I don't know if there is one single answer to this question – possibly every one of us has a different one. I have mine, and I'd like to share it. I believe that after the war the West, in particular Europe, had a guilt complex as a consequence of their inaction and in some cases complicity with the Nazi killing machine which all but exterminated Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa. Europe felt obligated to support the Jews as they did not do during the war. To this, we need to add the fact that Israel represented a bulwark against Soviet influence in a very sensitive part of the world which provided most of Europe's oil needs.
At the same time, Jews in Israel fit the image Europeans had of the Jew as a weak person with no physical power. Their image of the Jewish state was at best that of a willing ally who needed their support. They could see themselves as holding the upper hand in an asymmetric relationship that made them feel good for it allowed them to see themselves as benefactors. Since Europe had few if any Arabs living in it, the European choice was a simple one.
And then along came 1967. Jews committed the unthinkable sin of breaking the stereotype – they not only won the war, but did so overwhelmingly. In spite of it, most Europeans still supported Israel. The Jewish State still represented the best possible ally against Soviet influence in the Oil rich Middle East, and it was still economically dependent of Europe and the US. Israeli economy was largely agricultural and it could not compete with the growing industrial power of post-war Europe. Arab and Muslim immigrants were just then starting to come to Europe in larger numbers, a trend that was going to accelerate in years to come. The Labor-led Israeli government was also seen as closely resembling the Democratic Socialist left in Europe.
In 1973, Israel was caught with its metaphoric pants down. The tableau was that of a Democratic Israel being treacherously attacked by the Soviet-backed Arab countries. Yet the support was not unconditional – Israel was gaining strength. And by the end of the war, the Arabs found their best weapon: Oil prices. The Oil Embargo of the 1970s did a lot of damage to pro-Israel support in Europe because for Europeans struggling to keep a strong economic output in the face of demographic contraction, it was a very inconvenient development – and we know how annoyed Europeans get when they are inconvenienced...
Following the war, Europeans did whatever they could to ingratiate themselves with the Arabs, including the establishment of Euro-Arab Cultural and educational ties in the belief that this kind of exchange was going to ease the relationship. In addition, Europe began importing manpower from Northern Africa on a larger scale. These immigrants were different from the prior Muslim immigrants in that their intention was not to adjust and integrate into European society, but they kept their strong ties with their native lands across the ancient Mare Nostrum, evolving in some cases into parallel societies with little contact with their European neighbors outside the economic sphere. It was during the 1970s and 1980s that many of the Muslim immigrant ghettos in Europe evolved. The immigrant living conditions, with its economic social and cultural stresses, made these immigrants easy prey of extremist Muslim preachers, particularly those connected with the Muslim Brotherhood; this set the foundation to the more extreme radicalization that was going to come in the 1990s and early 2000s. This growth in Arab and Muslim presence in Europe was to Israel's detriment.
And then in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Lebanon was seen by Europeans and particularly by France with great sympathy for historical reasons. Rightly or wrongly, it was perceived as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. Israeli intervention in the Lebanese civil war was seen as upsetting the applecart of the Arab good will the Europeans were so carefully cultivating. Emotional reactions to Israel were a mixed bag. On one hand, Realpolitik said that the invasion was a bad thing; on the other hand, Israeli support for the Christian militias was seen with sympathy in many quarters. At best, European public opinion was divided; at worst it was upset at what Israeli interventionism was costing Europe at a time Europe was beginning to seriously explore some form of Continental Union. But Israel still represented the best anti-Soviet bet in that region.
And the Soviet Union fell. The Marxist Evil Empire was no more. Europe began to reevaluate its relationship with Eastern Europe as well as with America and of course with Israel. Israel's value dropped in European eyes after the fall of the Soviet Union. As Europe began to face a future they saw as bright and shiny...what was their need for Israel or the US?
Along came Saddam and shocked the West by getting a hold of Kuwait, a major source of supply for the Oil starved western economies. Gulf War. Israel sits tight and gain some points. Madrid Conference and a hope: maybe there was a way for Europe to get both, support for Israel and Arab goodwill?
The Oslo Agreements of 1993, on the one hand made Europeans look at Israel more favorably. On the other hand, the opening of many markets to Israeli goods and the economic boom in Israel's technological sector began to make Israel a bit too big for European tastes. They wanted to keep an asymmetrical relationship – not one of equals...
The beginning of the Intifadah in 2000 and its flood of images (mostly forged) of “Israeli brutality” against the poor “native Palestinians” who were suffering under the “Israeli colonial occupation” was a propaganda boon for the Palestinians. Europeans, still suffering from a guilt complex for their colonial past saw in their support for Palestinians a form of atonement for their historical sins, while Israel's image in Europe was metamorphosed from the poor David into the giant Goliath; from victim into victimizer. From the object of admiration and support among many of the European cultural elite into a cruel oppressor offending European sensibilities. Israelis, for their own cultural and political shortsightedness, were unable to explain their actions in a way that Europeans could understand. Israeli political stock in Europe began to plummet.
As Israel's image deteriorated, the Arab-Muslim presence in Europe increased as, did their self-isolation from European culture. Anti-immigrant feelings in Europe began to rise, but did nothing to neutralize Israel's falling image.
Along came 9/11 and the wave of anti-Muslim reactions which swept the West. Liberal democratic societies were scared by the specter of anti-Muslim prejudice which followed the attacks in New York, provoking an opposite reactions of Islamophilia to compensate for the initial Islamophobia. However you look at it, Muslims were no longer seen as “just another people”. Supporting or opposing Islam became part of the political discourse in the West, including the United States. In this game of Islamophobia/Islamophilia, the “Israel theme” was important, so support for Israel became politicized as well. And Israel supporters began using the “Israel rod” to measure politicians, transforming Israel itself into a divisive issue which would eventually become divisive even among American Jews.
Thus it came to be that the most important collective enterprise of the Jewish people since the closing of the Talmud, the social enterprise which symbolized for many the rebirth of hope, became a point of contempt and division in a society prone to polarization.
Can Israel regain its former position and image in Western civilization? Israel continues to be a source of improvements for Human life in Medicine, technology, the environment, food production, emergency response, and more. Logically, it should not be a source of controversy. Yet it is. Only a decisive resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict can provide Israel with the opportunity to regain its former standing in the West...and its chance to heal the internal wounds in Israeli society which came from the tarnishing of Israel's image.
In my mind and in my heart, Israel is not about left or right, Democrat or Republican. Israel is the inspiring story of a people which returned to its ancestral land, revived its ancestral language and rebuild its ancient cities. Yes, mistakes were made along the road, and are still being made – but the main story is still one of hope and redemption. It is still the story of a people extending its hand to its neighbors and yearning for Peace.
Please login to leave a comment