoccupied with a feeling of guilt about the use of power. That’s why the Jews, in their state, are now held up in the press and elsewhere as the prime example of the abuse of power. That’s why for so many the global villain, as portrayed in newspapers and on TV, is none other than the Jewish soldier, or the Jewish settler. This is not because the Jewish settler or soldier is responsible for more harm than anyone else on earth – no sane person would make that claim. It is rather because these are the heirs to the Jewish banker or Jewish commissar of the past. It is because when moral failure raises its head in the Western imagination, the head tends to wear a skullcap.”

Millions nodded along when the Nazis asserted that “the Jews are our misfortune.” Millions nowadays nod along when the media and NGOs suggest that the Jewish state is the world’s misfortune.

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First published on my JPost blog 02/12/2015; also published on the Polish blog Listy z naszego sadu.

Islam and the war of ideas

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published a very interesting post by George Packer on “Islamist Violence and a War of Ideas.” Packer began by giving “a very partial box score of global Islamist violence during the month of September.” Highlighting that “hundreds, of people…most of them Muslims…are being murdered every day, blown to pieces, burned alive, shot to death, beheaded, in the name of an extremely violent strain of Islam,” Packer argued that

“the violence flows from ideas, terrible ideas, about the meaning of Islam, the character of non-Muslims, and the duties of Muslims. These ideas are promulgated in mosques and coffee shops and schools, and on satellite TV and the Internet, with the aid of conspiracy theories, half-truths, deceptive editing, and lies.”

Packer warns that Americans, and presumably the West in general, must not be indifferent to this bloody violence even when its victims are primarily Muslims themselves. In his view, Americans have relied too much on fighting Islamist extremism by military means, while not giving “enough thought to… addressing the heart of the violence: the terrible ideas that license massacres in the name of religion.”

However, as Packer reports, there is a new initiative to fight these “terrible ideas.”  A recently created joint U.S.-Turkish fund to combat Islamist extremism, called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, is supposed “to identify and finance grassroots groups around the Muslim world that will do the difficult work of opposing extremist ideas at home.” As Packer emphasizes, the “American role would be very much in the background;” indeed, he notes that “Americans are not in a position, morally or practically, to lead this effort.” Instead, “citizens, organizations, and governments of key Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, would take the lead.”

While I agree that America can’t lead this “effort” for practical reasons, it seems to me that giving Saudi Arabia and Pakistan a leading role in combatting Islamist extremism is like putting a pyromaniac in charge of the fire brigade.

No less problematic is Packer’s failure to fully acknowledge what it means that the Islamist violence he denounces so wholeheartedly flows indeed, as he himself writes, “from ideas, terrible ideas, about the meaning of Islam, the character of non-Muslims, and the duties of Muslims.” These “terrible ideas” are by no means propagated by just a handful of extremists; indeed, Packer rightly notes that they “are promulgated in mosques and coffee shops and schools, and on satellite TV and the Internet.”

In other words, these “terrible ideas” are mainstream Muslim fare – which means that in the politically-correct West, non-Muslims are generally expected to refrain from any criticism.

A good example for an influential Muslim leader who spreads truly terrible ideas is Yusuf Qaradawi. Many millions of Muslims regard Qaradawi as a great scholar and, due to his enormous influence, he has even been described as the “Global Mufti”. Among the terrible ideas Qaradawi has propagated is his fervent belief in a divinely ordained battle between “all Muslims and all Jews,” his view that the Holocaust was well-deserved “divine punishment” for the Jews, and his hope that “the next time will be at the hand of the believers.” Yet, the politically-correct view of Qaradawi (expressed e.g. by a widely respected Middle East expert in the influential magazine Foreign Affairs) is that we should politely ignore Qaradawi’s genocidal Jew-hatred and instead appreciate him as a leading Muslim moderate:

“He [Qaradawi] is best known for his doctrine of wasatiyya, or ‘centrism,’ which lays out a middle ground between secularism and fundamentalism. He rejects the doctrinal extremism of the Salafists and the violent extremism of al Qaeda[…] At the same time, he often takes issue with U.S. foreign policy and is certainly hostile toward Israel, not to mention being a highly successful proselytizer of the Islamist worldview. This potent mixture may be troubling, but it largely defines the mainstream Muslim position. Indeed, one of the keys to Qaradawi’s popularity is his ability to anticipate Arab and Muslim views; […]  Qaradawi is a barometer of Muslim opinion as much as a cause of it.”

The message here is clear: if the “mainstream Muslim position” reflects a “troubling” mixture, the West should simply be grateful that it’s not worse…

Qaradawi genocidal prayer

Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradawi leads a prayer for the annihilation of the Jews, broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar) – January 9, 2009 (MEMRI screenshot)

Maybe this is a very pragmatic approach, but it hardly provides a sound footing for fighting a “war of ideas.”

Indeed, when it comes to Islam, the West seems very reluctant to engage in fighting any “war of ideas,” despite the fact that particularly in Europe, the radicalization of fast-growing Muslim minorities is very worrisome. An excellent feature essay for the November cover of Standpoint Magazine is devoted to the question if the West is losing “The War For The Soul Of Islam.” Author Douglas Murray notes early on that historically, “in the battle for the soul of Islam the extremists tend to win” and he concludes pessimistically:

“it is assumed that Islam is like all other religions, that suspicion of Islam is as dangerous as suspicion of any other religion. In short, they [British and Western governments] have tried to treat Islam like any other faith. And the problem is that it is not. Not just because Islam behaves in significantly different ways from other faiths, but because at the very point  that it is swiftly growing in our own countries its global direction of travel is consistently regressive.”

Several of Murray’s central observations are confirmed in a recent post on the popular blog Harry’s Place, where a liberal Muslim notes despondently that nowadays, Muslim leaders in the West “can happily believe and even state publicly that the death penalty should apply to anyone who has sex outside of marriage, takes part in a homosexual act, insults the Prophet or leaves Islam without being [criticized as] ‘extreme’.”

So maybe instead of spending resources on funding an unpromising campaign to combat Islamic extremism in countries whose governments continue to promote fundamentalist Islam, the West would be better off to stop the appeasement of Muslim reactionaries and instead start vigorously supporting reform-minded Muslims in Europe and the US?

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First published November 1, 2013, at my JPost blog.

 

Quote of the day

“Classical anti-Semitism, it should be remembered, proclaimed the Jews as a minority group to be an existential menace to a given nation—a danger to its internal homogeneity, unity, religious values, and racial purity. Postwar anti-Zionism, on the other hand, sees the nation of Israel above all as a deadly threat to world peace and the international order. This was the verdict of nearly 60 percent of Europeans polled in a Euro-Barometery Survey in October 2003, when Israel reached the number-one spot in the hit parade of nations that imperil universal tranquility and brotherhood. Yet the change is not as deep as one might assume.

Democratic Europe in the 21st century trades in characterizations not so different from the pre-1939 Fascist myth of ‘warmongering Jews’ or the Communist libels in the 1970s about the militarist, expansionist ‘essence’ of Zionism. For a growing segment of the Western liberal intelligentsia, Zionist Israel is caricatured as a fascist, racist, warmongering state that must be isolated from the community of nations. Today, long after the demise of Communism, democratic intellectuals and academic elites are reproducing some of the worst Soviet clichés about Israel. In that respect, they remind us of the ‘post-Christian’ late-19th-century racist anti-Semites who demonized the Jews in ways reminiscent of the clerical bigots whom they denounced.”

Professor Robert S. Wistrich, “The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism” – an essay based on a presentation to a forum of the European parliament in the summer of 2012.

 

Quote of the day

“Since 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has designated the last Friday of Ramadan “Al-Quds Day,” leading worldwide protests calling for the destruction of Israel. In that spirit, over 1,000 protesters […]  marched through downtown Berlin on Saturday denouncing Israel and praising Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon.

Unlike the neo-Nazis rocking out to “white power” music in a secluded cornfield [during a NPD event at a remote location a week earlier], the Islamists calling for the destruction of the Jewish state in the heart of the German capital did not stir the consciences of the country’s major political parties. As opposed to the 2,000 people who trekked out to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern [to protest the NPD event], only 300 or so anti-Islamist protesters, the majority of them affiliated with Jewish organizations, held a separate counter-demonstration, where the only political figure to speak was a former member of the German Bundestag.

In a free society, extremists ought to be able to say whatever they like. But a graver issue was highlighted by last Saturday’s open support for Hezbollah. The European Union, unlike its allies in Australia, Canada and the United States, refuses to treat the faction as a terrorist group, allowing it to organize and raise funds. The New York Times describes Germany as “a center of activity” for the group.

[…] Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, it’s reassuring to know that Germany has “no place for Neonazis.” A more pressing question is why it has room for those carrying on their legacy.”

James Kirchick in a Ha’aretz article entitled “A perverse quid pro quo.” This title (which may well have been chosen by Ha’aretz editors) refers to Kirchick’s argument that “European governments have fashioned a perverse quid pro quo whereby they permit a foreign terrorist organization to operate on their soil, provided that its targets are Israeli, not European.” However, this point is arguably secondary to Kirchick’s much more important argument that both German officials and the German public can be counted on to take a firm stand against German neo-Nazis,  while remaining apparently oblivious to the Nazi-style antisemitism that is so openly championed by the Iranian regime and its allies like Hezbollah.

Reading through any list of statements by Iranian officials on Israel will quickly reveal that, just as Nazi propaganda relentlessly repeated the slogan “Die Juden sind unser Unglück!” – i.e. the Jews are our misfortune –, Iranian regime officials relentlessly incite hatred and revulsion against the Jewish state.  Yet, supporters and allies of this regime can freely march through Germany’s capital to celebrate a day dedicated to anticipating the annihilation of the world’s only Jewish state.

Think Progress on preconditions for negotiations

A recent piece on the ThinkProgress blog offers a very critical take on the views expressed by US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Graham had declared in a Fox News interview that he would like the US to “tell the Iranians, no negotiations, stop enriching, open up the site on the bottom of the mountain, a secret site. Then we will talk about lifting sanctions. You are not going to get to enrich uranium any more, period.”

Ali Gharib, national security reporter for ThinkProgress, characterized this as a “curious take on what it means to negotiate” and argued: “Graham’s position prompts one to ask: What’s the alternative to negotiations, since Graham is proposing pre-conditions that Iran would never meet?”

It is not clear if this is always Gharib’s view when it comes to preconditions for negotiations. A few days before he posted the piece on Graham, he wrote about the EU condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies. While he also noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas had “rebuffed” Israeli offers for talks without preconditions and was insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze, he didn’t highlight the continued Palestinian insistence on preconditions as particularly problematic. Indeed, since the piece concluded by noting that the “international community and the U.S. consider the settlements ‘illegitimate’” and that there had been many calls for “halting settlement activity,” the implication was that the Palestinian insistence on preconditions was ultimately justified.

The persistent obsession with the barely two percent of West Bank territory taken up by Israeli building beyond the so-called “Green Line” since 1967 has long been skillfully fed by the Palestinians and their supporters, who understand very well that the myth of the “ever-growing settlements” is an easy sell to audiences around the world eager to blame Israel for the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By contrast, there is precious little interest in the fact that ever since former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was left without a response to his far-reaching proposals in 2008, the Palestinians have done everything possible to avoid the resumption of negotiations. Insisting on preconditions has been part of their strategy.

Blogger Michael Koplow has an interesting post on this subject – even though his title “The Pitfalls of Preconditions” already indicates that he starts from the assumption that the Palestinians actually do want to negotiate. Koplow argues that the Palestinian “preconditions gambit” is a “negotiating mistake” and he points out:

“the Palestinian Authority committed the crucial mistake of setting preconditions before coming to the negotiating table. As every first year law student required to read the seminal negotiation treatise Getting To Yes can tell you, setting preconditions to negotiating is a tactic that almost always fails. The book’s very first lesson is not to bargain over positions as it is inefficient, damages the relationship between parties, and leads to bad agreements. Tactics such as setting preconditions and refusing to negotiate until they are met are fated to backfire if the objective is to reach an agreement, as the other side is likely to dig in and paint the refusal to negotiate as evidence of bad faith. Over time, the party setting the preconditions will become hostage to the perception that it has no interest in reaching a deal, and will then be forced to maintain its principled position even when events on the ground put it at a disadvantage or give up credibility and leverage by dropping its demand entirely. In short, setting preconditions before agreeing to negotiate an agreement is rarely going to be a winning strategy.”

However, at the end of his post, Koplow notes:

“The question is whether the PA actually wants to have serious negotiations at this point in time or is just looking to win a p.r. battle with Israel. If it’s the latter, then setting preconditions makes sense since it highlights Israeli settlement activity […] If the objective is to actually negotiate though, Abbas and Erekat need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start.”

It is noteworthy in this context that by now, the list of Palestinian preconditions includes not only another freeze on construction in the territories Israel captured in 1967, but also the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the official recognition of the pre-1967 lines as basis for negotiations, implying their acceptance as a legitimate de-facto border.

Taken together with the repeated Palestinian rejections of serious offers to enable them to establish a state, this growing list of preconditions points to the conclusion that it’s not the Palestinians who “need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start” – it’s the politicians and pundits who lazily ignore every indication that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in a negotiated two-state solution which would require them to give up on the fantasy of a “right of return.”

Ashton praises the Palestinian sense of identity fostered by UNRWA

The widespread criticism of a recent speech by the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was perhaps not entirely deserved, because the impression that she was drawing a parallel between the deadly shooting attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse and IDF operations in Gaza was at least partly due to a faulty transcript of her speech, which left out her mention of Sderot – the city that is most affected by the rockets from Gaza.

But there was arguably a reason why many Israeli politicians and commentators reacted so angrily – and why one Hamas official rushed to Ashton’s defense, arguing that she “deserves thanks, appreciation, and support in the face of Zionist attempts to terrorize and pressure her.”

As a report in the EU Observer points out:

“The Ashton controversy comes at a difficult time in EU-Israeli relations. A series of recently leaked internal EU reports has depicted Israel as stealing Palestinian land and water, trampling on the rights of Arab-Israeli citizens and giving settlers free rein to assault Palestinian farmers. […]

An EU diplomat earlier told this website that Ashton’s visit to Gaza in 2010, where she saw first-hand the squalid living conditions and fear of Israeli air strikes, was ‘a life-changing experience’ for the British politician.”

Indeed, Ashton’s recent speech (pdf) confirms that she is very sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view. Consider her lengthy praise for UNRWA, the UN organization exclusively devoted to Palestinian refugees and their descendants:

“Let me just say a little bit too about what the European Union believes is so important about UNRWA […] It’s not a coincidence that the European Union is the biggest and the most loyal donor. Our donor activity started in 1971 and in the last 11 years we provided over € 1.3 billion in support of UNRWA’s work – along with contributions from EU Member States, the EU overall contributions in 2010 and 2011 accounted for almost 40% of the total support. It is a big effort in difficult financial circumstances.

And I believe it is because it matters so much. I am not giving you figures so that you feel a sense of success from the EU, but so you would feel a sense of commitment from the European Union. Our support goes to where it matters most: health, schools, humanitarian needs, and shelter. The ultimate goal however is for Palestinians to be masters of their own fate, in their own state.

Our goal, consistently spelt out over time, is supporting the creation of a Palestinian state that will not need to depend on donor support, will stand in its own right and will exist in peace and security side by side with all its neighbours. […] we leave no stone unturned and we will do everything possible to try and meet circumstances for the completion of the Middle East Peace Process. We know too that the Palestinian refugees face additional challenges; they leave [sic!] in countries which even after so many years they cannot consider home. This is why UNRWA’s work is so special: it has gone beyond the provision of universal needs and helped them establish a sense of identity that otherwise is lost to the world, an identity which people here are absolutely proud of. And that comes about through many things that UNRWA does.”

[Emphasis added]

The highlighted sentence in this quoted passage is truly remarkable, because the EU’s foreign policy chief basically agrees here with the preposterous Arab notion of “positive discrimination,” which is simply a euphemism for the cynical policies of the Arab states that claim they are doing the Palestinians a favor by barring them from integrating into the countries they live in and forcing them to artificially preserve a distinct identity that focuses on the unrealistic demand of a “right of return”. (See e.g. “No refuge: Palestinians in Lebanon.”  Working Papers Series No. 64, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, June 2010; pdf)

To be sure, Ashton is in a way quite right, because UNRWA is indeed “special”: while the many millions of other refugees from the late 1940s were expected to adjust themselves pragmatically to changed political realities, UNRWA enabled the Arab states that had failed in their efforts to undo Israel’s establishment to keep the Palestinian refugees as political pawns who would pass on their refugee status for generations in order to keep their grievances alive and politically potent.

The problematic role of UNRWA has often been criticized, most recently by the Palestinian writer and academic Mudar Zahran, who passionately argued that “UNRWA’s persistence in keeping the Palestinians refugees in abysmal, overcrowded slums is harming the Palestinians” and suggested that it might be time to conclude that UNRWA has become “an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.”

Zahran also points out that “UNRWA is now the UN’s largest entity with over 30,000 employees. It is such a boondoggle of a jobs program, it almost cannot let the Palestinian refugee problem be solved: if it did, 30,000 people would be out of work.”

Europe’s diplomat-in-chief Baroness Ashton seems oblivious of this criticism of UNRWA’s part in the cynical perpetuation of a refugee-status for Palestinians living in Arab countries – and  scandalously, Palestinian “refugees” living in Hamas-ruled Gaza or the PA-ruled parts of the West Bank don’t fare much better, because even there, the “refugee camps” continue to exist.

It is remarkable how rarely this issue is addressed given the plentiful media coverage of all things Palestinian. One of the few recent reports was published in January 2011 in the German magazine Cicero under the title “Palestine: Refugees of their own choice;” an English translation under the perhaps even more fitting title “Refugees from reality” is available at the blog of Elder of Ziyon.

The author of the article, Ingo Way, first describes his meeting with a young Palestinian woman by the name of Khouloud Al Ajarma who, after studying in Britain, works at the community center of the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. Summing up his impressions, Way writes:

“What I find so frightening about Khouloud Al Ajarma is not so much her complete lack of self-criticism. It’s not so much her radicalism […] What really frightened me is this: No representative of the UN, who built the schools and community centers in Aida, nor the EU, who gives the refugee camps such as this financial support, nor the employees of all the Western aid agencies and NGOs that are active here- none of them would tell Khouloud straight out that her demands are not only inhuman – because of course they count on the expulsion and disenfranchisement of Jews in Israel, and this is still the most favorable interpretation – but also unrealistic. Not one says, ‘You will not get your demands. Work instead towards a peaceful compromise with the Israelis, advocate for a two-state solution and waive your threatening right to return. Finally take over responsibility for yourself and your own people, build an infrastructure and tear down the refugee camps. Stop getting nannied by the UN and the EU, get a grip on things yourselves.’ No one tells them this because no one thinks that way. No one is bothered by the graffiti, which is found on every house, showing an undivided Palestine and reaffirming the explicit Palestinian claim even over Greater Tel Aviv.”

With her recent speech, EU foreign policy chief Ashton has of course encouraged just the opposite of what Ingo Way rightly described as the only reasonable and realistic approach to promote peaceful coexistence between Israel and a future Palestinian state. But for Ashton, “UNRWA’s work is so special” precisely because it allows Palestinians to hold on to their decades-old rejectionism by helping them to “establish a sense of identity that otherwise is lost to the world, an identity which people here are absolutely proud of.” The “sense of identity” Ashton finds so praiseworthy is of course exactly the sense of an aggrieved refugee identity that Khouloud Al Ajarma advocates when she says: “We want no normalization… We want to remain refugees to exercise our right of return one day.”

In view of Ashton’s problematic praise for the Palestinian sense of identity fostered by UNRWA, there is reason to wonder if it reflects just her own ambivalence to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It is arguably noteworthy in this context that while her speech included a reference to the EU’s commitment to a Palestinian state that “will exist in peace and security side by side with all its neighbours,” she avoided mentioning Israel.

Some may feel that this is making a mountain out of a molehill, but speeches by diplomats are often scrutinized for nuances – and the nuances conveyed in this speech by Europe’s diplomat-in-chief don’t necessarily inspire confidence in Europe’s commitment to the formula of two states for two peoples.

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilization’

Guest post by Nathan West*

Civilization: the West and the rest, by Niall Ferguson is a fascinating book, which I wholeheartedly recommend because it offers an original take on the West’s rise to global dominance and an interesting view about what constitutes the biggest threat to Western civilization.

As Professor Ferguson sees things, it was not at all obvious some five hundred years ago that the West – meaning, roughly, the European countries (and now the US and Canada) – would dominate the planet. In fact, China and the Muslim Ottoman Empire were, for a considerable time, both more advanced and more prosperous than Europe. With that in mind, Ferguson sets out to explain how it is that the West came to dominate the world and, having done so, he examines the question whether it can maintain its dominance.

To illustrate China’s impressive achievements, Ferguson discusses, among other factors, Chinese exploration. We learn that in the early 15th century, China built a massive treasure ship, nearly 5 times the size of Columbus’ ship, the Santa María. It was part of a fleet “of more than 300 huge ocean-going junks […which] were far larger than anything being built in fifteenth-century Europe,” with 28,000 man combined crew, thus making China’s navy the largest in the world until the time of World War I. (p. 54). The fleet sailed far and wide “to Thailand, Sumatra, Java and the once-great port of Calicut (today’s Kozhikode in Kerala); to Temasek (later Singapore), Malacca and Ceylon; to Cuttack in Orissa; to Hormuz, Aden and up the Red Sea to Jeddah.” However, when Emperor Yongle died, the voyages were suspended and exploration effectively came to an end. “From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts was liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime even to go to sea in such a ship.” (p. 54).

China’s technological prowess was not limited to sea exploration. China brought the world printing, among many other useful inventions:

It was the Chinese who first revolutionized textile production with innovations like the spinning wheel and the silk reeling frame, imported to Italy in the thirteenth century. […] Other Chinese innovations include chemical insecticide, the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. […] Jiao Yu and Liu Ji’s book Huolongjing, published in the late fourteenth century, describes land and sea mines, rockets and hollow cannonballs filled with explosives. Even as late as 1788,  British iron-production levels were still lower than those achieved in China in 1078. (p. 52).

Notwithstanding these impressive achievements, China lacked the qualities which, according to Ferguson, allowed the West to eventually dominate China. Since the book is about Europe and the West, China and the Muslim Empires serve mainly as the foil for showing what allowed the West to gain its advantage.

Ferguson’s explanation of the decline of China and the Ottoman Empire highlights the fact that in both countries, society turned inward. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the clerical class came to dominate, and, in the name of religion, precluded even the use of such inventions as the printing press. By the time the Ottoman Empire came to understand its looming demise, it was too late to salvage the Empire, which collapsed after the Ottoman defeat in WWI.

The role that religion played in the demise of the Ottoman Empire can also be seen in the fact that, while Muslims were not permitted to use the printing press, non-Muslims were permitted to do so – a point Ferguson does not mention. In fact, non-Muslims had been using the printing press from early on, as noted by Bernard Lewis in his brilliant study The Muslim Discovery Of Europe. This innovation was denied to Muslims because the sacred language of Islam, Arabic, used the same characters as the language spoken by Muslims including those we now call Turks. It is also to be noted that the printing press did not spread to the Arab regions – at least for its Muslim population – until the 19th century. For the Arabs, Arabic was the written language and it was the religion’s sacred language. Hence, it was not to be desecrated by the printed page.

To the extent that Ferguson appears to place the bulk of the blame for the decline of the Ottoman Empire (and, to some extent, China) on religion, I think he is surely mistaken, although religion’s impact ought not be underestimated either. As Professor Lewis notes with reference to Islamic civilization, curiosity about the unknown has not been a trait of very many societies throughout history; rather, inward directed societies are the norm in history. Thus, investigation of the unknown is one thing that sets European societies apart from other societies. It is therefore the “normal” lack of curiosity in the Muslim regions, not Islam, that should be regarded as a major reason for the failure of the Islamic world to keep up with the West.

Ferguson, in pointing to internal causes, hopes to undercut the argument that imperialism was the dominant cause for the West’s rise. Obviously, the Ottoman Empire was also an imperial power, as Lewis rightly notes.  Ottoman policy brought their empire to the outskirts of Vienna as late as the 1680s only to be turned back, once and for good, in 1683. After that, it was one humiliating defeat after the next. Importantly, however, the decline of both China and the Ottoman Empire preceded imperial dominance by the West.

Most of Civilization focuses on answering Ferguson’s central question why the West came to dominate the world, and on pages 308 – 309, he presents a short summary of his answers:

Why did the West dominate the Rest and not vice versa? I have argued that it was because the West developed six killer applications that the Rest lacked. These were:

1. Competition, in that Europe itself was politically fragmented and that within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities

2. The Scientific Revolution, in that all the major seventeenth-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe

3. The rule of law and representative government, in that an optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected legislatures

4. Modern medicine, in that nearly all the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century breakthroughs in healthcare, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans

5. The consumer society, in that the Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments

6. The work ethic, in that Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labour with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation. Continue reading

Europe’s failing elites

I recently looked up the quote warning about the looming “night of fascism” and found to my delight that – according to Walter Russell Mead – it was “the portentous German novelist Günter Grass [who] once warned that the ‘dark night of fascism was falling on America’” and that the American novelist Tom Wolfe riposted “Why is it that ‘the dark night of fascism’ is always falling on America — and always landing on Europe?” [My own view on Grass is here.]

Keeping this in mind – and keeping in mind that Europe is constantly worried about Israel’s political direction – let’s contemplate this scenario:

Imagine a world in which President Obama, Mitt Romney and Pat Buchanan were all running in the presidential election and Buchanan was polling just one or two percentage points behind the other contenders. Is this likely to happen in America? No. But it is happening right now in France.

This is (again) Walter Russell Mead, in a post entitled “Le Pen Is Mightier Than Before.” Mead points out that given the French electoral system, there is no reason (yet) to worry, because Marine Le Pen would almost certainly be kept from the presidency in a second run-off election – just as her father was back in 2002.

However, as noted in the New York Times report to which Mead links, a recent poll has shown “that 31 percent of the French were ‘in agreement with the ideas of the National Front,’ up from 22 percent a year ago and 11 percent in 1999,” and analysts think that “it won’t be a big surprise” if Marine Le Pen managed to get into the second round.

In this context it is interesting to read Francis Fukuyama’s two recent posts on “European Identities.” The first post examines how different European countries have dealt with Muslim immigrant assimilation (and Fukuyama actually argues that France has done relatively well on this count); the second post focuses on the lack of a European identity. I think in both posts, Fukuyama identifies a number of problems and challenges that Israel is also facing when it comes to its minorities. But while Israel may not have any reason to gloat about Europe’s problems, European elites definitely have no reason to feel entitled to preach to Israel – at least if you agree with Fukuyama’s verdict:

Now, let me just conclude by saying that these issues that I have discussed- immigration, national level identity and European level identity-in the next years are going to merge as really the same issue because these are the central issues of all the new populist parties that have arisen all over the continent of Europe. That is to say, opposition to immigration and Euro-scepticism. We have older parties like the Front National in France and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium. But in the last decade we have seen the emergence of new ones, the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, True Finn Party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) […] in Switzerland. Opposition to Europe and immigration has a common source amongst all these parties. It is basically a populist impulse. It is a feeling that the needs of ordinary citizens have been ignored by the elite with regards to both the deepening of the European Union and to immigration issues. […]

And to be quite honest, the whole European project has been an elite-driven affair. We know that on several occasions when the issue of agreeing to a treaty was put up for popular referendum and when the people gave the wrong answer, the elite would say the people were wrong about that, they are going to have to vote again. So, I think that in a sense the rise of populism reflects in a certain way the deepening of democracy in Europe: the public is not going to be lead along by their elites like they were in the first decades after the Second World War. But it [also] means that there are tremendous dangers for European democracy that lie ahead in the immediate future. I think we all recognize in the European Union that an important process either deepens it or it begins to split apart. The current middle ground is not one that is sustainable.

[…] The deepening project, that is to say to moving from monetary to fiscal union, may make sense in terms of economics, but it is going to have a tremendous number of political costs that need to be taken into account. There is absolutely no grassroots support in Europe for this deepening project; this is again going to be an elite-driven affair […] undertaken for largely technical economic reasons. It is actually something that is already stimulating the renationalization of Europe. […] And it also forces conditions that amount to the suspension of democracy in Europe, now you have technocrats running the governments of Italy and Greece that were not elected in normal fashion by their constituents. The reason why they are there is because of the conditions set not by the Italian and Greek public but set by other parts of Europe. This kind of deepening both on the part by Northern and Southern countries is going to lead to doubts about political accountability in both of the halves. All of this is being undertaken against the background of a prolonged and deepening economic crisis. In many respects this identity problem is one that we all need to think about very deeply; it is one that will come back, I guarantee you, in our politics in the near future.

So how’s Europe doing?

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.

 

UPDATE:

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.