The Demons of Europe
At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, a demonstrator wearing a mask of Donald Rumsfeld and an outsized yellow Star of David (inscribed with the word “Sheriff”) was accompanied by a cudgel-wielding double of Ariel Sharon; the two of them were followed by a huge rendition of the golden calf. The message? The United States is in thrall to the Jews/Israelis; both are the acolytes of Mammon; and both represent the avant-garde of a pernicious global capitalism.
This is the face of the new anti-Semitism. Lacking certain murderous elements of the classical type, it is nevertheless rife with some of its most ancient motifs. What is new about it is the projection of these old fantasies onto two new targets: Israel and America. Indeed, the United States is an anti-Semitic fantasy come true: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in living color. Do not Jews, their first loyalty to Israel, control the Congress, the Pentagon, the banks, the universities, and the media? Having captured the “hyperpower,” do they not finally rule the world? That at least seems to be the consensus of the Europeans, who in a recent EU poll declared Israel and the United States, in that order, to be the greatest threats to world peace.
Yet the issue is more complicated than the reconditioning of an old myth. Almost every European critic of those two nations will vehemently reject the charge of anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism. Since the behavior of Israel and the United States always offers plenty to criticize, the issue is not easy to resolve. What is the difference between criticism and anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism? What, indeed, are the elements of any “anti-ism”?
At all times and in all places, there are usually five such elements. The first is stereotyping: indulging in general statements that attribute negative qualities to the target group as a whole. The second is denigration: the ascription of moral inferiority to a whole group, traceable in the last resort to an irreducibly evil nature. The third element is obsession, the idée fixe that the target group is both omnipresent and omni-causal—an invisible force that explains all misery, whether dying cattle or failing businesses. The fourth step is demonization. Here the key theme is conspiracy: thus, Jews want to sully our racial purity, or subvert our sacred traditions or, above all, to achieve domination. Finally comes the determination to seek an end to troubles by eliminating the alleged source of torment, be it by exclusion, extrusion, or annihilation.
This last element is where “anti-ism” assumes a quasi-religious quality. When it comes to the Jews, “eliminationism” is no longer operative in the West, though it is of course richly present in the Arab world. But to affirm this benign turn is not to dispose of the issue in the contemporary Western imagination. What do we make of a cartoon in the New Zealand Herald last June that depicted a devastated Palestinian cityscape with “AP?RTHEID!” smeared across one wall? What of a sticker that recently showed up in Berlin, stating: “I love Jews, but I will not buy Israeli goods”? Does this new twist on “some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews-but” betray a hidden and more sinister reality? This is a sensible question because, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the open expression of full-bore anti-Semitism runs up against a most powerful taboo. And in the wake of taboos, as Freud insisted, sublimation and the return of the repressed run close behind.
In polite Western society, it is infra dig to say: “Yes, I hate the Jews.” Not so, “I hate Sharon” or “Israelis behave like Nazis.” At this juncture, one begins to muse about displacement, about the human habit to clobber one object while actually targeting another, the other being usually protected by fearsome power, whether symbolic or real. Lashing out at an Israeli leader does not risk the raised eyebrows that demonizing his people, let alone Jews as such, would do in a post-racist age.
How, then, can one tell the difference between criticism and “anti-ism”? One test is language. Take this statement: “Demolishing the houses of the families of terrorists is morally wrong because it imputes guilt by association, and politically wrong because it pushes more people into the arms of Hamas.” Such a statement is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic; it might even be correct. By contrast, “the Israelis are latter-day Nazis who want to drive the Palestinians from their land in order to realize an imperialist biblical dream” inhabits a very different order of discourse, ascribing evil to an entire collective and, in its equation of Israelis and Nazis, revealing an obsessive need for moral denigration. In our era, the word “Nazi” itself stands for boundless evil. To apply the label to Jews or Israelis is to inflict maximal moral damage on them.
A second test is the test of selectivity. If it is always Israel that is the target of indignation or incrimination, but not Russia’s war against Chechnya with about 60,000 dead, China’s bloody repression of Tibetans and Muslims, tribal genocide in Central Africa, or the persecution of whites in Zimbabwe, then we are in the presence of a double standard. This strengthens the presupposition of anti-Israelism, if not of anti-Semitism.1
Indisputably, Israel has assumed a special place in contemporary demonology. At the more extreme end, Israelis have been characterized as oppressors and colonizers, as arrogant settlers and crazed religious fanatics, as Nazi-like killers of women and children. In this sense, Israel has become an obsession that cannot be explained away by recourse to anti-colonialism, a standard fixture of the post-1960’s Western mind. Nor can the Western liberal habit of siding with the underdog explain why the Russian war against Chechnya has attracted only perfunctory condemnation and French interventions in Africa almost none while an Israeli retaliatory incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin in 2002 should have been branded instantly as a “massacre” of “thousands” before the facts were in (the facts being that 24 Israeli soldiers died along with 52 Palestinians, mostly combatants). As in all cases of anti-ism, it was the prejudice that selected the facts, not the facts that informed the judgment.
Nor can the opprobrium attaching to Israel be explained in terms of the Palestinians’ noble cause of liberation and statehood. For neither the means nor the end is noble: suicide bombs seek to murder as many civilians as possible, while the noble cause itself is articulated in terms of politicide—i.e., the elimination of the state of Israel. Militarily, the Palestinians are the weaker party, but their ultimate objective remains a total one, whether expressed directly by Hamas and Hizballah and Islamic Jihad or indirectly by PLO officials when speaking to kindred audiences. That these cold facts are virtually ignored in European discourse is deeply suggestive of an old obsession.
The new obsession might be called “elimination-lite.” If the anti-Semitism of yore sought to get rid of the Jews, either physically or by means of their complete assimilation, the “lite” version holds that if one could only weaken and push back Israel, only somehow force Israel to retract its occupation-cum-settlements, then, presto!, “the” Middle East conflict would be solved. Less reductionism—that is, less fixation on single causes—would reveal a larger set of problems and a wider tally of “root causes.” These would include the many dysfunctional elements of Arab political reality that are unrelated to the Palestinian issue, including hegemonial strife among shifting contenders, barely suppressed civil war between believers and secularists (and between one sort of believer and others, e.g., Sunni and Shiite), failed economies that offer no future to millions of young people, minimal interaction with other Arab economies, severely rationed political participation, a culture inhospitable to introspection, blatant inequalities between the sexes and among sects and classes.
Is all of this Israel’s fault, too? Propinquity to the “Zionist entity” and the dynamics of regional enmity might be invoked to help explain the dynastic dictatorship of Syria; it cannot explain the mayhem in faraway Algeria. Adducing Israeli behavior in the occupied territories, brutal as it sometimes is, cannot explicate the sheer hatred directed against leaders like Ariel Sharon, the moral indignation directed against Israel but rarely against Palestinian terrorists, the reflexively onesided apportionment of blame when there is so much blame to pass around.
But if Israel is not a “shitty little country” (in the words of a French ambassador at the Court of St. James), it is considered somehow inherently guilty—as Jews were seen to be inherently guilty through the ages. Hence, terror against Israeli civilians, even if briefly condemned, is placed in the context of Israeli conquest and oppression and so alleged to call for a “deeper” understanding. In fact, the higher the toll, the greater terrorism’s validation in terms of the injustice and despair that are supposedly driving it. Thus, softly-softly, does murder spell out its own moral justification. Nietzsche would clap his hands in delight over this trans-valuation of values, which ascribes moral worth to the most reprehensible of deeds: the massacre of innocents.
How has Israel come to be seen as the source of all misery? Why the denigration? The route to anti-ism is not a straight and narrow one. A cynical insight has been ascribed to the Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex: “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” Like the survivors of the Holocaust, the state of the Jews is a constant reminder of the moral failure not only of Germany, but of Europe as a whole.
The Germans did it, and Europe either connived or looked on—with some notable counterexamples like Denmark and those many individuals elsewhere who risked their lives for their Jewish compatriots. To consult Freud again, moral surrender to evil creates an irrepressible urge to shift blame from perpetrators and bystanders to victims and their heirs. The psychic mechanism goes like this: if the Jews could be shown to behave like Nazis, they would no longer have a special moral claim on us; if they are as bad as our forefathers, we can unshoulder our own inherited burden of guilt.
Add to this the culpability felt by the French over Vichy and colonial repression in Algeria, by the Belgians over their bloody reign in the Congo, by the Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese over their fascist pasts, by the Dutch over their (carefully concealed) collaboration with the Nazis, by the Swedes and the Swiss over their “pro-German neutrality,” and there are plenty of incubated guilt feelings to spread around. Clearly, Israel delivers an excellent canvas for the projection of blame. When a former government minister, Nobert Blüm, calls Israel’s anti-terror strategy a “Vernichtungsfeldzug” against the Palestinians, a war of annihilation, using a term normally applied to the Nazi war against the Jews and other “subhumans” in the East, the message of his subconscious rings out loud and clear. Thus, not so softly-softly, are words forged into weapons of self-rehabilitation.
Nor is Germany the only player in this game. Much of Western Europe has drawn its post-Holocaust identity from the rejection of the darkest part of the Continent’s proud history. The battle cry of postwar Europe is “Never Again!,” as Alain Finkielkraut has put it: a “no” to fuehrers, duces, and caudillos, to colonialism, conquest, and discrimination against the “Other.” To regain moral stature, Europeans have turned anti-fascism into a doctrine of worldly transcendence, with a secular decalogue that reads, in part: thou shalt not pray to the discredited gods of nationalism; thou shalt not practice power politics; thou shalt relinquish sovereignty and rejoice in cooperation. From this moral stand it is but a short, tricky step to redemption’s darker side. Do not the Israelis, of all people, behave in the evil ways we have transcended? Well, then, are we not better than those who so gratingly remind us of our unworthy past?
This is not anti-Semitism, but it is a derivative phenomenon. The inherited moral burden cries out for projection, and Israel, fighting for its just cause with sometimes unjust means but with far more restraint than Russia against the Chechnyans or Algeria against its Islamists, makes for a perfect target. Vilification spells moral relief because it redresses the moral balance—and so the verdict against Israel has to be “guilty.”
But the story does not end here. Recall José Bové, the French foe of globalization who in 1999 led a “deconstructivist” mob against a McDonald’s to protest what that company was doing to his country’s culinary culture. In March 2002, this same Bové showed up in Ramallah, denouncing Israel and declaiming his support for Yasir Arafat, whose headquarters was surrounded by Israeli tanks. Never mind that the Israeli army had not just dropped in for a little oppression but rather to defend against mounting terrorist attacks. What the scene suggested was that Arafat’s cause was Bové’s cause. Here was a spokesman of the anti-globalization movement conflating globalization with Americanization (McDonald’s) and extending his loathing of both to Israel.
The routine pairing of Israel and America is surely the most interesting new motif in our old story, and has been well dissected by Natan Sharansky in these pages.2 How to interpret it? Again, one must beware of equating criticism with anti-ism and instead look for the classic telltale signs. They are there in abundance.
Stereotyping and denigration. The indictment of the United States comes in three parts. First, America is morally flawed. It executes its own people, and it likes to bomb other people. It is the land of intolerant fundamentalist religion. Selfish and self-absorbed, it refuses to ratify the International Criminal Court or agreements to protect the environment. It is “Dirty Harry” and “Globocop” rolled into one—an irresponsible and arrogant citizen of the world.
Second, America is socially retrograde: it is the fountainhead of a “predatory capitalism” (according to a former German chancellor) that denies social services to those who need them most. Instead of bettering the lot of its darker-skinned minorities, it shunts millions of them into prison. America accepts, nay, admires gross income inequalities and defies the claims of social justice.
Finally, America is culturally inferior. It gorges itself on fast food, wallows in tawdry mass entertainment, starves the arts, and prays only to one god, which is Mammon. It sacrifices the best of culture to pap and pop. In matters sexual, America is both prurient and prudish. It is a society where Europe’s finest values—solidarity and community, taste and manners—are ground down by rampant individualism.
Demonization and obsession. The best shorthand statement under this heading is a cartoon on a Jordanian website in April 2002 that showed a jeeplike SUV, a pack of cigarettes with a Marlboro design, a can of Coca-Cola, and a hamburger—all dripping with blood. These, the cartoon insinuates, are the weapons that drive America’s quest for global domination. They are meant to seduce, but the blood with which they are saturated symbolizes violent imposition. Yield to the seduction, and the price will be the loss of your own culture, dignity, and power.
Like any proper target of anti-ism, America is seen as omnipotent and omni-causal. America’s is the hand that pulls all strings. The U.S. is the cause of poverty, despotism, and exploitation in the third world. Like any target of anti-ism, the U.S gets it coming and going: it is a threat to peace when it uses its fearsome power (Iraq) and a traitor to humanity when it does not (Rwanda as well as Bosnia/ Kosovo before the bombing campaign).
The similarities with anti-Semitism are hard to escape. Like Jews, Americans are selfish and arrogant. Like Jews, they are in thrall to a fundamentalist religion that renders them self-righteous and dangerous. As classical anti-Semitism opposes the lovingkindness of the New Testament to the vengeful God of the Old, rapidly de-Christianizing Europe likes to contrast its secular-humanist ethos with the harsh Calvinism of America. If the Jews bestride the world as the “Chosen People,” Americans claim to live in “God’s Own Country” while arrogating unto themselves, as a favorite anti-Bushism has it, a “divine mission.”
Another mainstay of the anti-Semitic faith, anti-capitalism, has likewise passed smoothly from the Jews to the United States. Like Jews, Americans are money-grubbers who know only the value of money, and the worth of nothing. Like Jews, Americans are motivated only by profit. Relentlessly competitive (“pushy”), they are the solvents of social justice as they are of every worthy tradition. If the empire of international Jewry was built on finance and trade, America’s is built on a “globalization” that exploits the helpless and kills jobs.
Here conspiracy rears its head. Again like the Jews, America is the mastermind extraordinaire, its hand behind every plot, even the immolation of the World Trade Center; in 2003, a half-dozen books on this theme became bestsellers in France and Germany. Echoing a classic indictment of “World Jewry,” a poster during an anti-Bush demonstration in Berlin in 2002 read: “Stop Bush’s Grab for Global Power!”
And so, the remedy: extrusion. The most murderous variant is al Qaeda’s: kill Americans and Jews, expel the new “crusaders” from Araby, and our soil will be holy, the umma whole again. (“Seeking to kill Americans and Jews everywhere in the world,” Osama bin Laden exhorted Muslims, “is one of the greatest duties, and the good deed most preferred by Allah.”) Elsewhere, the impulse is not physical elimination but pushback, elimination-lite.
The watchword is “anti-hegemonism.” America must be repelled because it is the global steamroller that flattens community and solidarity, leaving behind a few rich winners and many poor losers. America is also the great temptress that seduces the rest of the world’s children into wolfing down fast food and watching Hollywood violence. Accordingly, the world must resist the hyperpowerturned-empire by going instead for “self-assertion” and “multipolarity”—shibboleths for containing and defanging the American behemoth.
Not only is there a striking family resemblance between anti-Israelism and anti-Americanism, but the two are routinely conjoined in the minds and in the rhetoric of those obsessed with them. Of course, America as “Great Satan” and Israel as “Little Satan” (note the religious language) are metaphors as old as the Khomeinist revolution of 1979. But the pairing of the two Satans is no longer just an Islamic affair. At the anti-Bush demonstrations in Berlin in May 2002, no accompanying posters were held up against Russian or Chinese leaders, let alone against Saddam Hussein, but plenty against Ariel Sharon—as “oppressor,” “warmonger,” and “state terrorist.” Why trundle out Sharon unless to suggest that the enemy was both America and Israel?
Another regular occurrence is the application of Nazi imagery to both America and Israel. At demonstrations against the Iraq war last year, one German poster showed an obviously Jewish figure setting the world aflame. Another proclaimed: “USA-Third Reich, Both Alike” (USA-Drittes Reich, Ihr seid so gleich). Still another stated: “One Hitler Is Enough” (the unspoken message being, Bush equals Hitler). To top them all, a placard read: “Remember Nuremberg, Mr. Bush: Death by Hanging.” Franz Alt, a German author and TV moderator, denouncing Bush as the “greatest enemy of mankind,” seemed to be echoing the old Nazi slogan: “Die Juden sind unser Unglück—the Jews are our misfortune.”
Still, similarities are not sameness, and parallels are not proof. What are the psychic compulsions that turn Israel and the U.S. into joint targets of hatred and contempt? The simplest answer is that both of these two outriggers of the Occident are different from the rest of the West—different in the same way—and differences, especially when flanked by assertiveness and achievement, do not for fondness make.
To my mind, these differences come in a foursome, of which the first component is power. Specifically, Israel and the United States are the most advanced and powerful players in their respective neighborhoods—Israel in its region, the United States on the global beat. Unvanquished in war, they possess armies unmatched by any of their rivals. America’s economy is the world’s largest, its technology the world’s most sophisticated. The Israeli economy outperforms those of its four Arab neighbors combined. In some technology sectors, like avionics, Israel surpasses even the major powers of Europe. America’s top universities are the world’s best, and whereas the Arab world boasts not a single true research university, Israel has seven. If America is Gulliver unbound, Israel is a constant and grating reminder of Arab failure.
We need not invoke Freud to infer that success breeds envy and resentment. The indignation is compounded by the rampant modernity both countries epitomize. Relentless change, inflicted from outside, does not sit well with European society, let alone with Arab societies. The European dispensation favors social and economic protection, while the Arab model seems suspended among various reactionary utopias ranging from state socialism to Islamism. The unconscious logic goes like this: modernization is Americanization, and both have found their most faithful disciple in Israel.
The second element has to do with identity. Compared with continental Europe, the U.S. and Israel stand out for their strong sense of nationhood. For all their actual multiculturalism—indeed, both the U.S. and Israel are ethnic microcosms of the world—these two countries share a keen sense of self. They know who they are, and what they want to be. They define themselves in terms not of ethnicity but of ideology—novus ordo seclorum, Zionism—that transcends tribe and class (though not, in Israel’s case, religion) and is ultimately rooted in founding documents like both countries’ declarations of independence. Both of their national myths are written in the language of salvation. Indeed, the Puritans, seeking to build a “new Jerusalem” in a “promised land,” consciously patterned their own flight from England on the biblical exodus from Egypt. America may be the most “Jewish” nation in the Christian world.
Compare this sense of nationhood with the mindset of Western Europe’s mature democracies. The polities extending from Italy via Germany and the Low Countries through Scandinavia may already have passed into post-nationalism. The European Union is fitfully undoing national sovereignty without providing its citizens with a common identity. “Europe” is still a matter of practicality, not of pride. As a work in progress, it lacks the underpinning of emotional attachment. Europeans become all wound up when their own country’s soccer team wins or loses, but the fierce nationalism that once drove millions into the trenches of two world wars has evaporated, and with it has gone the thirst to identify oneself with a glorious national past or with heart-stirring national traditions.
With a strong sense of national identity comes, typically, a sense of national purpose and the determination if necessary to back it up with force; this is the third element I would point to. Post-national Europe cherishes its “civilian power,” its attachment to international regimes and institutions. Individual European armies are no longer repositories of nationalism or career advancement, but organizations with about as much social prestige as the post office. Europeans pride themselves on having overcome the atavism of war in favor of compromise, cooperation, and institutionalism. This self-perception imbues them with a sense of moral superiority vis-à-vis the “yahoos” in Washington and Jerusalem, who over the last 50 years have resorted to force more frequently than any other Western nations.
Perhaps many Europeans resent unconsciously what they no longer have—all those qualities that once made them fierce and fearsome warriors. Perhaps they resent these two nations in the Western family for doing what they no longer can—or dare—do. And here is another way in which both Israel and the U.S. offer an excellent canvas for the projection of others’ superior self-image. Do not the two countries behave in the brutish ways we Europeans have at last unlearned? They are Hobbes and Machiavelli, we are Kant and Rousseau. They insist on war and domination, we on peace and community. And so, Europe’s conscience, forged in the cozy shelter of America’s strategic might, abounds with reassurance: we have frog-leaped the barbarians and landed in history’s moral avant-garde.
This is hardly to deny the strong currents of post-nationalism that run through California’s Marin County, not to mention Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street and the writings of Israel’s “post-Zionists.” But along with the influences of culture and psychology we must come back in the end to power and politics—in short, to the positions of America and Israel in the international system.
Israel will remain a threatened polity, and the U.S. the world’s number-one power, probably for the rest of this century. These are the raw and irreducible facts of international politics. Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton may have enjoyed a better press than do George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, but that merely obscures the deeper realities. Both countries remain targets not only for what they do, but also for what and where they are.
What they do is sometimes unwise or nasty; where they are, in the international scheme of things, can be changed only by sacrificing their exceptionalism and the power needed to secure it. Without extraordinary strength and the willingness to use it, Israel will not endure as a state among those who deny it legitimacy, nor America as a Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” seeking safety in the juste milieu of a democratizing world.
No Western European country has been attacked since 1945. No wonder, then, that the martial instincts of the Europeans have faded along with their militaries in the course of a seemingly perpetual peace. No wonder, then, that they resent Israel and America as the reprobate children of the West. But nations in harm’s way cannot and will not soon evolve into Sweden or Germany—not in the Hobbesian world of the Levant, and not on the precarious perch of the “last remaining superpower.” By dint of what they are and what they have, America and Israel will remain both targets and warriors.
The anatomy of the international system, to borrow one last time from Freud, is destiny. On post-nationalism, postmodernism, and the rest, where you sit is where you stand. America and Israel are the outsiders—just as Jews have been all the way into the 21st century. The question yet to be decided, and on which everything hangs, is who will prevail.
1 On the question of whether Israel and the Jews are two sides of the same coin, I cannot improve on Hillel Halkin’s compelling argument in “The Return of Anti-Semitism,” COMMENTARY, February 2002. Suffice it to say that to profess intense dislike for Israel while sparing the Jews engenders such sharp verbal contradictions as inevitably to ring hollow.
2 “On Hating the Jews,” November 2003.