I am standing in a queue waiting to buy a train ticket from London to Canterbury. A well-dressed lady standing behind me informs her friend that she “can’t wait till Israel disappears off the face of the earth.” What struck me was not her intense hostility to Israel but the mild-mannered, matter-of-fact tone with which she announced her wish for the annihilation of a nation. It seems that it is okay to condemn and demonize Israel. All of a sudden Israel has become an all-purpose target for a variety of disparate and confused causes. When I ask a group of Pakistani waiters sitting around a table in their restaurant why they “hate” Israel, they casually tell me that it is because Jews are their “religion’s enemy.” Those who are highly educated have their own pet prejudice. One of my young colleagues who teaches media studies in a London-based university was taken aback during a seminar discussion when some of her students insisted that since all the banks are owned by Jews, Israel was responsible for the current global financial crisis.
Increasingly expressions of aversion towards Israel have assumed the status of a taken-for-granted sentiment in many sections of polite European society. Such attitudes are underwritten by powerful cultural forces that communicate the idea that Israel is a malevolent society sui generis. It alone faces regular demands for academic and commercial boycotts. In the media and popular culture it is often portrayed as an intensely racist and barbaric society. Once upon a time its opponents depicted Israel as a guard dog of the West; these days they are more likely to castigate it as the biggest threat to world peace and stability. For a variety of reasons, Israel has come to bear the cross of all of the West’s sins. In Europe in particular, there is a powerful sense of weariness towards Israel. “If only it would go away, then we would have a chance for peace in the Middle East” is the fantasy view of some European officials and writers. Europe’s population agrees. Islamic terrorism is often portrayed as the inevitable consequence of Israel’s policies.
In reality, many Western European officials are worried not just about peace in the Middle East, but also about managing the radicalization of their own Muslim population. Distancing Europe from Israel is seen as necessary for appeasing the anger of Europe’s Muslim population. From this perspective, the problem is not simply Israel but also Europe’s Jewish population. So in order to accommodate what are taken to be Muslim sensibilities, Jewish interests often become a negotiable commodity. For example, in England some teachers are reluctant to discuss the experience of the Holocaust in the classroom in case it alienates children from a Muslim background. An illustration of a similar dynamic at work is shown by the example of Denmark.
It is worth noting that historically Denmark is one of the most enlightened societies in Europe. During the Second World War it stood out as the one country where Nazis could find virtually no one who would collaborate with their anti-Jewish policies. That is why it is so sad to find out that a number of Danish school administrators have recently recommended that Jewish children should not enroll in their schools. It all began last week when Olav Nielsen, headmaster of Humlehave School in Odense, publicly stated that he will “refuse to accept the wishes of Jewish parents” to place their children at his school because it would create tension with the Muslim children. Other headmasters echoed this sentiment, claiming that they were putting children’s safety first. Apparently they are worried that the enrollment of Jewish pupils would upset those of Arab descent and that such tensions could provoke violence. Whatever their intention, these pedagogues were signaling the idea that in the interest of “health and safety” the ghettoization of Jewish children was a sensible idea.
Thankfully many Danes were horrified by this episode, as are many Italians who were shocked when they discovered that a group of trade unionists demanded the “boycott of all Jewish shops in central Rome linked to the Israelite community” on the grounds that these businesses “are tainted by blood.” And many decent people have felt more than a tinge of unease when confronted with the disturbing tendency for anti-Israeli protests to mutate into anti-Semitic ones. But European societies appear disoriented by events in the Middle East and unable to deal with their own problems, so they look for demons elsewhere.