Europe’s Dangerous Banalities

by Shlomo Ben-Ami Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. 03.02.2009

JERUSALEM - Europe's vocation for peacemaking and for international norms of behavior is bound to become the base upon which Barack Obama will seek to reconstruct the transatlantic alliance that his predecessor so badly damaged. How fast America's new president addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict will be of paramount concern to Europeans in this effort. For to them, Jerusalem has always mattered more than Baghdad, but George W. Bush refused to listen.

Europe's inability to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict does not stem from its positions on the core issues, which are only microscopically different from those held by the United States. Its impotence stems, instead, from its attitude toward the Jewish state. In essence, dialectic of attraction and rejection is embedded in our collective conscience as Jews and Europeans. Europe, as Denis de Rougemont put it in 1946, is "la patrie de la memoire," a tormenting and tormented memory, one must admit.

The old continent suffers from two guilt complexes that have much to do with Israel: the colonial and the Jewish complex. The Palestinian tragedy is directly affected by this European affliction.

Israel was born as a state out of the gravest crisis of the European conscience. For Europeans, Israel's creation was to compensate for the sins committed against the Jewish people. But the price that was supposedly paid by the Palestinians touched another neuralgic lobe in the European mind. Because Europe remains entangled in this seemingly insoluble conundrum, Israelis see it as trying to compensate for its lack of political effectiveness in Middle East diplomacy with unbearably self-righteous and moralistic talk.

To the Israelis, Europe became the essayist Mario Andrea Rigoni's "old lady, who after she had allowed herself all sorts of liberties…and a great number of horrors, would like, once she has reached the age of society, fatigue, and weakness, to see the world adapt itself to her needs for moderation, equity, and peace."

It took Europe gruesome religious wars, two world wars, and more than one genocide to resolve its endemic disputes over borders and nationalism. Its record in colonialism wrote monstrous pages in human history. Now Europe is making Israelis feel not only that it is indifferent to their existential predicament, but that, rather than fighting for life against tremendous odds, Israel is committing European-style crimes. Are some Europeans, many Israelis ask, attempting to use Israel as a means to rid themselves of guilt over the Jewish question, and with it the Jews' unbearable claim to moral superiority, by lightheartedly equating them with the perpetrators of the Shoah?

Israel, as the territorial answer to the old Jewish fears, tends to take decisions only on the basis of worst-case scenarios. Its new doctrine of "brutal response" when attacked from lands from which it has withdrawn - as happened in Lebanon and Gaza - might be reprehensible, and it may even doom the country to international opprobrium. But "genocide" it is not.

Indeed, Israel's critics in Europe are indulging in a frivolous banalization when they compare the recent Gaza conflict or the battle of Jenin in 2002 - with its 58 casualties among Palestinian combatants (Israel lost 25 soldiers) - to Auschwitz, a death factory where 30,000 Jews were slaughtered daily.

Israel should not, however, rejoice at being so far away from Europe, because Europe's way is not far-fetched; the world cannot be allowed to operate for long outside a reasonable international system of rules and laws.

Moreover, Israel is painfully aware of the many legitimate interests that Europe has in the region. Instability is a threat to those interests, and with Europe becoming a cosmopolitan continent with a huge Muslim population, the Arab-Israeli conflict has, for Europeans, an undeniable domestic dimension as well.

Europe might not intimidate, but it certainly inspires, and Israel should have an interest in encouraging a judicious role for Europe in building a framework for peace, stability, and cooperation in the region. It can also teach many lessons. The EU is not proof of the decay of the nation-state. It teaches us, instead, that nationalism (if respected) can become a responsible force for broader international cooperation. Nationalism degenerates into violent narcissism only when denied its fundamental rights. The EU has shown the difference between voluntarily limited sovereignty and involuntarily stolen sovereignty.

For Europe to play the role to which it is entitled in producing a Middle East peace, it needs to restore its credibility with Israel. The vigorous and equitable reaction of European leaders to the Gaza war, and the visit of five of them to Jerusalem to help seal the ceasefire can, now that President Obama has launched his "aggressive" quest for peace in the region, launch a promising era of American-European partnership in Middle East peacemaking.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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