Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 44, December 2003

Israel, anti-semitism, and world peace


This past October, the European Union conducted one of its routine surveys of what its citizens think of various political and social issues. The results, in this particular case, generated an outcry by many conservative politicians at the way the survey was conducted, and even at the alleged motivations of carrying it out to begin with. The problem? One of the statistics emerging from the EU survey is that 59% of Europeans rank Israel as the number one threat to global peace.

Israeli politicians have immediately denounced the survey as an example of anti-semitism, and many European leaders (mostly on the right of the political spectrum) have joined the chorus of outrage. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Nathan Sharansky, Minister for the Hebraic communities of the Diaspora, has commented that political criticisms of Israel are a thinly veiled form of anti-semitism, and that “as in the past Jews were considered like the Devil, responsible for the world’s evils, so today the ‘civilized’ world attributes the world’s problems to the Jewish state, Israel.”

And yet, it is hard to see how the EU’s survey was “tendentious” and slanted against Israel. One of the fifteen questions asked respondents to rank a total of twelve nations in accordance to the perceived degree of threat they pose to world peace. The list of nations inclunded not only Israel, but Russia, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the United States, Pakistan, India, and the European Union itself. Israel came out ahead of everybody (especially in the Netherlands, with a whopping 70%), followed in decreasing order of perceived threat by North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States.

Now, my own rankings would have been quite different. (If the reader must know, I would have put Pakistan first, since it is a non-democratic nuclear power; followed by North Korea and Iran, because they are run by nutcases who could potentially develop nuclear weapons; then would come the United States -- also run by a nutcase with nukes, but at least it is a democracy; finally, to consider Afghanistan a threat to world peace is, I think, simply not to understand what a threat to world peace is.) Indeed, I don’t believe that Israel is dangerous at the global level, although certainly it hasn’t helped the middle east peace process of lately. Then again, the latter has stalled largely because the United States insists in not behaving as an honest broker: without US support, Israel would simply have to agree to whatever peace plan would be put forth by an American administration or the United Nations (and, I add, it would be about time, too).

What I think is interesting is the use of the “anti-semitism” charge on the part of the Israeli government to shield its policy toward the Palestinians from criticism, a policy that can only be defined as fascist -- as in consisting of the application of brute force with complete disregard to human rights or international law. Most Europeans are not anti-semite, and they have repeatedly demonstrated so with continuous aid to Israel for the past several decades, with countless amends to the victims of the Holocaust, be that monetary in nature or more generally through books, articles, plays, movies, and all sorts of other recognitions of the horrors of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. And so it should have been. But it is a travesty to use the sympathy generated by the Holocaust to render a government immune from international criticism. Israel stands almost alone in the world (except for the support of the United States) for good reasons to be found in its own Holocaust-like behavior toward other religious or ethnic minorities.

Another twist to the European-Israeli saga came in November, when Gianfranco Fini, the head of the Italian neo-fascist party (Alleanza Nazionale, National Alliance -- have you noticed how right-wing extremists always play the patriotic card?) decided to visit Israel and to publicly denounce Mussolini’s errors in supporting Hitler and establishing “racial” laws in the 1930s. It was a rather gutsy thing to do, even though it came with more than half a century delay. Well, that got Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator’s granddaughter and a major exponent of Alleanza Nazionale, enraged, accusing Fini of “betrayal” of the party’s “ideals”; she immediately left Alleanza Nazionale and established a “true” fascist party. It seems that an honest neo-fascist can’t afford to have even a minimum of conscience these days... To complicate things, of course, Fini was welcome in Israel by what is in fact a fascist party of its own (with respect to its treatment of Palestinians), which makes for an almost unbearable degree of irony in the whole story.

The point is, however, rather simple. The Holocaust was, in fact, one of the most horrific events in human history, and there is absolutely no justification for it at all. On the other hand, it was done to people and by people of another generation, and those of the current one simply should no longer apologize for it (since they haven’t done it) or use it as a shield to then feel free to commit human rights abuses of their own.

Europeans are right to be critical of Israel, not because it actually is a major threat to world peace, but because it is acting in an increasingly despondent and despicable manner against largely defenseless people. This is so close to what the Jews themselves suffered at the hand of the Germans, that it is hard to conceive how they don’t see the striking parallels and immediately stop what they are doing. A tragedy like the Holocaust generates an enourmous amount of human sympathy, but sympathy cannot (and should not) be infinite, and the current Israeli government is simply squandering such capital without gaining much for its people. Doesn’t anybody learn anything from history?




© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003