The Europeans regard the Jews as their own

A minefield of misunderstandings

The rift is getting deeper - the rift between Europe's “noble souls”, who criticize Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians, and the Jewish world in Israel and the diaspora, the majority of which support the policies of the Jewish state. One side protests against a "rogue state that believes it is above international law". The other side complains about the stigmatization of Israel as a “Jew among the nations” and the latent anti-Semitism behind the most brutal anti-Zionism.

This is not about a further analysis of the situation in the Middle East, but about the intellectual causes of such a "dialogue between the hard of hearing". These cannot be found in the Middle East, but in the rift between Europe and Israel within a European context. The diametrically opposed perceptions of Israel are a symptom, but not the cause of two ideas of "never again"; these “never again” have their deep roots in equally legitimate but incompatible readings of the “lessons” from the Second World War and the Holocaust. Both are clear and sincere, but mirror images of each other. One picture reflects a non-Jewish, European reading of new normative laws and politics, which were also necessary for the prosperity of Jewish life and that of other minorities on the continent. The Israeli interpretation reflects what was necessary for the security of the Jewish people in their own country.

The European “never again” was anchored in a supranational normative construction based on universal principles. On a continent that eschewed any concept of “national determination” or “right of peoples”, this legal framework should protect the rights of every citizen or resident - regardless of whether they belong to a minority. The “never again us”, which is at the core of the Zionist project, had only one purpose: to guarantee the protection of the Jewish people in the security of their own state. This wish originally drew its universal legitimation from the pogroms and violence to which the Jews of Eastern Europe in particular were exposed - and later from the fact that, in view of the anti-Semitism that existed there before the Third Reich, Europe proved to be unable or unwilling to pre-empt Jews to protect against Nazi barbarism, which was specifically directed against Jews.


The origins of post-war European values

The war was not over when Winston Churchill was already thinking about a kind of “European” institution that would embody and guarantee the founding principles of the continent's new post-war identity. The Council of Europe emerged from these considerations. It was founded in Strasbourg in 1949, with the European Court of Human Rights as its main body. Its judgments are binding on the members of the Council of Europe and its principles underpin Europe's values ​​as they now apply in the European Union and its member states. These universal values, which have since become the European “mantra”, are human rights, the rule of law and pluralistic democracy - the three pillars that National Socialism and Fascism had destroyed. And this mantra arose from the liberal-democratic worldview of the victorious powers, which in turn was based on British and French political philosophy. The British contribution was the belief in individualism and the rule of law. The French brought their belief in clearly defined universal rights, the firm principle of secularism, and their political loathing for any ethnic definition of a state. In the post-war period there was also a passionate conviction that historical reconciliation between former enemies was necessary.

In those early years, neither Spain nor Portugal, with their respective authoritarian regimes, were members of the Council of Europe. What is more important, however, is that none of the ethnic-based states that emerged in Versailles from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires were members. Standing under Soviet hegemony and hardly embodying the democratic principles of the Council, Moscow did not allow them to apply for membership. However, the Council of Europe immediately developed relations with the State of Israel, which was founded a year before the Council of Europe. The Council even introduced a “guest status” for the Parliamentary Assembly in order to allow a delegation from Israel to participate, which, as a state not located on the European continent, could not become a full member.

It is an irony of history that Israel became the only representative of an Eastern European national tradition based on ethnicity in Strasbourg - until the end of communism made it possible for the Eastern European states to join the European Council. After 1989, the council set the criteria that former communist states had to meet in order to be accepted into the organization. This was the important first step towards future EU membership. The fundamental principles behind the rationale for post-war “never again” were anchored in Europe's genetic code 40 years after they were formulated.


Europe's "never again"

Europe's “never again” credo is based on the following points:
Never again war as a political tool. Peace in postwar Europe was considered successfully established and final, and it was, even if it was a frozen peace in a Cold War. Only after 1989 did the war return to the continent. The Western Europeans explained the outbreak of the wars in Yugoslavia with the fact that none of the countries involved shared the values ​​of the Council of Europe or was a member of it. It is important to note, however, that for most of the Eastern European countries the Second World War did not end in 1945, but only in 1989, the year in which they regained their national sovereignty.

Never again an ethnic or religious definition of nationality. Before the state (even in countries with state churches) all citizens have to be equal, regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnic roots. Elections, quota seats in parliament or other special constitutional regulations for certain ethnic groups are prohibited. In addition, the council stipulated the most extensive rights even for resident foreigners. Even the rights of those who only traveled through one of the member countries were protected.

Absolute primacy of individual human rights over any national or collective rights. Collective religious or cultural rights exist only as incarnations of individual human rights and have no legal transcendence of their own. This implies not only the full protection of minorities (qua groups of individuals), but also the protection of the majority in every enclave in which the (national) majority was a minority.

No more ethnic or religious cleansing. Any “population exchange” with the aim of creating a “balance” between different ethnic groups is prohibited - even if two states had agreed on it. Such decisions are considered illegal because they violate the individual rights of citizens.

Never again any form of people's law, i.e. any form of legal tradition that is based on special rights for a certain ethnic group and thus would stamp other groups that do not belong to them as outsiders with fewer rights. Of course, Nazi Germany is a prime example here. But an equally ethnocentric way of thinking poisoned Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars. The Council of Europe fought fiercely - and won - against such ethnic definitions of nationality. He has stipulated that there can be no ethnic references in the constitutions of states that want to become members of the Council of Europe (the gateway to the European Union).

Priority of full citizenship as the linchpin of the whole system. Citizenship must be open to anyone residing in a particular country, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. You cannot be a member of an “external minority” forever.

No more impervious national borders. Europe advocates an ever stronger, common area with ever more permeable and ideally completely open borders. In their basic understanding, the interests of individuals are considered to be more important than those of the respective nation-states.

Reconciliation as a historical ideal. The “mother” of all reconciliations was that between France and Germany. After 1989 others were added, such as those between Germany and the Czech Republic, between Germany and Poland, between Poland and the Ukraine. Behind this concept was the belief that states can bury their troubled pasts through honest discussion and “dispassionate” bilateral historiography. The desire to “reconcile” the conflicting parties has become a trademark of Europe. This explains why the Old Continent has always been eager to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

These principles, the normative backbone of Western Europe after World War II and of the entire continent after 1989, deliberately defined an entirely new political project. The European “never again” was based on an improved form of legal civil humanism. With no implicit national or even nationalistic traditions, cultural or religious characteristics, it embodied an almost perfect political ideal. Of course, this ideal was not always or only partially achieved.

But what is even more important: The European “Never again” was not intended as a pragmatic instrument. It should anchor binding principles, the purity of which should serve as a model, but also as a central political reference in all democratic contexts. That is why so many Europeans insist on these principles, which are aimed at overcoming the hopeless situation between Palestinians and Israelis.

But there is also a bit of Hegelian irony in this European “never again”. Its values ​​and content define a political and social Europe that would have been a paradise for the Jews of Europe before the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, however, they seemed neither appropriate nor in line with the needs of a Jewish world as embodied by the State of Israel. They remain of course existential for the well-being of the Jews still living in Europe. However, neither Israeli nor American Judaism regard these Jews as particularly meaningful to the Jewish world as a whole.


The Israeli / Jewish "Never Again (We)"

A first essential difference in the Israeli reading of "never again" can be found in the origins of the Jewish national movement itself. Zionism was not rooted solely in a new interpretation of Jewish identity to be established with a return to biblical land. He drew his strength from the currents of a non-Jewish environment: the nationalism of the 19th century, from religious, socialist and later communist, from communitarian and romantic-agrarian ideas like the Leo Tolstois (who also inspired the kibbutz movement). With such ideological origins, it was only logical that the foundations of the future Jewish state rested on an ethnic-nationalist notion of a “Jewish people” rather than a liberal-bourgeois reading of power.

History seemed to justify the desire of the Israeli founding generations for a state of their own for a Jewish people. The capitulation of most Western European states to fascism and the Nazi occupation delivered their Jewish citizens to the “final solution” - so the concepts of “integration” and “assimilation” of the Jews as in pre-war Europe could hardly be claimed any more. The Jewish and Israeli "never again we" was a direct result of the experiences of Jews in Europe before the war and during the Holocaust. They could not claim any protection for themselves either as a people (by a state) or as individuals. Individual survival depended on the “goodwill” of civil society or individual members of resistance groups. None of the occupied countries intervened in favor of the Jews. No international authority came to their aid.

The Israeli "Never again (we)" is made up of various strands of the history of ideas and history - and results in an almost perfectly opposite reflection of the European "Never again".

We will never again leave it to others to determine our collective fate. With this in mind, the lessons from the Holocaust are much more important than any well-intentioned “never again war”. In addition, Israel's founding is linked to a war, and wars have shaped Israel's national identity to this day. For Israel there was no permanent and valid “post-war peace”, not even a belated one, as was the case for the Eastern European states after 1989. And what is even more important: There were never clearly defined borders recognized by all neighboring states. Even the tiny state that emerged as a result of the decisions of the United Nations in 1947 and 1949 was not recognized by any of the neighboring states. Let alone the greater Israel that emerged from the conquests of the 1967 Six Day War.

A State of Israel by and for Jews - as a state that protects their collective rights - is an existential necessity. In the case of Israel, the distinction between nation and religion is much more blurred than anywhere in Europe. The clear attitude towards a state as the protector of collective rights is a (belated) mirror-image answer to the eternal “Jewish question” that was posed during much of European history after emancipation: How do the Jews let themselves into the nations and empires of the continent? integrate?

Israel as the state of a religiously and ethnically defined people: the Jews. The state guarantees the rights and freedoms of non-Jewish “others”. But he cannot fully include these "others" in his own historical origins or his historical narrative because they do not belong to the Zionist narrative. The national narrative of Israel is hermetic and can only include Jews.

Equality for all citizens - to a certain extent. The Jewish character of the state is paramount, politically, but also socially and economically. As a result, there is no official secular space in Israel. This circumstance, in turn, is a mirror image of Europe, but it is precisely this area that European Jews have always considered the best protection of their own rights - especially after emancipation. What Jews in Europe and elsewhere in the world need in order to be able to live with their dual identities as Jews and citizens of their respective states is exactly what Israel does not grant its own "others" for fear of losing its Jewish identity. Preserving this identity is all the more important as Israel sees itself as the only safe haven for all Jews.

No supranationality. Israel will not transfer the hard-won sovereignty of the Jewish people to anyone. Given a region where many states do not recognize Israel, but also the fact that Israel's borders have not yet been clearly defined, the reasons are obvious.

Collective Jewish law takes precedence over individual human rights. These collective rights are political, not just cultural and linguistic, and they are not based on individual human rights as in Europe. Their legitimacy derives from the authority of the state. It follows that the rights of non-Jewish minorities can only be restricted structurally.

Citizenship of non-Jews. Wherever it exists or is granted, it does not include the same rights, privileges, or duties. In contrast to European principles, the line between religious and ethnic affiliation remains hopelessly blurred.

Reconciliation is not a virtue. Israel's national narrative revolves around "liberation from ...".A dispassionate “contemplation” of past or present tensions or wars with the Arabs can hardly muster up Israel, especially because calls for the annihilation of Israel in the Arab world have not disappeared to this day. Reconciliation with the Palestinians would have to require double recognition: Palestinians would have to recognize the Holocaust, Israelis the "Nakba" (the "catastrophe" of the establishment of the Israeli state), which is not easy even for progressive forces in the respective societies. For Jews, the comparison is scandalous given the extent of the extermination. From an Arab perspective, it is unbalanced because the Arabs were not responsible for the Holocaust, but the Israelis are certainly responsible for the ugliness of the occupation.

This is not about political judgments, but about different philosophies that underpin the principles of Israeli legitimacy as well as the legitimacy of European states as a result of the Second World War and the Holocaust. In practice, Israel's Supreme Court upholds exemplary standards of the rule of law. Israel is by no means the “apartheid state”, as some radical hotheads claim. But one cannot deny that Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews live in principle, and increasingly in fact, in separate spheres of state.

It would therefore be important for Israel to understand that the criticism of many Europeans does not arise from widespread reflexive anti-Semitism, but that Europeans - entirely in the absence of historical sensitivity - tend to judge Israel by their own "never again" standards. That would leave an intellectual and political minefield full of explicit and implicit misunderstandings. Because each side is convinced of its own moral superiority and its own high principles.


European-Israeli misunderstandings

A key problem lies at the core of these misunderstandings. The European “never again” has allowed Europe's Jews to live in a post-war world that guarantees their rights, freedoms and also their visibility as a collective in an unprecedented way. The former victims and structurally “others” in Europe's millennial past are now full citizens. This is an achievement that would have been unimaginable before the Holocaust. It would be important for Israelis to understand that Europeans tend to view Israelis as Europeans who only live in a different, definitely harsher region, but who are still an indirect part of the European "Never Again". From the point of view of the Europeans, the Israelis do not follow their “never again”, which was created because of the Nazi horror. So they are becoming unfaithful to the lessons of their own past.

The result, especially since 1967, is a “never again” reading of Israeli behavior shared by many left-wing, critical Israelis: the problem is the “Jewish” character of the state, but not a state with a Jewish majority, Hebrew as the first official Language or Jewish holidays as official holidays. The lack of a secular space makes it impossible to belong in a democratic sense. Not belonging fully to the “national convention” as non-Jews places the rights of the Jewish collective above the individual rights of non-Jews. A Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union is granted full rights (with duties and privileges), while Israeli Arabs, whose ancestors have lived there since time immemorial, do not fully enjoy them. Added to this are the rather political reservations that many Europeans harbor: that Israel conquered the land of another people through war in 1967 and was building settlements there in the "colonial manner"; and finally that Israel - especially in Gaza and Lebanon - acts militarily “disproportionately” for the benefit of its own security, which only contributes to further radicalization.

In the context of the European “never again” this criticism seems logical. Indications that Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East and that Arab Israelis enjoy more rights than some European minorities (without explicitly referring to the fate of the Roma) fall on deaf ears. Israelis need to realize that most Europeans consider them to be "white Europeans" who misbehave, albeit in what is certainly a violent region; but which should at least pay attention to the European “never again” in principle. In addition, for Europeans they are the only “white Westerners” who live in an ethnically defined state, and this is seen as a historical anomaly. Because, as part of their own 'never again', Europeans have learned to think principles are more important than what happens in practice; because its principles are moral imperatives and the Israeli principles are certainly less "identity blind" than the European ones, many believe that Israel cannot survive as a democracy if it insists on its own "never again". If so, the Zionist project would turn out to be a mistake in that specific geographic context. And since no smaller European country has offered to make itself available for a Jewish state, that would mean that the whole idea of ​​a Jewish state was a mistake.

Very few Europeans go that far, if only for the reason that no one has really thought through what it would mean if there really were no longer a Jewish state. Most would see the Israeli “never again we” as a temporary measure after the war and the Holocaust - but which will have to give way to the more universal “never again” once the state is consolidated. This “conceptual crutch” was taken over by a larger post-1967 Israel with its expansive impulses. However, Israel can only remain loyal to its European and Western nature if it now, as a strong country, deletes “we” from its “never again”. Because this concept would (according to the European view) have long since become statute-barred.

Unfortunately, one cannot defend Israel's objections to the European “never again” philosophically and in the context of a democracy. For a simple reason: The rights and well-being of European Jews in Europe today are rooted in the legal, political and cultural institutions that arose from the European “Never Again”. The only way to get around this paradox is to denigrate this achievement. For this reason, too, Israeli governments have repeatedly pointed out the anti-Semitism to which Europe's Jews are still exposed. One also likes to point out the small number of Jews on the continent, who play only an extremely minor role in Jewish life worldwide. That might be a strong argument. But this does not distinguish between the old, state-sanctioned anti-Semitism (which led to the Holocaust) and the current anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism, which comes in particular from minorities or from the extreme fringes of civil society.

Even if there were compulsory courses across Europe on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, on the wars that Israel had to wage even before 1967, or on the Arabs' refusal to recognize Israel in return for the return of conquered territories, this would not have any impact on the current understanding of Europe "Never again". Universal and pluralistic democratic values ​​have won, at least as far as the principle itself is concerned.


Can the two be reconciled "never again"?

From a strictly philosophical point of view, a reconciliation of the two “Never again” is not possible, unless the Israeli reading is declared to be a temporary deviation from the European one. Civil society will also not be able to fall back on as the connecting element between these two concepts. Israeli civil society is one of the most dynamic in the world: definitely multicultural, multiethnic, religious as well as secular. But all of these identities belong to a Jewish universe. This civil society cannot really be compared with the “identity-blind” civil societies in the western world. Part of Israeli society may dream of such multiculturalism beyond the Jewish, but this is a small, militant minority. In political terms and on a geopolitical level, however, the two could “never again” be reconciled.

The positive scenario: A two-state solution emerges from the chaos of the peace plans, with the help of which Israel and Palestine can live together peacefully (perhaps even with a small Jewish minority in Palestine as an equivalent to the Israeli Arabs). Israel would maintain normal relations with its neighbors, which in turn would require a European form of reconciliation between the former enemies. Israel, whose right to exist is no longer questioned by its neighbors, approached a more European “never again”. Europe would enthusiastically welcome such a transformation and support it financially. Israel's Supreme Court, as a kind of constituent body, was increasingly successful in establishing the rules for society; The Jewish state would become a full-fledged, pluralistic democracy in which different Jewish (and non-Jewish) groups live together. Everyone was fluent in Hebrew and all citizens had the same rights and obligations. Israeli society would develop a more open and inclusive historical narrative.

The negative scenario: Terrorism, the demands of more and more radical Islamist groups and an onslaught of migrants would lead in Europe to give up its own “never again” in favor of a much more restrictive and nationalistic “never again us”, which is based on a very exclusive understanding from “resident” versus “national”. Citizenship will then be based on a new definition of loyalty that falls back not only on democratic principles, but on much more vague concepts of cultural belonging. Europe could therefore become a security-conscious fortress, not unlike Israel, in which some citizens who wish to live by non-Western rules are either restricted in their rights or partially excluded from political life. This is not unreasonable, because especially at airports one can observe how differently American or European citizens with Muslim-sounding names have been treated by security authorities since 9/11. In such a pessimistic scenario, Israel would have been the caller in the desert, the avant-garde in an ever darker world - just as the Jews were the avant-garde victims of National Socialism and Stalinism.

The non-European alternative: Europe's “never again” and its “substructure” in the international organizations created after the Second World War (including the United Nations) could lose their international importance. These institutions are no longer working as they should. And for none of the powers of the 21st century are the European “never again” or its principles of importance: certainly not for China or India, to name the largest countries. Not for Japan, which to this day avoids reconciliation with its neighbors and the former victims of Japanese aggression; and Russia regularly tramples on almost all principles, including the "never again" - a basic principle of the Council of Europe to which Moscow agreed with its membership in 1996. Not even the USA, the ultimate embodiment of a pluralistic democracy based on the rights of the individual, fits into the European “never again”. And if only because the USA does not recognize any supranational jurisdiction beyond the Supreme Court, and because they neither understand nor see the need for a concept of “reconciliation”. In addition, Israel's “Never Again We” is finding ever greater resonance in former European colonies that still harbor a grudge against old Europe and whose “Never Again” teachings they often see a more sophisticated kind of further interference in their affairs - especially when it comes to the concept of human rights. These states perceive any indication of this as an attack on their hard-won sovereignty, even in the face of such grave human rights violations as ethnic cleansing or genocide. They reject these terms as something that is shaped by Western values.

Israel, which is increasingly directing its scientific, military and economic influence towards the Asian powers of this century, would not be isolated in such a post-European group. In this reading, too, the Jewish state would once again be the avant-garde of a geopolitical and conceptual shift away from Europe and its pious but “toothless” values ​​that correspond to a continent that has lost all influence. But, if Israel strayed from these principles, would it be able to remain true to its own origins and history? Of course, with its immigrants from the Maghreb, Iran, Iraq and Ethiopia, the country is no longer as “European” as it was in 1948. But one may ask whether the mirror image “Never again we” is not also an element of the more comprehensive European “Never again ”contains.

Certainly: In the current cultural struggle for the character of Israel as a Jewish state that is open to all its citizens, the more progressive part of Israeli society is closer to European “never again” than to the more Hobbesian “never again we”, which some more uncompromising members of the political community Advocate class and part of the Israeli diaspora. Here, the more “European” Israelis (to be found primarily at the Supreme Court, among those who want a written constitution for Israel, in the universities or in the cosmos of libertarian Tel Aviv) fight against the realists in power, but also against an ultra-royalist diaspora. Realists like Diaspora have turned “never again” into a categorical imperative, and both harbor nothing but contempt for multilateral institutions, an “international community” or a rhetoric of reconciliation.

Anyone who wants the "more open forces" to return to power and considers current politics to be counterproductive should rethink their strategy. "Israel bashing" and often used and in some circles very popular, but still wrong analogies such as "apartheid state" are in any case not effective. It would be more helpful to support those in Israel who are fighting for a state in which peaceful coexistence with the "others" in their own society, but also with a neighboring Palestinian state, is possible. Otherwise we could see a victory for those uncompromising and cynical forces who only trust the language of violence. And these forces can only lead Israel down into an increasingly ethno-authoritarian state, because any pluralistic-democratic identity would destroy Israel's Jewish identity. Only: Israel was not founded to follow the same path as the “ethnically closed” states in Europe during the interwar period.

This fight is also Europe's fight and there is no certainty that it can be won. It is still too early to be able to say whether the European “never again” will spread and encompass other parts of the world. Or whether it has to be limited to a continent that is politically weaker and more marginalized. But it can be said with certainty: Both Europe and Israel will lose if they go their separate ways.


Diana Pinto is a historian and lives in Paris. She recently published “Israel has moved” (2011).