Hatred of Jews, U.S. unifies Europeans

April 26, 2002|By Andrei S. Markovits

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Rarely in its postwar history has European public opinion been so united over a crisis as in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Most public opinion polls show a solid majority favoring the Palestinians, the only differences being in the degrees of harshness with which Israel's actions have been judged.

To be sure, Europe's political extremes have always hated Israel: the right, never abandoning anti-Semitism even after the defeat of fascism, disdained Israel because of its Jewishness. The left, reasonably warm toward a Labor-led Israel until the 1967 Six-Day War, spurned it by virtue of what was perceived as its militarism and racism, and -- of course -- for being an American ally.

The extremes come full circle, nowhere more convincingly than on matters related to Israel, Jews and the United States.

But even here, recent demonstrations furnished a new picture since it was often impossible to tell where left began and right ended.

In Berlin, for example, radical leftists joined radical rightists in burning Israeli flags with swastikas on them. With hair length and dress codes no longer certain markers of political allegiance, these demonstrations became expressions of the merger of radical right and left on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in much of Western Europe.

More surprising still, of course, is the considerable consensus among the large middle of the European political classes, among whom many have expressed their frustrations with Israel with unusual acerbity and indignation. Few, if any, crises have inspired such broad consensus in recent European history.

Consider the last one: the four wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.

Disagreement raged from the first shots fired against Slovenia and Croatia in the summer of 1991 all the way to the demise of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in the wake of Serbia's defeat in the Kosovo conflict 10 years later.

Protests dominated the European spring of 1999 as well when NATO launched its military campaign against Yugoslavia. But in marked contrast to the marches that have occurred now, these were much smaller in number and had fewer participants.

While in the earlier marches, too, one could observe an alliance between radical leftists and rightists in their opposition to NATO, most Europeans remained aloof. Moreover, public opinion remained sharply divided between those in favor of NATO's intervention as an act of liberation and others opposing it as American imperialism.

What, then, explains the contrasting consensus in European opinion on the Middle East three years later? And what accounts for the passions that accompany these views?

Certainly there reappeared the anti-Semitism that had never departed but simply lay dormant during the postwar period.

More important is timing. It was only with the demise of the Cold War that World War II had truly ended. This meant that the vectors of yore -- American hegemony, European subservience to that hegemony and taboos regarding public expressions of anti-Jewish opinion -- no longer applied.

One could not only, in perfectly good company, decry everything American in the same breath that one made derogatory remarks about Jews and Israel; one was actually expected to.

Europe's irritation at the United States has less to do with policy differences than with values.

When Europeans in the 1990s embarked on the arduous process of building the European Union, they raised the issue of having different, perhaps incompatible, values than those of Americans. While it will long remain a question what values and identities Europeans themselves share, it is becoming clear that they have begun to embrace one negative value with considerable fervor: that of not being American.

This helps explain why many Europeans fast abandoned their post-Sept. 11 sympathies for the United States and reverted to their default of seeing America as an uncouth bully.

By viewing Israel as an extension of the United States, this mechanism of a negative identity reaches to the Middle East as well. It is not so much sympathy for the Palestinians but antipathy for the Israelis that drives European opinion in this crisis -- an antipathy that draws much of its vigor from hostile feelings toward the United States.

Andrei S. Markovits is a professor of German and European politics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is co-author of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton University Press, 2001).

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