Fact-checking Bill Maher: Are Europeans 'Assholes to Israel?'

If Europeans had truly tried to be 'real assholes' toward Israel, they could. But a few softly-spoken rebukes do not an asshole make.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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This photo provided by HBO shows host Bill Maher on the television show "Real Time With Bill Maher," in Los Angeles, Friday, March 11, 2016.
This photo provided by HBO shows host Bill Maher on the television show "Real Time With Bill Maher," in Los Angeles, Friday, March 11, 2016. Credit: AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Last week’s terror attacks in Brussels that claimed the lives of 32 innocents were followed by deplorable gloating from several prominent Israeli right-wing politicians, saying they hope now Europeans will stop criticizing Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Israel’s Transport Minister Yisrael Katz even made international headlines by accusing the Belgians of eating chocolate rather than fighting terrorism.

October’s Paris attacks elicited similar reactions. But this time, Israel’s right-wingers were joined by another person who seemed to be gloating on behalf of the people of Israel: Bill Maher.

In the latest episode of HBO’s "Real Time with Bill Maher," the host brought up the Brussels attacks and how they might affect Europe’s relationship with Israel. “Europe has been real assholes about Israel. In general, the UN. As of 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council had issued more official condemnations of Israel than the rest of the world’s nations combined,” Maher said. “I wonder, now that Europe has been attacked four times in a little over a year, and they say ISIS has 400 fighters [that] they’re ready to introduce back into Europe, and they’re trying to get a dirty bomb, maybe Europe will have a little more sympathy to what Israel goes through.”

Fact-checking a comedian is often a fruitless endeavor, but since Real Time combines comedy with serious political commentary, and since Bill Maher is one of the most informed political comedians of his generation (excluding his occasional diatribes about Israel or Islam), his point is worth examining.

Say it with flowers?

Has Europe been “real assholes about Israel,” as Maher claims? No. In fact, quite the opposite. Despite the demagoguery of right-wing propaganda about European diplomats criticizing Israel too much (that is, at all), Europe is a strong ally of Israel, and has been so for decades.

Some Israeli politicians protest every statement by European politicians about the need to end the occupation the West Bank as a part of a concentrated EU conspiracy to “delegitimize” Israel.

Diplomatic scapegoating is convenient when you have no actual solution to your country’s problems. Also, their bombast will impress constituents, but most likely will have absolutely no consequences.

The truth is that Europe is such an important economic ally that Israel can’t afford to lose it, and it's such a firm political ally that Israel knows for certain it won’t lose it.

The EU has been Israel’s largest trading partner for many years, propping up Israel’s economy with trade agreements, partnerships, and individual government programs that are vital to Israeli academic and scientific research, culture, and exports. Last year, Israel’s Finance Ministry calculated the potential damage of a complete EU boycott of Israel. Israeli exports would contract by 88 billion shekels ($22 billion dollars), GDP would be cut by roughly $10 billion, and 36,500 jobs would be lost.

The prospect of a full EU boycott was, as noted by a report in Haaretz at the time, “the most severe of four possible scenarios contained in the report.”

De facto apartheid

That is an extremely unlikely scenario. Yet, in response to the EU’s decision last year to label products manufactured in the West Bank settlements as such, Israel’s right-wing politicians leveled some really ridiculous threats at Europe, as if it was already taking place.

Benjamin Netanyahu symbolically threatened to cut ties with Europe by suspending ties with EU bodies working on the non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process for three months, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked threatened to sue the EU through the World Trade Organization, and MK Michael Oren went to supermarkets and “labeled” EU-made products. It was all, of course, complete nonsense.

The prime benefactor of the EU’s inconsequential policy toward Israel's human rights violations has been the Israeli right-wing, which has relied on the unwavering support for Israel among European nations to pursue its agenda in the West Bank to the fullest extent. If Europeans had chosen to be “assholes” toward Israel, they would have had the economic and political wherewithal to possibly prevent Israel from becoming a de-facto apartheid state.

If Europeans had truly tried to be “real assholes” toward Israel, they could. But a few softly-spoken rebukes do not an asshole make.

Yes, European diplomats criticize Israel. Sometimes, they don’t do it wisely. Is that criticism proportional to Israel’s geopolitical significance, or the relative severity of its actions? No.

Is Israel unfairly singled out by the United Nations (which is, by the way, composed of many other countries outside of Europe)? Sometimes.

Boo-hoo, as Bill Maher himself might say. By criticizing European stances toward Israel, one can’t ignore the fact that so far they’ve been essentially toothless, or that Israel’s military capabilities are literally bolstered by German submarines. Far from being a great foil to Israel’s West Bank expansion, Europe has continually served as a great enabler, second only to the US. And while it sometimes criticizes Israel’s harsh anti-terror tactics, recently it has mostly mimicked them.

The myth that Europeans are not supportive of Israel is a right-wing distortion, a result of an old Jewish custom of seeing anti-Semitism in every corner that has been amplified to serve internal politicking and propaganda purposes.

Why did Bill Maher choose to rehash tired talking points about Europeans being mean to Israel? Maher is an avid Israel supporter, which is great. But by repeating tired old hysterics that have nothing to do with reality like the ones he uttered on Friday, he has crossed the line between intentional comedy and a Breitbart piece.

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