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The demons of Europe

Woensdag, December 31, 2003 / Last Modified: Zondag, Januari 14, 2018

By Josef Joffe, chief editor of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit and an
associate of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard.

January 2004.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, a demonstrator
wearing a mask of Donald Rumsfeld and an outsized yellow Star of David
(inscribed with the word “Sheriff”) was accompanied by a cudgel-wielding
double of Ariel Sharon; the two of them were followed by a huge rendition of
the golden calf.

The message? The United States is in thrall to the Jews/Israelis; both are
the acolytes of Mammon; and both represent the avant-garde of a pernicious
global capitalism.

This is the face of the new anti-Semitism. Lacking certain murderous elements
of the classical type, it is nevertheless rife with some of its most ancient motifs.
What is new about it is the projection of these old fantasies onto two new
targets: Israel and America. Indeed, the United States is an anti-Semitic fantasy
come true: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in living color.

Do not Jews, their first loyalty to Israel, control the Congress, the
Pentagon, the banks, the universities, and the media? Having captured the
“hyperpower,” do they not finally rule the world? That at least seems to be the
consensus of the Europeans, who in a recent EU poll declared Israel and the
United States, in that order, to be the greatest threats to world peace.

Yet the issue is more complicated than the reconditioning of an old myth.
Almost every European critic of those two nations will vehemently reject the
charge of anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism. Since the behavior of Israel and
the United States always offers plenty to criticize, the issue is not easy to
resolve. What is the difference between criticism and anti-Semitism or
anti-Americanism? What, indeed, are the elements of any “anti-ism”?

At all times and in all places, there are usually five such elements.

The first is stereotyping: indulging in general statements that attribute
negative qualities to the target group as a whole.

The second is denigration: the ascription of moral inferiority to a whole
group, traceable in the last resort to an irreducibly evil nature.

The third element is obsession, the idee fixe that the target group is both
omnipresent and omni-causal – an invisible force that explains all misery,
whether dying cattle or failing businesses.

The fourth step is demonization. Here the key theme is conspiracy: thus,
Jews want to sully our racial purity, or subvert our sacred traditions or, above
all, to achieve domination.

Finally comes the determination to seek an end to troubles by eliminating
the alleged source of torment, be it by exclusion, extrusion, or annihilation.

In polite Western society, it is infra dig (beneath one’s dignity) to say: “Yes, I
hate the Jews.” Not so, “I hate Sharon” or “Israelis behave like Nazis.” At this
juncture, one begins to muse about displacement, about the human habit to
clobber one object while actually targeting another, the other being usually
protected by fearsome power, whether symbolic or real. Lashing out at an
Israeli leader does not risk the raised eyebrows that demonizing his people, let
alone Jews as such, would do in a post-racist age.

How then, can one tell the difference between criticism and “anti-ism”? One
test is language. Take this statement: “Demolishing the houses of the families
of terrorists is morally wrong because it imputes guilt by association, and
politically wrong because it pushes more people into the arms of Hamas.” Such
a statement is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic; it might even be correct.

By contrast, “the Israelis are latter-day Nazis who want to drive the
Palestinians from their land in order to realize an imperialist biblical dream”
inhabits a very different order of discourse, ascribing evil to an entire collective
and, in its equation of Israelis and Nazis, revealing an obsessive need for moral

In our era, the word “Nazi” itself stands for boundless evil. To apply the label to
Jews or Israelis is to inflict maximal moral damage on them.

A second test is the test of selectivity. If it is always Israel that is the target of
indignation or incrimination, but not Russia’s war against Chechnya with about
60,000 dead, China’s bloody repression of Tibetans and Muslims, tribal
genocide in Central Africa, or the persecution of whites in Zimbabwe, then we
are in the presence of a double standard. This strengthens the presupposition of
anti-Israelism, if not of anti-Semitism.[1]

Indisputably, Israel has assumed a special place in contemporary demonology.
At the more extreme end, Israelis have been characterized as oppressors and
colonizers, as arrogant settlers and crazed religious fanatics, as Nazi-like killers
of women and children. In this sense, Israel has become an obsession that
cannot be explained away by recourse to anti-colonialism, a standard fixture of
the post-1960’s Western mind.

Nor can the Western liberal habit of siding with the underdog explain
why the Russian war against Chechnya has attracted only perfunctory
condemnation and French interventions in Africa almost none while an Israeli
retaliatory incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin in 2002 should have been
branded instantly as a “massacre” of “thousands” before the facts were in (the
facts being that 24 Israeli soldiers died along with 52 Palestinians, mostly

As in all cases of anti-ism, it was the prejudice that selected the facts,
not the facts that informed the judgment.

Nor can the opprobrium attaching to Israel be explained in terms of the
Palestinians’ noble cause of liberation and statehood. For neither the means nor
the end is noble: suicide bombs seek to murder as many civilians as possible,
while the noble cause itself is articulated in terms of politicide – i.e., the
elimination of the state of Israel.

Militarily, the Palestinians are the weaker party, but their ultimate
objective remains a total one, whether expressed directly by Hamas and
Hizballah and Islamic Jihad or indirectly by PLO officials when speaking to
kindred audiences. That these cold facts are virtually ignored in European
discourse is deeply suggestive of an old obsession.

The new obsession might be called “elimination-lite.” If the anti-Semitism of
yore sought to get rid of the Jews, either physically or by means of their
complete assimilation, the “lite” version holds that if one could only weaken
and push back Israel, only somehow force Israel to retract its
occupation-cum-settlements, then, presto!, “the” Middle East conflict would be

Less reductionism – that is, less fixation on single causes – would reveal
a larger set of problems and a wider tally of “root causes.” These would include
the many dysfunctional elements of Arab political reality that are unrelated to
the Palestinian issue, including hegemonial strife among shifting contenders,
barely suppressed civil war between believers and secularists (and between one
sort of believer and others, e.g., Sunni and Shiite), failed economies that offer
no future to millions of young people, minimal interaction with other Arab
economies, severely rationed political participation, a culture inhospitable to
introspection, blatant inequalities between the sexes and among sects and

Is all of this Israel’s fault, too? Propinquity to the “Zionist entity” and the
dynamics of regional enmity might be invoked to help explain the dynastic
dictatorship of Syria; it cannot explain the mayhem in faraway Algeria.

Adducing Israeli behavior in the occupied territories, brutal as it
sometimes is, cannot explicate the sheer hatred directed against leaders like
Ariel Sharon, the moral indignation directed against Israel but rarely against
Palestinian terrorists, the reflexively one-sided apportionment of blame when
there is so much blame to pass around.

But if Israel is not a “shitty little country” (in the words of a French ambassador
at the Court of St. James), it is considered somehow inherently guilty – as Jews
were seen to be inherently guilty through the ages.

Hence, terror against Israeli civilians, even if briefly condemned, is
placed in the context of Israeli conquest and oppression and so alleged to call
for a “deeper” understanding.

In fact, the higher the toll, the greater terrorism’s validation in terms of
the injustice and despair that are supposedly driving it. Thus, softly-softly, does
murder spell out its own moral justification.

Nietzsche would clap his hands in delight over this transvaluation of
values, which ascribes moral worth to the most reprehensible of deeds: the
massacre of innocents.

How has Israel come to be seen as the source of all misery? Why the
denigration? The route to anti-ism is not a straight and narrow one.

A cynical insight has been ascribed to the Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex:
“The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.”

Like the survivors of the Holocaust, the state of the Jews is a constant
reminder of the moral failure not only of Germany, but of Europe as a whole.

The Germans did it, and Europe either connived or looked on – with some
notable counter-examples like Denmark and those many individuals elsewhere
who risked their lives for their Jewish compatriots. To consult Freud again,
moral surrender to evil creates an irrepressible urge to shift blame from
perpetrators and bystanders to victims and their heirs.

The psychic mechanism goes like this: if the Jews could be shown to
behave like Nazis, they would no longer have a special moral claim on us; if
they are as bad as our forefathers, we can unshoulder our own inherited burden
of guilt.

Add to this the culpability felt by the French over Vichy and colonial repression
in Algeria, by the Belgians over their bloody reign in the Congo, by the
Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese over their fascist pasts, by the Dutch over
their (carefully concealed) collaboration with the Nazis, by the Swedes and the
Swiss over their “pro-German neutrality,” and there are plenty of incubated guilt
feelings to spread around.

Clearly, Israel delivers an excellent canvas for the projection of blame.
When a former government minister, Nobert Blum, calls Israel’s anti-terror
strategy a “Vernichtungsfeldzug” against the Palestinians, a war of annihilation,
using a term normally applied to the Nazi war against the Jews and other
“subhumans” in the East, the message of his subconscious rings out loud and
clear. Thus, not so softly-softly, are words forged into weapons of

Nor is Germany the only player in this game. Much of Western Europe has
drawn its post-Holocaust identity from the rejection of the darkest part of the
Continent’s proud history. The battle cry of postwar Europe is “Never Again!,”
as Alain Finkielkraut has put it: a “no” to fuehrers, duces, and caudillos, to
colonialism, conquest, and discrimination against the “Other.”

To regain moral stature, Europeans have turned anti-fascism into a
doctrine of worldly transcendence, with a secular decalogue that reads, in part:
thou shalt not pray to the discredited gods of nationalism; thou shalt not
practice power politics; thou shalt relinquish sovereignty and rejoice in
cooperation. From this moral stand it is but a short, tricky step to redemption’s
darker side.

Do not the Israelis, of all people, behave in the evil ways we have
transcended? Well, then, are we not better than those who so gratingly remind
us of our unworthy past?

This is not anti-Semitism, but it is a derivative phenomenon. The inherited moral
burden cries out for projection, and Israel, fighting for its just cause with
sometimes unjust means but with far more restraint than Russia against the
Chechnyans or Algeria against its Islamists, makes for a perfect target.

Vilification spells moral relief because it redresses the moral balance –
and so the verdict against Israel has to be “guilty.”

But the story does not end here. Recall Jose Bove, the French foe of
globalization who in 1999 led a “deconstructivist” mob against a McDonald’s to
protest what that company was doing to his country’s culinary culture. In
March 2002, this same Bove showed up in Ramallah, denouncing Israel and
declaiming his support for Yasir Arafat, whose headquarters was surrounded by
Israeli tanks. Never mind that the Israeli army had not just dropped in for a little
oppression but rather to defend against mounting terrorist attacks.

What the scene suggested was that Arafat’s cause was Bove’s cause.
Here was a spokesman of the anti-globalization movement conflating
globalization with Americanization (McDonald’s) and extending his loathing of
both to Israel.

The routine pairing of Israel and America is surely the most interesting new
motif in our old story, and has been well dissected by Natan Sharansky in these
pages.[2] How to interpret it? Again, one must beware of equating criticism
with anti-ism and instead look for the classic telltale signs. They are there in

Stereotyping and denigration.

The indictment of the United States comes in three parts. First, America is
morally flawed. It executes its own people, and it likes to bomb other people. It
is the land of intolerant fundamentalist religion. Selfish and self-absorbed, it
refuses to ratify the International Criminal Court or agreements to protect the
environment. It is “Dirty Harry” and “Globocop” rolled into one – an
irresponsible and arrogant citizen of the world.

Second, America is socially retrograde: it is the fountainhead of a “predatory
capitalism” (according to a former German chancellor) that denies social
services to those who need them most. Instead of bettering the lot of its
darker-skinned minorities, it shunts millions of them into prison. America
accepts, nay, admires gross income inequalities and defies the claims of social

Finally, America is culturally inferior. It gorges itself on fast food, wallows in
tawdry mass entertainment, starves the arts, and prays only to one god, which
is Mammon. It sacrifices the best of culture to pap and pop. In matters sexual,
America is both prurient and prudish. It is a society where Europe’s finest
values – solidarity and community, taste and manners – are ground down by
rampant individualism.

The best shorthand statement under this heading is a cartoon on a Jordanian
website in April 2002 that showed a jeep-like SUV, a pack of cigarettes with a
Marlboro design, a can of Coca-Cola, and a hamburger – all dripping with blood.
These, the cartoon insinuates, are the weapons that drive America’s quest for
global domination. They are meant to seduce, but the blood with which they
are saturated symbolizes violent imposition.

Yield to the seduction, and the price will be the loss of your own culture,
dignity, and power.

Like any proper target of anti-ism, America is seen as omnipotent and
omni-causal. America’s is the hand that pulls all strings. The U.S. is the cause
of poverty, despotism, and exploitation in the third world. Like any target of
anti-ism, the U.S gets it coming and going: it is a threat to peace when it uses
its fearsome power (Iraq) and a traitor to humanity when it does not (Rwanda
as well as Bosnia/Kosovo before the bombing campaign).

The similarities with anti-Semitism are hard to escape. Like Jews, Americans
are selfish and arrogant. Like Jews, they are in thrall to a fundamentalist
religion that renders them self-righteous and dangerous.

As classical anti-Semitism opposes the loving kindness of the New
Testament to the vengeful God of the Old, rapidly de-Christianizing Europe likes
to contrast its secular-humanist ethos with the harsh Calvinism of America.

If the Jews bestride the world as the “Chosen People,” Americans claim
to live in “God’s Own Country” while arrogating unto themselves, as a favorite
anti-Bushism has it, a “divine mission.”

Another mainstay of the anti-Semitic faith, anti-capitalism, has likewise passed
smoothly from the Jews to the United States.

Like Jews, Americans are money-grubbers who know only the value of
money, and the worth of nothing. Like Jews, Americans are motivated only by
profit. Relentlessly competitive (“pushy”), they are the solvents of social justice
as they are of every worthy tradition.

If the empire of international Jewry was built on finance and trade,
America’s is built on a “globalization” that exploits the helpless and kills jobs.

Here conspiracy rears its head. Again like the Jews, America is the mastermind
extraordinaire, its hand behind every plot, even the immolation of the World
Trade Center; in 2003, a half-dozen books on this theme became bestsellers in
France and Germany.

Echoing a classic indictment of “World Jewry,” a poster during an
anti-Bush demonstration in Berlin in 2002 read: “Stop Bush’s Grab for Global

And so, the remedy: extrusion. The most murderous variant is al Qaeda’s: kill
Americans and Jews, expel the new “crusaders” from Araby, and our soil will
be holy, the umma whole again. (“Seeking to kill Americans and Jews
everywhere in the world,” Osama bin Laden exhorted Muslims, “is one of the
greatest duties, and the good deed most preferred by Allah.”) Elsewhere, the
impulse is not physical elimination but pushback, elimination-lite.

The watchword is “anti-hegemonism.” America must be repelled because it is
the global steamroller that flattens community and solidarity, leaving behind a
few rich winners and many poor losers. America is also the great temptress
that seduces the rest of the world’s children into wolfing down fast food and
watching Hollywood violence.

Accordingly, the world must resist the hyperpower-turned-empire by
going instead for “self-assertion” and “multipolarity” – shibboleths for containing
and defanging the American behemoth.

Not only is there a striking family resemblance between anti-Israelism and
anti-Americanism, but the two are routinely conjoined in the minds and in the
rhetoric of those obsessed with them. Of course, America as “Great Satan” and
Israel as “Little Satan” (note the religious language) are metaphors as old as the
Khomeinist revolution of 1979. But the pairing of the two Satans is no
longer just an Islamic affair. At the anti-Bush demonstrations in Berlin in May
2002, no accompanying posters were held up against Russian or Chinese
leaders, let alone against Saddam Hussein, but plenty against Ariel Sharon – as
“oppressor,” “warmonger,” and “state terrorist.” Why trundle out Sharon
unless to suggest that the enemy was both America and Israel?

Another regular occurrence is the application of Nazi imagery to both America
and Israel. At demonstrations against the Iraq war last year, one German poster
showed an obviously Jewish figure setting the world aflame. Another
proclaimed: “USA – Third Reich, Both Alike” (USA – Drittes Reich, Ihr seid so
gleich). Still another stated: “One Hitler Is Enough” (the unspoken message
being, Bush equals Hitler). To top them all, a placard read: “Remember
Nuremberg, Mr. Bush: Death by Hanging.” Franz Alt, a German author and TV
moderator, denouncing Bush as the “greatest enemy of mankind,” seemed to
be echoing the old Nazi slogan: “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck – the Jews are
our misfortune.”

Still, similarities are not sameness, and parallels are not proof. What are the
psychic compulsions that turn Israel and the U.S. into joint targets of hatred
and contempt? The simplest answer is that both of these two outriggers of the
Occident are different from the rest of the West – different in the same way –
and differences, especially when flanked by assertiveness and achievement, do
not for fondness make.

To my mind, these differences come in a foursome, of which the first
component is power.

Specifically, Israel and the United States are the most advanced and
powerful players in their respective neighborhoods – Israel in its region, the
United States on the global beat. Unvanquished in war, they possess armies
unmatched by any of their rivals. America’s economy is the world’s largest, its
technology the world’s most sophisticated. The Israeli economy outperforms
those of its four Arab neighbors combined. In some technology sectors, like
avionics, Israel surpasses even the major powers of Europe. America’s top
universities are the world’s best, and whereas the Arab world boasts not a
single true research university, Israel has seven. If America is Gulliver unbound,
Israel is a constant and grating reminder of Arab failure.

We need not invoke Freud to infer that success breeds envy and resentment.
The indignation is compounded by the rampant modernity both countries
epitomize. Relentless change, inflicted from outside, does not sit well with
European society, let alone with Arab societies.

The European dispensation favors social and economic protection, while
the Arab model seems suspended among various reactionary Utopias ranging
from state socialism to Islamism. The unconscious logic goes like this:
modernization is Americanization, and both have found their most faithful
disciple in Israel.

The second element has to do with identity.

Compared with continental Europe, the U.S. and Israel stand out for their
strong sense of nationhood. For all their actual multiculturalism – indeed, both
the U.S. and Israel are ethnic microcosms of the world – these two countries
share a keen sense of self. They know who they are, and what they want to
be. They define themselves in terms not of ethnicity but of ideology – novus
ordo seclorum, Zionism – that transcends tribe and class (though not, in Israel’s
case, religion) and is ultimately rooted in founding documents like both
countries’ declarations of independence.

Both of their national myths are written in the language of salvation.
Indeed, the Puritans, seeking to build a “new Jerusalem” in a “promised land,”
consciously patterned their own flight from England on the biblical exodus from
Egypt. America may be the most “Jewish” nation in the Christian world.

Compare this sense of nationhood with the mindset of Western Europe’s
mature democracies. The polities extending from Italy via Germany and the Low
Countries through Scandinavia may already have passed into post-nationalism.
The European Union is fitfully undoing national sovereignty without providing its
citizens with a common identity.

“Europe” is still a matter of practicality, not of pride. As a work in
progress, it lacks the underpinning of emotional attachment. Europeans become
all wound up when their own country’s soccer team wins or loses, but the
fierce nationalism that once drove millions into the trenches of two world wars
has evaporated, and with it has gone the thirst to identify oneself with a
glorious national past or with heart-stirring national traditions.

With a strong sense of national identity comes, typically, a sense of national
purpose and the determination if necessary to back it up with force; this is the
third element I would point to.

Post-national Europe cherishes its “civilian power,” its attachment to
international regimes and institutions. Individual European armies are no longer
repositories of nationalism or career advancement, but organizations with about
as much social prestige as the post office.

Europeans pride themselves on having overcome the atavism of war in favor of
compromise, cooperation, and institutionalism. This self-perception imbues
them with a sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis the “yahoos” in Washington
and Jerusalem, who over the last 50 years have resorted to force more
frequently than any other Western nations.

Perhaps many Europeans resent unconsciously what they no longer have – all
those qualities that once made them fierce and fearsome warriors. Perhaps they
resent these two nations in the Western family for doing what they no longer
can – or dare – do.

And here is another way in which both Israel and the U.S. offer an
excellent canvas for the projection of others’ superior self-image. Do not the
two countries behave in the brutish ways we Europeans have at last unlearned?

They are Hobbes and Machiavelli, we are Kant and Rousseau. They insist
on war and domination, we on peace and community. And so, Europe’s
conscience, forged in the cozy shelter of America’s strategic might, abounds
with reassurance: we have frog-leaped the barbarians and landed in history’s
moral avant-garde.

This is hardly to deny the strong currents of post-nationalism that run through
California’s Marin County, not to mention Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street and the
writings of Israel’s “post-Zionists.” But along with the influences of culture and
psychology we must come back in the end to power and politics – in short, to
the positions of America and Israel in the international system.

Israel will remain a threatened polity, and the U.S. the world’s number-one
power, probably for the rest of this century. These are the raw and irreducible
facts of international politics. Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton may have enjoyed a
better press than do George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, but that merely
obscures the deeper realities. Both countries remain targets not only for what
they do, but also for what and where they are.

What they do is sometimes unwise or nasty; where they are, in the
international scheme of things, can be changed only by sacrificing their
exceptionalism and the power needed to secure it. Without extraordinary
strength and the willingness to use it, Israel will not endure as a state among
those who deny it legitimacy, nor America as a Jeffersonian “empire of liberty”
seeking safety in the juste milieu of a democratizing world.

No Western European country has been attacked since 1945. No wonder, then,
that the martial instincts of the Europeans have faded along with their militaries
in the course of a seemingly perpetual peace. No wonder, then, that they resent
Israel and America as the reprobate children of the West.

But nations in harm’s way cannot and will not soon evolve into Sweden
or Germany – not in the Hobbesian world of the Levant, and not on the
precarious perch of the “last remaining superpower.” By dint of what they are
and what they have, America and Israel will remain both targets and warriors.

The anatomy of the international system, to borrow one last time from Freud, is
destiny. On post-nationalism, postmodernism, and the rest, where you sit is
where you stand. America and Israel are the outsiders – just as Jews have been
all the way into the 21st century.

The question yet to be decided, and on which everything hangs, is who
will prevail.


[1] On the question of whether Israel and the Jews are two sides of the same
coin, I cannot improve on Hillel Halkin’s compelling argument in “The Return of
Anti-Semitism,” COMMENTARY, February 2002. Suffice it to say that to
profess intense dislike for Israel while sparing the Jews engenders such sharp
verbal contradictions as inevitably to ring hollow.

[2] “On Hating the Jews,” November 2003.


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