[Viewpoint] Wrong friends for IsraelIsrael has been welcoming some rather peculiar visitors of late. The Dutch populist Geert Wilders is a frequent caller, telling sympathetic audiences that Israel is on the front line of the Western war against Islam. And in December, a delegation of European far-right politicians toured Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank, pleasing their hosts by reassuring them that this was “Jewish land.”
Some of these “friends of Israel” represent political parties whose supporters, to put it mildly, have not traditionally been noted for their fraternal feelings towards Jews. Heinz-Christian Strache, for example, leads the Freedom Party of Austria, which began under its late founder and leader, Jorg Haider, by actively courting former Nazis. “More strength for our Viennese blood,” one of his election slogans, gives an idea of Strache’s typical tone. His Belgian colleague, Filip Dewinter, represents a Flemish nationalist party tainted by wartime collaboration with the Nazis.
To be sure, nowadays even right-wing politicians in Europe are careful not to sound openly anti-Semitic. Wilders, for one, is ostentatiously philosemitic, and all the New Rightists like to stress the importance of what they call “Judeo-Christian values,” which must be defended against “Islamofascism.”
Leftist and liberal critics of Israeli politics like to point out that anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. But it is just as true that being a friend of Israel is not necessarily the same thing as being a friend of the Jews.
Richard Nixon, for example, said of Jews that “you can’t trust the bastards,” but was a great admirer of Israel. And, of course, the last 2,000 years have shown that anti-Semitism is perfectly compatible with the worship of a Jew called Jesus of Nazareth. In the United States, some of the fiercest defenders of hardline Zionism are evangelical Christians who firmly believe that Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity will one day face terrible retribution.
Sometimes, the wrong friends can be useful. When Theodor Herzl was making the rounds of Europe at the end of the 19th century, trying to gain support for the establishment of a state for the Jews, he was often rebuffed by rich and powerful Jewish grandees, who saw him as a troublemaker. Instead, he found eager supporters among pious Protestants, for whom Jews belonged in their own holy land rather than in Europe.
Once the Jewish state was established, the earliest European friends of Israel were often people on the left, who admired the communal life on the kibbutzim, and saw Israel as a great socialist experiment, led by wise old left-wing idealists such as David Ben-Gurion. Residual guilt about the Holocaust bolstered this attitude.
Things began to change after the 1967 Six Day War, and even more after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when it became clear that Israel was not going to let go of the Palestinian territories that it had conquered. Later, when Israel began to build settlements all over the occupied territories, admiration even turned into active hostility from Europe’s left.
To many people on the right, however, the very things deplored by the European (and Israeli) left became reasons to admire Israel. These new friends liked the ruthless use of force, the ethnic nationalism and the continued humiliation of the Palestinians. Keen to revive a more militant form of nationalism in their own countries, politicians like Strache, Wilders and Dewinter see Israel as a kind of model - a model discredited for a long time in Europe, owing to bad memories of fascism and Nazism.
Indeed, anti-Zionist leftists frequently attempt to discredit Israel by comparing its actions in Gaza and the West Bank to Nazi atrocities. This is a cheap trick, aimed to give maximum offense. Contrary to what the Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago once said, the Israeli army’s attacks in Gaza are not comparable in any way to Auschwitz. But the view, espoused by Israel’s new right-wing friends, that Israel is on the front line against Islamic fascism, is equally mendacious.
By comparing Islam in general - not only Islamist terrorism - to fascism, as the right-wing populists do, and to suggest that Europe faces a threat comparable to the Nazis, is not just wrong, but dangerous. For, if it were true, any and all measures taken against Muslims, however brutal, would be justified, and Israel would indeed be a frontline state, resisting “Islamofacism” to prevent another Auschwitz. This is certainly how many Israeli right-wing politicians explain things. And they find eager parrots among some of Europe’s most retrograde political forces.
It is a view that carries the grave implication that a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost impossible. The longer Israel, cheered on by the wrong European friends, continues to humiliate the Palestinians and occupy their lands, the more likely it will be that hatred and violence will stand in the way of compromise, without which there can be no peace.
There is another potential consequence, however. False analogies with the past trivialize history. If the Israelis, or the Palestinians, are like Nazis, then the horror of what the real Nazis did has been greatly diminished.
But exploiting history to justify current violence will not work forever. Once people stop believing that Israel is defending the West against fascism, Israel will be blamed for all the violence in the Middle East. And Jews everywhere else will be blamed by association. In short, the wrong friends of Israel are even worse friends of the Jewish people.
*The writer is a professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College.
By Ian Buruma