The word “French” has had a derogatory connotation in the English language since the 16th century, when the term “French pox” was employed to describe syphilis. From then on it has been used as a negative adjective, usually but not exclusively related to sexual matters, including the all-purpose “pardon my French” that warns of impending bad language.
Thus, Newt Gingrich’s campaign ad in South Carolina that shows Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry side by side in flagrante delicto - speaking French – taps into a centuries’ old gut-level antipathy of English speakers on both sides of Atlantic towards the French, in addition to evoking present-day Republican ill-will towards anything or anyone who smacks of Europe.
In what now appears to have been a preemptive strike against Gingrich’s Euro-tainting, it was Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney himself, flush with his victory in New Hampshire, who lambasted President Barack Obama last week, for conspiring to “turn America into a European-style welfare state” and for “taking his cue and inspiration from European capitals” (in addition, presumably, to the direct orders he receives from his handlers in Riyadh and Djakarta). Because secular, socialist, class-warring, wine-sipping, frog-eating, soon-to-be Muslim Europe is everything that America aspires not to be, but will inevitably turn into if Obama stays at the helm.
I don’t know how this Euro-bashing - roundly criticized by columnist Nicholas Kristof in Sunday’s New York Times – is going to play out in Columbia or Charleston South Carolina, but one thing is for sure: it would go over big in Israel. In fact, disdain and contempt for Europe is one of the sturdiest common denominators of the world-view of Israelis, Americans and many Jews around the world.
When an Israeli politician wants to divert attention from some foreign policy embarrassment, he need only mention those perfidious European governments to garner spontaneous ovations and distracting bursts of indignation from Israeli public opinion. The right-wing campaign against foreign funding of human-rights NGO’s would never have picked up as much steam in the Israeli public and media were it not for the fact that it wasn’t simply “governments” who were doing the controversial funding, but back-stabbing, Arab-loving European governments that have Israel’s worst interests at heart.
I have always believed that one of the reasons that Israeli President Shimon Peres, one of the most talented and far-sighted politicians in the history of Israel, never really succeeded in winning Israeli elections is that he was considered ”too French” and “too European” for Israeli tastes. Peres, a Francophile and Europhile by inclination, pioneered the collaboration with France that set up Israel’s nuclear industry and built the backbone of the army that won the Six-Day War and was a prominent figure in the once-significant, Euro-centered Socialist International as well. But he was consequently “stained” by Charles De Gaulle’s backstabbing about-face in 1967 and by the European left’s support for Palestinians and growing disenchantment with the Jewish state from the 1970’s onwards.
Moreover, Peres was seen not only as being too close to the anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli continent itself but was also saddled with some of the stereotypical and so-not-Israeli traits associated with its current inhabitants: peace-seeking, war-fearing and multilateralist, cultured, urbane, sophisticated, well-dressed and mild-mannered to boot. In this, Peres was the antithesis of his perennial and widely-revered rival and nemesis, the quintessentially Israeli, plain-speaking, rough and gruff Six-Day-War general Yitzhak Rabin, who looked down on Europe and up to America – especially its Republican side - from the day he left the Israeli army and was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the US. And who never learned to knot his tie properly, as that famous White House photo with Bill Clinton so poignantly proved.
Even though it is Israel’s major trading partner and number one travel destination, most Israelis have an innate dislike and disdain for Europe. Many Israelis would have no problem identifying with Rick Santorum’s 2006 diagnosis of Europe in which he said "Those cultures are dying. People are dying. They're being overrun from overseas... and they have no response. They have nothing to fight for. They have nothing to live for."
And in the currently intolerant mood of so many religious and conservative Israelis towards their own establishment, many might also adopt Gingrich’s assessment that "American elites are guided by their desire to emulate the European elites. As a result, anti-religious values and principles are coming to dominate the academic, news media and judicial class in America." Just substitute Israeli, or even Jewish for that matter, for American.
THOUGH the historical background to this shared anti-Europeanism in Israel and America is as different as can be - and in any case too complex for a short article - several striking similarities do come to mind and may be mentioned. The first, of course, is that both countries were founded by pioneers who were escaping Europe and whose core self-definition included a complete negation of Europe and its way of life. This was true of the American Puritans and many of its Founding Fathers and for most of the early Zionists as well.
And while the 20th century saw Europe turn into European Jewry’s slaughterhouse and cemetery while the United States came to Europe’s rescue in two world wars and then in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, these diametrically contrary narratives appear to have yielded strikingly similar national outlooks. In his well-known 2002 article in Foreign Policy entitled “Power and Weakness” – in which he coined the “Americans from Mars, Europeans from Venus” delineation - renowned Euro-expert Robert Kagan summed up some prevailing European generalizations of American-European differences, which nonetheless ring true: “The United States resorts to force more quickly and, compared with Europe, is less patient with diplomacy. Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil, between friends and enemies, while Europeans see a more complex picture. When confronting real or potential adversaries, Americans generally favor policies of coercion rather than persuasion, emphasizing punitive sanctions over inducements to better behavior, the stick over the carrot. Americans tend to seek finality in international affairs: They want problems solved, threats eliminated. And, of course, Americans increasingly tend toward unilateralism in international affairs. They are less inclined to act through international institutions such as the United Nations, less inclined to work cooperatively with other nations to pursue common goals, more skeptical about international law, and more willing to operate outside its strictures when they deem it necessary, or even merely useful.”
These descriptions, of course, are as applicable to Israel as they are to the United States, as are many of Kagan’s other observations, including his view that America’s propensity for unilateralism and use of force lies in its global military superiority, which is true of Israel position in the Middle East arena as well. The Europeans are multilateralist and opposed to the use of force, according to this logic, not only because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. Israel and America are faster to justify and prefer the use of force not so much because they want to, but because they can.
This disparity, which became more pronounced after the end of the Cold War and the erosion of the joint American-European, anti-Soviet common front, turned into a rallying cry for conservatives and neo-conservatives in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War, after Europeans were perceived as abandoning America in its time of need and of reneging on their debt for American sacrifices in the two world wars, when French Champagne flowed in the gutters and “Freedom Fries” were the national food.
For many of these staunchly pro-Israeli conservatives, Europe’s anti-Israeli attitudes, periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism and perceived influence of its growing Muslim population, only poured fat on the fire of their anti-European rage. Then deputy Secretary of Defense Richard Perle’s statement that Europe had lost its moral courage and moral fiber encapsulated these sentiments and would be thoroughly endorsed by most Israelis to this very day.
The election of Barack Obama has now provided Euro-detractors and his political opponents with the opportunity to personify anti-European sentiments inside the American political scene. On the “family values” front, Obama is being cast as the Europhile who seeks to import the godless and decadent social mores from the Old Continent, along with its “socialist” class divisions and warfare. On the national security and diplomatic front, he is the European-style “appeaser”, with all of that term’s historical resonance, the weak-kneed moderate who disparages the use of force, scorns American “exceptionalism”, humiliatingly “leads from behind”, and, like Europe, is engaged in endless attempts to curry favor with the Arab and Muslim worlds, at the expense, naturally, of Israel, America’s number one ally. Obama’s speeches before the European Parliament in April, 2009 and at Al-Azhar University in June of that year will no doubt feature prominently in the Republican election campaign, as proof of Obama’s disgraceful apologetics and demeaning kowtowing to those two pillars of anti-Americanism, Europe and the Muslim world.
Come November 2012, these lines of attack may resonate not only among ordinary Americans but also with Jewish voters who share both the American and the Israeli disdain for Europe, and who are seeking reinforcement for their wish to cross the lines and vote against Obama.
And after the elections, when the campaign is over, Republicans might hand over their footage and their strategy to their allies on the Israeli right, who will be able to use it effectively, mutatis mutandis, against their own secular, leftist, vaguely unpatriotic Europhile rivals.
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