Saturday, March 15, 2008

Images of Europe: An Israeli Perspective

Images of Europe: An Israeli Perspective

A paper presented at the European Commission conference, ‘Intercultural Dialogue’, Brussels, 20-21 March 2002

Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger

Senior Lecturer in History
University of Haifa, Israel

I have been asked to talk today about images of Europe from the outside, about the way ‘others’, the non-Europeans, observe or imagine this continent and its civilization. Images of others, wrote our host in this conference, Professor Strath, following Edward Said, are central to our identities. A European identity must contain “a demarcation from the non-European”.

This task is extremely difficult for me. My four grandparents were Europeans. My eight great-grandparents were Europeans. One of them had a corn mill in the Ukraine. Another was a pharmacist in Besarabia. Another studied history in Heidelberg, and another studied literature in Prague, and yet another completed his doctorate in London. They were all Europeans – or so they thought. And their sense of belonging to Europe was strongly based on the Enlightenment, so harshly rebuked by Edward Said and by Professor Strath here. The Enlightenment opened to their own parents a door into secular, humanist, non-sectarian Europe. Thanks to it, they could hope to belong to a civilization that put Christianity aside, transcended nationality, promoted the values that most of my great-grandparents cherished: education, progress, creativity, value for all human life.

The reason why I am here to speak to you in the name of Europe’s ‘others’, is that my ancestors, Europeans in their own minds and hopes and tastes, were Jewish. And when the Enlightenment was assaulted by enemies far worse than Edward Said, and all other residents of this continent became strictly French and German and Austrian and Italian, Jews like my ancestors remained just about the only Europeans. And they found out to their bitter disappointment, that they have always been Europe’s ‘others’, even though they had been in residence for a thousand years. And now, following the Great War of 1914, and following the Bolshevik Revolution, and at the last tick of the final clock before the Nazi rise to power, my grandparents understood: they cannot even hope to remain in place as Europe’s insider-others. They must flee, in order to survive, and become outsider-others. And luckily for me they read the clock correctly: all the others, all the uncles and aunts and cousins who didn’t flee were killed. And the corn mill and the pharmacy were burnt down, and the synagogues razed to the ground. And nothing remained, nothing from a thousand years of belonging.

For the rest of their lives, my grandparents, moored at the Israeli shores, slowly recognizing the bitter new dispute of belonging that was building up in Palestine-Israel, for the rest of their lives they longed for Europe. They read its books. They played its music. They sang its arias. They painted its landscapes from memory in aquarels and needlework. They wrote essays in its languages. And for the rest of their lives they watched Europe – post war Europe, cold war Europe, and the new community of Europe – forget they had ever been its part of its own flesh. Forget them quickly and efficiently.

Funny people, the Europeans, my paternal grandfather used to joke. When I left it in 1937, there was graffiti on the walls everywhere: ‘Jews, go to Palestine’. And now when I visit a European capital, the graffiti says ‘Jews, get out of Palestine’. Have they no memory, the Europeans?

I am here today to pursue my grandfather’s question. But also to tell this audience something about the middle east today and about Europe’s possible role in it, as diplomatic power, as mediator, as peace maker. Because these issues are closely and intimately interconnected.

The conflict in the Middle East is a conflict between two victims of Europe. The Jews, most of whom were murdered in Europe, and some who fled it; and the Arabs, most of whom were colonized by Europe in military or economic or cultural ways. I am not sure to what extent Europe today recognizes the vast depth of its responsibility for the bitterness, the insult, the humiliation and the phobias of both sides in this extremely psychological war. I am not sure to what extent Europe realizes that each side in the Middle Eastern conflict sees its enemy as a horrible reflection of Europe itself, of the European persecutors. For many Arabs, the Israelis are arrogant white colonizers armed with tractors and guns, set to conquer and destroy Arab homes and traditions and customs, Arab faith and morality, with the cold gleam of European weapons and European superiority. For many Israeli Jews, Arab leaders and soldiers and terrorists are latter-day Nazis, armed with the deepest historical and racial hatred toward Jews as Jews, committed to the full and terminal elimination of the Jews from the face of the land. Consider, dear Europeans, how often Israelis have referred to Arafat as Hitler, to Palestinians as Nazis. Consider how often Palestinians have referred to Arafat as Saladin, to Jews as crusaders, here today, dead tomorrow. The metaphors of fear and hate, dear Europeans, come from your own heritage. Both Arab and Jewish nightmares are visited, to this day, by Europe’s ghosts.

What does this have to do with the new Europe, with the European Union’s hope of becoming a central mediator in the Middle East? I would not like to attempt to speak for the Palestinians, but I can attempt to say something about the Jewish side of the line. There is no doubt that some of the member states of the EU have been instrumental, and deeply effective, in some of the most hopeful moments for Israeli-Palestinian peace in the last decade. The Oslo accord was brought into existence by the powerful commitment of Norwegian policy makers. An important starting point of peace process, in which many Israelis put so much hope and trust, was in 1993 in the hospitable city of Madrid. The German government, in particular its present foreign minister, have proven a steady and supportive friend of peace. Yet the European Union as a whole – the ‘Europe’ which is finally emerging, and hoping to speak to the middle eastern contenders in one firm voice – this Europe is an entity that many Israelis deeply fear, distrust, and even loath. It is not the Europe my grandparents loved and admired, but a new kind of abstract, a new transnational entity, a locus of deep ambivalence for us: it is the Europe who does not care to remember who we are, where we came from, what we have written, and what we fear.

Let me give you an example from the beginning of this week. As the EU leadership meeting in Barcelona came to a close, one of Israel’s leading internet news sites reported on its decisions under the title “The European Union: we will continue to support the Palestinians”. Underneath, there are dozens of e-mail responses from the site’s surfers. These educated Israeli men and women, people in business, in high tech, university students, the core of this society’s young middle class, gave loose to their rage and despair – not about the prospects of and Arab-Israeli peace. But about Europe. About the Europeans. Anti-Semites, they fumed. Self-interested and one-sided Oil consumers. My computer screen was filled with the venom of these perfectly civil Internet surfers: the Spanish inquisitors were summoned. The German murderers. The British double dealers. Cyberspace was filled with historical bitterness.

For my part, I think that these people have missed the point. As do many of my friends, including academics and journalists. They do not pay enough attention to the honest efforts of the European Union and some of its member states, of diplomats like Miguel Moratinos, of leaders like Joschka Fischer, to understand and sympathize as best they can with both sides of the new middle eastern war. To truly attempt bridging the gaps, the psychological as well as the political ones.

But my Israeli friends also have a point. A profound one. First, they recognize that Europe’s current wave of anti-Semitism, marginal as it may be, un-intellectual as it may be, is a new type of anti-Semitism. It is for the first time deeply linked to anti-Israeli emotions. Tying Israel’s controversial foreign policy with statements about the eternal features of the Jews. Voicing regret for Europe’s failure to finish off the Jews rather than ship them off to Palestine. Forgetting completely, that half the Jewish population of Israel originates from people who survived Europe by the skin of their teeth, and the other half – of people who were thrown out of Arab countries with the clothes on their backs. Blaming Europe’s diminishing Jewish communities for what Israel is doing, and blaming Israel for what the all Jews have always been up to. This anti-Israel-anti-Semitism is new. And very frightening.

But this is not all. There is a deeper explanation for the level of outrage and insult that so many ordinary Israelis now feel toward this continent. For fifty years now, we Israelis have been talking to Europe. To the Europe we fled, to the Europe we long for, and to the Europe that affected our lives. To the Europe that shared with us its great ideas, its great literature, its science and its dreams – many of them inspired by its own Jews. We talk to it in our books, in our pop music, in our technology, in our social democracy. And do you know, it is a strange thing: Europe is not answering back. It is conducting no dialogue with us. Our intercultural dialogue has so far been one-sided: talking to our own memories. Quoting Goethe to each other. Interpreting Sartre on our own. Understanding Ingmar Bergman better than he could imagine.

To this day I doubt whether Europeans really read our books. Really listen to what is being said in our vibrant public sphere. See Israeli Jews as more than just victims, objects of compassion, or ex-victims who became colonial persecutors, objects of sharp reproach and even hatred. In my life so far as academic and writer, after living in Europe for seven years and travelling to many of its lands, I have come across very little true interest in Israeli culture, true curiosity about Israeli debates, true focus on the vast cultural and literary assets of my society. For too many good people, we are mere victims or mere victimizers, or both. When we compose a symphony, they marvel: how do you find the time to compose symphonies? When we write a love story, they say: how on earth can an Israeli write a pure and simple love story? Isn’t this too universal for you? Aren’t you too busy with your unique troubles?

No. We are not. We compose symphonies and rock music and we write love stories and mathematical theorems. Can we entrust the resolution of our war, of our conflict with the Palestinians, to a civilization so uninterested in the inner springs of our culture? Or, by the same token, of the Palestinian culture?

Perhaps the first step should be a little conversation of the new Europeans among themselves. Something that Europe must discussed in its own intimate moments. Because it may be that Europe’s long neglect of a true cultural dialogue with Israel has to do with Europe’s selective reading of its own past. Or even worse, a willful forgetfulness of its own past. I am not referring to the twentieth century. The holocaust is well remembered. Germany is the only European nation who has been conducting a serious, dignified dialogue with Israel and with the Jews. But now I am referring to the new Europe, to the Union, to the Continent whose old cities and towns all have streets called Judengasse. Old Jewry. Montjuic. And I do not think that this new Europe has yet come to terms with its collective past. With its collective ghosts.

This is not just a matter of remembering the Jews (and other minorities) as victims of a thousand years of violence. I mean something more: the remembrance of Jews as partners to Europe, as partners in its history of ideas, as builders of its future vision. Who, but a few history professors, still remember the medieval Jews and their active mediation between Muslim and Christian philosophy? The exciting interaction of minds and ideas in Spain, in Provence, in Italy, in Amsterdam? In the seventeenth century Europe began to think seriously about two great political models, the republic and the confederation. The European Union is very much an outcome of these ideas, expanded by Immanuel Kant to create an inter-national system of states. Few remember the Jewish building blocks of this tradition, the old testament models of confederation and self rule and social justice, the Talmud and Maimonides that inspired so many revolutionary Europeans in that era of change. Or even Spinoza, a great European Jew and a very early liberal. Few remember that the ancestors of today’s Israelis, and their books, were once important – in an active way, not just as ‘others’, not just as victims – for the building of European modernity. European Judaism was a crucial co-founder of liberal democracy and of modern social sensitivity. If Europe has forgotten, Israel did not. Our fight to maintain a working democracy, despite permanent hardship and occasional failure, and our free public debate along a full century of war for life, come from these hidden sources of political culture. From the joint legacy that our Jewish European ancestors have left us.

Until history is truly addressed, until cultures are truly in dialogue, the angry young Internet surfers will regrettably have a point. The European union, whose leaders only speak to a handful of statesmen on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, cannot hope to reach the heart and the mind, and the trust, of the Israelis. Or, for the matter, of the Palestinians. But it is in the name of the unique Jewish European experience that I make this suggestion: if you insist of placing Israelis among your ‘others’, please, read your own history again. And then please start listening to us and talking back to us. Look us in the eye. No one can hope to become a true mediator of cultures, an honest broker between contending rivals, unless they look them long and hard. And Europeans may find many surprises, many familiarities, many lost memories, if they look Israeli culture in the eye.

Some of the ideas presented in this paper have been elaborated in my book, Israelis in Berlin (Suhrkamp, 2001), and in my forthcoming essay, ‘The Jewish Origins of Western Ideas of Liberty’ (Azure, May 2002).

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