Paradoxically, despite the alarming ongoing surge of Islamic religious and political extremism in Europe, the European Union and individual European countries seem poised for what could become the ugliest confrontation with Israel since the creation of the Jewish state. Crude threats are being conveyed to the Netanyahu government, making it clear that unless it capitulates to a series of demands, relations will be downgraded and boycotts may even be instituted. Unconfirmed rumors are circulating that the US State Department does not object to these European initiatives.
I was able to assess the situation firsthand in Rome when I accepted an invitation by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder to participate in meetings with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state.
Coincidentally, at the same time, Der Spiegel, the leading German weekly, published a lengthy front-page feature follow-up on John Demjanjuk which created an enormous stir throughout Europe. The article posited that the alleged Ukrainian war criminal typified vast numbers of people throughout occupied Europe who, either because of virulent hatred or for personal gain, volunteered to murder Jews.
Without detracting from the prime responsibility of the Nazis for initiating and implementing the extermination process, Der Spiegel suggested the Holocaust could not have been implemented so effectively without the enthusiastic support and collaboration of major anti-Semitic sections of the indigenous population under Nazi occupation. It concluded that, to be more precise, the culpability for the Holocaust should be extended to encompass Europe as a whole.
One wonders if Winston Churchill had not become prime minister and the Nazis had conquered England, how the British anti-Semites would have behaved. Would they have behaved differently from their French counterparts? Under Nazi occupation would the British police, bureaucracy and volunteers also have collaborated in deportations and other actions which were a prerequisite for the gas chambers?
This has relevance for our contemporary situation. The ferocity and extraordinary resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe cannot simply be attributed exclusively to the impact of Muslim migrants or rage against Israeli policies. The anti-Israel tsunami which swept across Europe can only be appreciated in the context of the profound traditional hatred of Jews which, we now realize, only went into remission when the horrors of the Holocaust were unveiled. But half a century later it has reemerged with a vengeance, with the Jewish nation state acting as surrogate for anti-Semitism directed against Jews.
How else can one explain why this tiny embattled Jewish state has assumed the role of scapegoat for all the ills of humanity. It is reminiscent of the times when Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, spreading the plague and acting as the sinister force behind capitalism and communism? How else to explain why Israel has been condemned as a rogue state representing a greater threat to peace than North Korea or Iran? How else to explain the application of Holocaust inversion to its treatment of the Palestinians while silence prevails concerning human rights violations and mass murders in countries like Sudan, Sri Lanka or Congo? How else to explain why its legitimate efforts to defend its citizens against terrorists and missiles are blamed for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and global terrorism?
THESE POISONOUS currents dominate large segments of public opinion in the enlightened Europe of our time. In most cases the people are actually even more hostile to Israel and Jews than their governments. Needless to say, the quality of life for Jews in this environment has undergone a dramatic deterioration. Although some bury their heads in the sand and delude themselves that these conditions are transitory, most Jews are deeply despondent about the future of their children in a society which is beginning to regard them as pariahs.
The current campaign is being spearheaded by the British and the French. Jewish leaders from the French Jewish representative body CRIF, whom I have grown to respect for their courage and willingness to stand up and be counted when confronted by hostile governments, are deeply apprehensive about President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was initially believed to have reversed the traditional anti-Israeli approach of successive French governments since Charles de Gaulle. However, in recent months both the UK and France have intensified their anti-Israel stance and hardly even bother to maintain a pretense of being even-handed.
It is the Italian government, the fourth largest state in the EU, that stands out today as the most notable long standing friend of Israel in Europe. Berlusconi displays genuine warmth when he relates to the Jewish state and takes pride in having been closely associated with Israeli leaders over a long period. At his initiative, Italy utilized its veto power to neutralize some of the more extreme anti-Israel EU initiatives.
Regrettably, like the Germans, Italy still retains strong commercial ties with Iran, but at least this has not deterred it from condemning Iranian policies toward Israel.
In the last election, Fiamma Nirenstein, an Italian journalist who lives part time in Jerusalem, became one of two Jewish candidates elected to the parliament. Nirenstein is recognized globally as a charismatic and articulate champion for Israel, and she undoubtedly played an important role in helping to cement its relationship with Italy. Berlusconi told me that he has enormous admiration for Nirenstein’s contribution as a legislator to Italian politics. She has just written an inspiring book promoting the case for Israel which was published in English translation by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Berlusconi is backed by Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, whom I met on his first visit to Israel when he was criticized because of former right-wing affiliations. He is also a genuine friend of Israel and his track record of support for the Jewish state and Jewish causes has been exemplary.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is sensitive to her country’s obligations to history and supports Berlusconi on most Israeli issues. But she is under constant pressure from other forces that are today no longer sensitive to Germany’s obligations to Israel and resent being constantly reminded about their Holocaust guilt.
A series of European countries hostile to Israel, starting with Sweden, are about to assume leadership of the EU when the Czechs retire at the end of the month.
In this difficult climate, with the US-Israeli relationship now in question, Israel must try to strengthen its relationship with the European countries willing to offset the anticipated flow of anti-Israeli initiatives.