Criticism of Israel Is Not the Same Thing as Hatred of Jews: Islamophobia is a bigger problem than anti-Semitism In Europe

Ian Black, The Guardian

BRUSSELS, 13 January 2004 — Brussels is used to being blamed for lots of things: Plotting to harmonize taxes, straighten bananas and build a federal superstate are just a few. But last week’s accusation that the European commission (EC) is guilty of anti-Semitism was an unhappy and unprecedented novelty.

Furious exchanges on the charge quickly gave way to megaphone schmoozing as Romano Prodi and his critics from the World Jewish Congress (WJC) agreed to go ahead with a conference on the “oldest hatred”. Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister, is likely to play a starring role.

This nasty spat was triggered by the “Eurobarometer” poll that showed that 59 percent of Europeans questioned saw Israel as the greatest threat to world peace, and by the (unrelated) suppression of a report on anti-Semitism by the EU’s racism monitoring center in Vienna. The WJC bluntly called both these “politically motivated”.

Technical arguments largely missed the point. Yes, the poll’s questioning was misleading and flawed. And, no, the EC has no control over the Vienna center — which did look guilty of censorship in the name of political correctness.

Both highlighted serious problems. Israel is not in the same league as theocratic Iran or Stalinist North Korea. But its conflict with the Palestinians is more bloody and intractable than ever. Millions of Europeans see the results of Hamas suicide bombings and Israel’s “targeted assassinations” on television every night. It is also beyond dispute that attacks on Jews have increased, especially in France, since the second intifada erupted in 2000, and that many — as the Vienna survey found — were perpetrated by youths of Arab or Muslim origin.

This must be kept in perspective. Europe’s Jews are not generally subjected to the sort of comments that have landed Robert Kilroy-Silk in trouble with Arabs. Islamophobia is a bigger problem than anti-Semitism.

But there is something nasty in the air that links the grim banlieues of Paris with sophisticated salon discourse and the “cabal” of influential pro-Israeli neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Of course, it suits the US right to raise the ghosts of Vichy and paint wimpish “old Europe” as the same continent where six million Jews were exterminated. Anyone who understands contemporary Europe — and three cheers here for the EU as peace project — knows how wrong that is.

And yet the past is not another country. Half an hour from the EC’s headquarter’s are the barracks at Mechelen, where 40,000 Belgian Jews were put on cattle trucks to the gas chambers. Imagine the resonance when France’s chief rabbi advises his flock not to wear skullcaps in the street; when anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands, documented by the Anne Frank Foundation, more than double despite an overall drop in racist and right-wing violence.

Clearly, no one should confuse criticism of Ariel Sharon’s policies with “old-fashioned” hatred of Jews. Most do not. But there is no doubt that boundaries have been eroded. Nor is there any doubt that exploitation of the holocaust for political purposes has taken its toll since Menachem Begin compared Yasser Arafat in besieged Beirut to Hitler in his Berlin bunker.

Europe’s policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — far more coherent than on Iraq — do not need to change. Has anyone got a better idea than two states based on Israeli security, dismantling settlements and Palestinian rights? The trick is to translate EU financial support into greater influence: To be a player, not just a payer. Prodi should remind the anti-Semitism conference that one of his first acts as EC president was to visit Auschwitz. And then fund projects to boost Jewish-Muslim understanding that might — just — help limit the collateral damage of other not-so-distant wars.