From the Los Angeles
Middle East War: Made in Europe
The tortured history of the Israeli-Arab conflict eventually leads back
to the Continent.
By Timothy Garton Ash
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is professor of European studies at Oxford
University and a senior fellow at the
Hoover Institution at Stanford
July 27, 2006
WHEN AND WHERE did this war begin? Shortly after 9 a.m. local time on
Wednesday, July 12, when Hezbollah militants seized Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad
Regev — Israeli reservists on the last day of their tour of duty — in a
cross-border raid into northern Israel?
Friday, June 9, when Israeli shells killed at least seven Palestinian civilians
on a beach in the Gaza Strip? In January, when Hamas won the Palestinian
legislative elections in a backhanded triumph for an American policy of
supporting democratization? In 1982, when Israel
In 1979, with the Islamic revolution in Iran? In 1948, with the creation of
the state of Israel?
Or how about Russia
in the spring of 1881?
Simple questions require such complicated answers. Even if the basic facts are
agreed on, every term is disputed: Militants, soldiers or terrorists? Seized,
captured or kidnapped? Every selection of facts implies an interpretation. And
in tortured histories like this, every horror will be explained or justified by
reference to some antecedent horror, as poet James Fenton wrote in his
“Ballad of the Imam and the Shah.”
From tyranny to tyranny to war
From dynasty to dynasty to hate
From villainy to villainy to death
From policy to policy to grave
… The song is yours. Arrange it as you will.
Yet observing European responses to the current conflict, I want to insist on Europe’s own strong claim to be among the earliest
causes. The Russian pogroms of 1881; the French mob chanting “à bas les
juifs” as Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulets at the
Ecole Militaire; the festering anti-Semitism of Austria about 1900, shaping the
young Adolf Hitler; all the way to the Holocaust of European Jewry and the
waves of anti-Semitism that convulsed parts of Europe in its immediate
aftermath. It was that history of increasingly radical European rejection, from
the 1880s to the 1940s, that produced the driving force for political Zionism,
Jewish emigration to Palestine and eventually
the creation of the state of Israel.
“What made me a Zionist was the Dreyfus trial,” said Theodor Herzl,
the father of modern Zionism. If Europe
decided that each nation should have its own state, would not accept even
emancipated Jews as full members of the French or German nation and eventually
became the scene of the attempted extermination of all Jewry, then the Jews
must have their own national home somewhere else.
And never again would Jews go as lambs to the slaughter. As Israelis, they
would fight for the life of every single fellow Jew. The 19th century
stereotypes of German Helden and Jewish Händler have been reversed.
The Germans, and most of today’s bourgeois Europeans, have become the eternal
traders; the Jews, in Israel,
the eternal warriors.
Of course, this is only one thread in perhaps the world’s most complicated
political tapestry, but it’s a very important one. I don’t think any European
should speak or write about today’s conflict in the Middle
East without displaying some consciousness of our own historical
responsibility. I’m afraid that some Europeans today do so speak and write; and
I don’t just mean the German right-wing extremists who marched through the town
of Verden in Lower Saxony on Saturday, waving Iranian flags and chanting
“Israel — international genocide center.” I also mean thinking people
on the left.
Even as we criticize the way the Israeli military is killing Lebanese civilians
and U.N. monitors in the name of recovering Goldwasser (and destroying the
military infrastructure of Hezbollah), we must remember that all of this almost
certainly would not be happening if some Europeans had not attempted, a few
decades back, to remove everyone named Goldwasser from the face of Europe — if
not the Earth.
Let me be very clear what I mean. It does not follow from this terrible
European history that Europeans must display uncritical solidarity with
whatever the current government of Israel chooses to do. On the
contrary, the true friend is the one who speaks up when you’re making a
It does not follow that every European who criticizes Israel is a covert anti-Semite, as some commentators
in the U.S.
tend to imply. And it does not follow that we should be any less alert to the
suffering of the Arabs, including the Palestinian Arabs who fled or were driven
out of their homes at the founding of the state of Israel, and their descendants who
grew up in camps. The life of every Lebanese killed or wounded by Israeli
bombing is worth exactly as much as that of every Israeli killed or wounded by
Hezbollah rocket attacks.
Does it follow that Europeans have a special obligation to get involved in
trying to secure a peace settlement in which the state of Israel can live
in secure frontiers next to a viable Palestinian state? I think it does. Even
if you don’t accept this argument from historical and moral responsibility, Europe’s vital interests are plainly at stake: oil,
nuclear proliferation and the potential reaction among our alienated Muslim
minorities, to name but three.
It’s less clear what that involvement should be. One proposal is for European
forces to participate in a multinational peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, but
that only makes sense if realistic parameters are established for a clear,
feasible and finite mission. Those are not yet in sight. Even a cease-fire is
not yet in sight.
The truth is that, now more than ever, the diplomatic key lies in the full
engagement of the U.S.,
using its influence with Israel
and negotiating as directly as possible with all partners to the conflict,
however unsavory. Until that happens, Europe
alone can do little.
Yet the issue here is not just changing the realities on the ground in the Middle East. How Europeans speak and write about the
position of the Jews in the region to which Europeans drove them is also a
matter of our own self-definition. We should weigh every word.