By: Joshua Goodman
It was a vivid and shocking image: American musician Matisyahu performing on the main stage of a 2015 festival in Spain, the very one that disinvited him just a week prior for refusing to condemn Israeli war crimes, with 20 or so Palestinian flags staring right back at him. The intent was to intimidate; the message was one of hatred.
The treatment of Israel, its supporters, and Jews overall in the political realm can conjure similar imagery. From the virulent attacks against the existence of the Jewish State – contentions that extend well beyond the pale of acceptable criticism – to the outright bigotry towards the Jews. The recent revelations of at least 50 suspensions within the British Labour party, long the political home for many within the Jewish communities of the UK, underscores the prevalence and mainstream nature of the problem.
The Jewish experience in Europe can accordingly be perceived as grave. Speaking after the incident at the festival in Spain, Matisyahu said that he “never had the experience of anything like that, as a Jew or anything in my life.” Indeed, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee decried the “bigotry and bias” inherently found in the initial boycott and subsequent protest. Others went further, calling the incident a harsh reminder of the endemic anti-Semitism within European society. It is difficult to dismiss the claim off hand. The challenge against Matisyahu, an artist who professes to not take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was grounded in one fact: he is Jewish.
It is also not an isolated incident of “bigotry” or “bias” within the music industry, whether the mainstream or more niche sectors. There are countless examples, from former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters’ vocal support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to British electronic duo Orbital including a graphic of a missile fluidly morphing into the Star of David on the screen behind. It is a troubling picture overall.
Yet one can also point to myriad counter-examples that tell a different story, one of inclusion and acceptance. Israeli-French singer/songwriter Yael Naim, most famous for the song “New Soul” and its use in a MacBook ad, has enjoyed widespread success in Europe. Within the more niche electronic music scene, Israeli-born and Berlin-based Moscoman has a residency at the hugely popular club, Salon zur wilden Renate, and his music is played (and revered) widely by others in the industry. In a world where anti-Semitic discrimination is so pervasive within society, surely such achievements would be more sparing, if not impossible.
An analogous paradigm exists when one examines the perceptions of Israel within the European political establishment. A perception of bias is routinely evident: whether it be the EU’s voting record at the United Nations or its inability to critique the Palestinians in European Council conclusions without also levying blame on Israel. It is undeniable that within the overall development of the anti-Israel bias in Europe, anti-Semitic voices and opinions play a role in its construction.
But to use anti-Semitism as a blanket characterisation of political motivation ignores countless examples to the contrary. Trade and cooperation between the EU and Israel continues to grow, with the latter now participating in the former’s Horizon 2020 initiative. During the 2014 Gaza war, the EU’s common position was, for the most part, supportive of Israeli actions against Hamas – waning only as the Palestinian death toll rose significantly. Political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speak out forcefully against BDS. Again, if anti-Semitism were so endemic, such accomplishments and integration would seem unlikely.
So how does one explain the often-tolerated presence and occasional prominence of the vitriol and overt prejudice that contributes to that overall anti-Israel bias in Europe? The suggestion of a predominant, nascent anti-Semitism within Europe is impossible to quantify or prove with any degree of clarity. It doesn’t deny its existence: there are certainly individuals within all strands of the European political establishment whose criticism of Israel is rooted in hatred. But I would contend that while anti-Semitism is clear and present, and while the mainstream’s opposition to the growing prevalence of these hateful sentiments is often muted, there are reasons to believe that these voices are not reflective of Europe as a whole.
How Anti-Semitism Navigates the European Political Spectrum
The strength of anti-Semitic voices within the sphere of European politics differs between the right and left of the political spectrum. The extremist voices on the right – whether the Golden Dawn party in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary – espouse a universal racism and radical social platforms that keep them on the periphery of the entrenched centre-right establishment. The left is a different picture. Those holding anti-Semitic views are often champions of the oppressed minority cause, allowing them to obfuscate their hatred with a progressive, almost anti-racist veneer and more easily blend into the mainstream.
Jeremy Corbin, the leader of Britain’s Labour party, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Hugely popular for his progressive ideas and deviation from the Labour norm, Corbin’s support for terrorist groups and Holocaust deniers, though much discussed, did little to scuttle his landslide victory. His selection may not necessarily be an affirmation of his position by the majority of Labour voters, but the willingness to look past it is dangerous. Commenting on Corbin’s dubious associations, Guardian columnist Owen Jones, himself a staunch advocate of Palestinian self-determination and critic of Israeli policy, chastised the left for its willingness “to downplay it, or to pretend it doesn’t exist within its own ranks.”
Within the institutions of the European Union, the situation is more acute. The notion of strength in numbers within the political balance of the European Council and European Parliament can make for problematic bedfellows. The centre-right European People’s Party routinely struggles with the undemocratic policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party. In a comparable effort to increase its mass, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (the centre-left establishment – the S&D group) has welcomed radical parties and politicians into its ranks – a factor that partly facilitates the inherent bias against Israel. They prioritize the application of pressure on the Jewish State rather than focusing on legislative actions that are vital to their constituents or party platforms.
The impact of this strategy was most evident when a minor pharmaceutical trade agreement between the EU and Israel was stalled for two and a half years over opposition to Israel’s policies in the territories. Agreement is actually too strong a word – it was a minor protocol to the long enforced trade deal between the parties. Nevertheless, staunch Israel critics within the S&D group such as Portuguese former-Communist Vital Moreira, head of the trade committee, and Belgian Socialist Veronique De Keyser, a Vice-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, abused their positions to roadblock the protocol. While their effort ultimately failed, the affair serves as a strong example of the influence they are able to generate through their presence in the mainstream left and the consequences for Israel.
Indeed, the prominence gained by radical, hateful voices within the leadership ranks of the European political left provides them the necessary leverage to push their agenda within the party mainstream. They face little opposition in these efforts, save for the few voices that are quickly dismissed on account of their pro-Israel bias. A number of questionable explanations as to the limited challenge can be offered. Some feebly contend that other political priorities necessitate give-and-take within the group dynamic. That argument would have some merit if the claim was that the policy of the left was perhaps slightly biased, not one that extends beyond the pale of acceptability.
A second assertion is that it is important for the EU to function as a counterweight to the US and its pro-Israel bias. While an argument can be made that traditionally unabashed US support for Israel does create an imbalanced dynamic, the notion that favouring the other side as a corrective measure to better facilitate peace is itself faulty logic. Following that line of thinking, others, such as the aforementioned Owen Jones, claim that a strong pro-Palestinian position is needed because Israel enjoys the backing of the Western democratic establishment. Again, the rationale that this approach will help foster peace once again fails.
There is a final consideration in developing an understanding of the bias on the European left and the willingness to accept the most extreme voices within their midst. Statistics show that Muslim minorities in most European countries vote overwhelmingly for the left. In countries where the overall population is more numerous, such as France and Belgium, their support can be influential. Accordingly, an anti-Israel bias would seem strategically advantageous.
Beyond the left, the centrality of the dispute over Israeli settlement policies can often facilitate the linkages between the more hateful and moderate positions. Pro-Israel advocates will often characterize the attention as an “obsession” and indicative of the higher standard Israel is held to (surely, though they will never publicly suggest, Palestinian terror is a greater obstacle than adding a second bathroom in Har Homa). While that may be true, it ignores certain political perspectives that are structurally incompatible with the policy. The Realpolitik mentality can’t compute the continuation of the settlement policy after the strategic value to Israeli security has proved false (they note the success of the security fence in keeping pre-1967 Israel safe). Within the various political strands of Scandinavia, there is accord that Israel, as a democracy integrated into the Western world, should be held to a higher standard than the Palestinians – a mentality that places a greater onus for peace on the Jewish state. These are just two examples of how more moderate dispositions within other European political circles can act as a conduit for more extreme voices to amplify their positions.
Yet, there is an intriguing underlying premise that emerges through even surface-quality analysis, an argument they share with Israel and their supporters: the limitations of the Palestinians as a partner for peace. While there may be commonality in cause, they differ in effect. For Israel, the Palestinian deficiency as a partner for peace is a justification for inaction. Europeans, including those within the Realpolitik and Scandinavian camps, see it as an impetus for action and disproportionate obligation. The political shift to the right in Israel has certainly aggravated the situation, but the conceptual underpinnings have long existed.
So Why the Silence?
Against the backdrop of these varying perspectives, there is still the problematic commonality of the silence within the mainstream – whether on the left, right or center – to the unabashed assaults on Israel. Spanish political leaders only condemned the Matisyahu incident after the uproar from Jewish groups; there was an unsurprising silence from fellow artists and industry leaders. Within the Brussels corridor, condemnation of hatred is often forced, with the preferred approach being to sweep the matter under the rug. For example, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labelled Zionism a “crime against humanity” in March 2013, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton only condemned the statement after a reporter raised the matter through a non sequitur follow-up to her approved question on Syria. Absent that query, prompted by a letter initiated by a Jewish NGO and signed by 20 MEPs, the EU’s senior most voice on foreign policy would likely have remained silent.
Explaining the general silence is a most complicated challenge, but I would submit that it be effectively examined within transformations that have occurred within liberal values in Europe of past decades. Today, liberal values have morphed from a set of principles to a reactionary movement for the loudest claims of injustice within its midst – whether rooted in just cause or not. It is this same transformation that explains why little is said about the persecution of the Roma in numerous EU Member States. Similarly, why there was no genuine action over the Syrian refugee crisis until the uproar over the image of a child washing up on the coast.
Moreover, in the absence of strong, present liberal values, radically anti-Israel and anti-Semitic voices can establish themselves within mainstream circles in Europe. The failure of political and cultural elites to take a strong position against these trends, often preferring to sweep them under the rug, only perpetuates the problem. Yet to place sole responsibility for this on pervasive anti-Semitism goes too far as those voices are not still representative of Europe as a whole.
It is certainly present within all strands of European politics, to varying degrees. Nevertheless, to suggest it is the prevalent ethos ignores other dynamics and the counter-examples of cooperation (not simply tolerance). There is often a disconnect between the rhetoric and actions within the European political sphere with regard to Israel. In the end, BDS will remain a marginal movement and technical collaboration with Israel will grow – all while the political disconnect persists.
Joshua Goodman is a Toronto-based writer and political analyst. He spent four years (2010-2014) working for a pro-Israel organization in Brussels. He holds an LLM from the University of Kent and an MA in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University.