Israel Poses a Serious Dilemma for Europe's Jews

Are Israel's actions truly protecting the Jewish people? Or is it forcing Jews outside Israel to defend a state that has abandoned the post-war values that define Europe and the West, values that lie at the heart of their own legitimacy as Jews in democratic countries?

Diana Pinto
Diana Pinto
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Diana Pinto
Diana Pinto

Is Europe ganging up on Israel, and by doing so, proving the return - in the view of most Israelis, many Jews and most official Jewish organizations - of its eternal anti-Semitism? Or is it Israel that has abandoned the post-war values that defined Europe and the West in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust?

This question needs to be asked now, in the context of the United Nations’ vote granting non-member observer status to the Palestinian Authority and after Israel’s recent decision to become the first country not to send its yearly report to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.

The all-too-predictable narrative that pits defenders of Israel against those who, in Europe, purportedly seek to delegitimize the country has gone stale, for it is based on a static and angelic view of Israel and on an equally static and demonic view of Europe. It is about time to abandon this all-too-facile knee-jerk answer that has already got a lot of mileage in American policymaking circles, especially during the Second Gulf War.

Israeli political elites, leaders of the major American Jewish organizations, and American policy makers in general should reflect on the implications of these two recent United Nations’ related events. The fact that Europe, with the single exception of the Czech Republic, voted for or abstained (as Germany, Israel’s second best friend after America did) on Palestine’s observer status at the United Nations is not a proof of Europe’s political ill will.

Europe is not a former drunkard who has fallen off the wagon to resume its politically dissolute and anti-Semitic prewar life. Nor does Israel’s refusal to play by the UN rules endow it automatically with a halo of moral courage. The two decisions simply prove just how far apart these two camps have come as each pursues its own understanding of its statutory principles.

There is no better way of measuring this growing gap than by returning to the origins of both Israel as a State and Europe as a project in the idealistic postwar years. Both sides built themselves on the double lessons of World War II and the Holocaust to develop their respective understandings of “never again.”

For Europe’s founding fathers, this meant never again to go to war, no to any Volkgesetz or legal ethnic or religious definitions of a nation state, combined with a commitment to universal values and supra-national institutions. The entire edifice was based on two key pillars: a call to historical reconciliation, and democratic citizenship as the building bloc of national identity. These principles were meant to preclude the return of fascism and any racial discrimination.

On the Israeli side, the call for never again was more of a “never again to us”, based on the absolute need to have a state created by the Jews and for the Jews. Such a state had as primordial responsibility to ensure that its Jewish citizens and Jews around the world would never find themselves again in a situation of total powerlessness over their own collective fate. Israel from the onset was thus defined as a “Jewish and democratic” state, one in which a very specific Jewish ethnic and religious identity was meant to co-exist with the (somewhat more limited) rights of its non-Jewish citizens.

For Israel, whose legitimacy was not recognized by its Arab neighbors, the European call to a “never again” to war, together with an active engagement on behalf of historical reconciliation and identity-blind citizenship in a supranational context, could only be perceived as a politically abstract reference.

But no one among Israel’s founding fathers questioned the philosophical and political validity of these principles, as they sought to turn the young Jewish State into a normal country among others. For most of the postwar period, or at least until after the Six Day War of 1967, both Europeans and Israelis assumed that their two “never again(s)” would eventually mesh once Israel achieved peace with its neighbors.

History deemed otherwise. Israel today has abandoned the old postwar references to espouse a new national identity based on its own manifest destiny - even when advocating a quest for normality in daily life. The country has moved into its own orbit, where new, at times startling, synergies are being built between its avant-garde high tech modernity, its ever more Orthodox religious identity, and its ever more ethnic nationalistic outlook.

As a result, the Israeli state (but not its creative and pluralist civil society) seems to be moving closer, in a telluric shift, to its ethno-nationalist Asian counterparts, with their emphasis on economic growth and technological innovation and their lack of passion for universal values. Israel is now proud to be in a world of its own where it can take unilateral actions as it pleases, while scoffing at the toothless criticisms of the European (and now also partially American) chorus…all of this in the name of its alleged sacrosanct duty to protect the Jewish people, a duty deemed superior to any international obligation.

But one can wonder if Israel, by its actions, is truly protecting the Jewish people. Or is it the Jews outside Israel who, ever more worried by Israel’s fate, feel the need to protect it, often at the cost of a European and international “never again” that lies at the heart of their own legitimacy as Jews in democratic countries?

Jews around the world thus straddle uneasily this growing divide, caught between competing emotions and principles. It is Israel that has moved. And the European votes at the UN reflect this inexorable split between what had once been complementary ideals, but have now turned into full-blown mutual incomprehension.

Diana Pinto is a historian and writer living in Paris. She is active in European Jewish affairs and is the author of the recently-published Israel Has Moved(Harvard University Press, 2013). She is speaking at London's Jewish Book Week on Sunday, 24 February 2013 .

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Credit: Reuters

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