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Welcome To My Neighbourhood, Part II

To say that Jews have a complex relationship to Europe would be a gross understatement. In many respects, this relation is just as complex as Diaspora Jewry’s connection to Israel. The Jewish experience of Europe is both the basis for … Read More

By / March 19, 2009

To say that Jews have a complex relationship to Europe would be a gross understatement. In many respects, this relation is just as complex as Diaspora Jewry’s connection to Israel. The Jewish experience of Europe is both the basis for Zionist characterizations of the Diaspora as a sickly, alien space synonymous with racism and genocide. And it is also a place of utopian idealization, a model for Jewish nationhood, and a place that many Israelis have always wanted Israel to be a part of. Not just economically, but culturally, too.

Nevertheless, since the end of the era of decolonization in the 1960s, when France and the United Kingdom divested themselves of most of their former territorial holdings in the Third World, European feelings about Israel underwent a transformation. Once regarded as a typically post-WWII liberated zone, somewhere in between the West and the Middle East, since 1967’s Six Day War, Israel’s ongoing territorial struggles, and its policies towards the Palestinians came to embody everything that postwar Europe was trying to dissociate itself from.

This change in popular opinion about the Jewish state has traditionally been understood by many Jews to be motivated by racism. Similarly, this shift has always smacked of the worst kind of hypocrisy. How could the Europeans take such a position with us given that they both invented modern colonialism, and were the perpetrators of multiple acts of genocide, not just against Jews, but also against countless other indigenous peoples under their rule? Sadly, the European experience of Nazism, and the rise of liberalism in Western Europe after the Second World War has never been enough to explain this to us.

The advent of large-scale Muslim immigration to Europe since the 1960s has done little to mitigate such criticisms either. If the Europeans weren’t anti-Semitic hypocrites seeking to displace their own post-colonial guilt onto our shoulders, they were surely under the influence of their new Muslim populations, increasingly radicalized over the years by their deepening religiosity. The European equivalent to America’s Jewish population, of course they would influence European opinion strongly. Considering EU relations with wealthy Arab states, and the situation becomes that much more transparent, or so the story goes.

As expected as these sorts of anxieties are, the situation has always been far more complex. Anti-Semitism still exists, but it is by no means the only explanation. That Europe would turn out to be a place of greater debate about Israeli foreign policy, albeit one of conflict over it, given its history, is beyond question. However, anti-Semitism is not a fact of European state policy, and has not been since the Second World War. Jews, similarly, are more enfranchised within European society than ever. Just look at the cabinet members of the present British and French governments, or the growth of Germany’s Jewish population as examples. Or, for that matter, all of these states’ support for Israel, despite the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, and despite the fact that popular opinion in many EU states is extremely critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Completing a book last fall here in London, which addresses, in part, Israel’s struggles with Europe (and vice versa) I have spent a great deal of my free time taking pictures of local Israel-related graffiti, and in addition, in Italy, where my wife and I are about to move. As disturbing as some of these pictures are, shooting them provided a perverse kind of relief from the abstraction of writing about the politics we instinctively attribute to such difficult signs and symbols. Not all of them, might I add, are negative, either. Israel, or so it appears, is more a part of Europe than ever. If I could somehow distill it all down to a single memory card, or so I continue to believe, perhaps I’ll get an eventual handle on it all.

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