The New York Times

August 4, 2002

An Ugly Rumor or an Ugly Truth?


THE day after the deadly Palestinian attack on Hebrew University in Jerusalem, The Guardian, the left-leaning British newspaper, published an editorial criticizing Israel for what the paper called "random, vengeful acts of terror" against Palestinian civilians during its reoccupation of the West Bank town of Jenin last spring. This after a United Nations report dismissed Palestinian claims that Israel had massacred civilians there.

Over the past several months, such sentiments have become common in much of Europe. A few months ago, when Tom Paulin, a poet, Oxford University professor and regular guest on BBC television, told Al Ahram, Egypt's leading newspaper, that American-born Jews who have settled on the Israeli-occupied West Bank were Nazis who "should be shot dead," his remarks, which outraged some, were also met by approval and admiration.

A. N. Wilson, a prominent conservative British writer and editor, publicly defended Mr. Paulin, who has also published a poem in The Observer magazine that referred to Israeli soldiers as "the Zionist SS."

"Many in this country and throughout the world would echo his views on the tragic events in the Middle East," said Mr. Wilson, who himself wrote in The Evening Standard, the London newspaper, that he had "reluctantly" concluded that Israel no longer had a right to exist.

That, too, is a view that throughout Western Europe seems to command a fair degree of sympathy. In France, demonstrators held posters aloft saying "Death to Jews." In Italy, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily, wrote that Israel was engaging in "aggression that turns into extermination." And José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel laureate in literature, said, "We can compare what is happening on the Palestinian territories with Auschwitz."

It all raises a question: Does the ferocious moral condemnation of Israel mark a recrudescence of that most ugly of Western diseases, anti-Semitism? Or is it legitimate, if crude, criticism of a nation's policies? Where does one draw the line? And how does one judge?

The issue is complicated by several factors, not the least of them that many harsh critics of Israel are Jews. When, a few weeks ago, two British university professors called for an academic boycott of Israel, among the roughly 700 scholars who signed their petition were several Israelis.

Other observers, including a number of Jews, don't see anti-Semitism in the European anger at Israel but simply the success of the Palestinians' campaign to portray themselves as an oppressed people. The Palestinians get more sympathy than, say, the Tibetans, because their plight is what Europeans see in their newspapers and on their televisions every day.

Even those most worried about a new wave of anti-Semitism do not argue that it is the same as the anti-Semitism of the 1930's or even the 1950's in Europe, when to express contempt and hatred for Jews was respectable. These days, for the most part, it is not respectable.

"What you have is anti-Semitism without anti-Semites," said Oscar Bronner, the publisher and editor of Der Standard, a major Austrian daily newspaper. "If you talk to people who use anti-Semitic clichés without knowing what they are doing, they are shocked that somebody would think they were anti-Semitic. But it's everywhere. It's in print. It's dinner party conversations. When a dozen Israeli kids are killed because somebody throws a bomb in order to kill Israeli kids, then it's regrettable. If Israel kills a dozen kids as collateral damage when they try to kill a murderer who hides among children, then this is a war crime."

Nonetheless, there has also been a sharp increase in overt, physical anti-Semitism in the past couple of years. In France, such attacks are largely believed to be the work of resident Arabs, but some critics of the critics of Israel see a nasty kind of symbiosis, in which intellectual and journalistic condemnations of Israel have given the Arab hatred of Jews a kind of legitimacy.

AT the same time, Israel and the Palestinians are elements in the broader post-cold-war policy and cultural differences that have emerged between the United States and Europe, especially during the Bush administration.

"What is true is that Europe has moved toward an identification with international agencies acting collectively to help the disadvantaged and the poor, and there's a belief in Europe that the Americans haven't caught up with that," said Tony Judt, a professor of European Studies at New York University and a critic of current Israeli policy. "Israel, with its close identification with the United States, and vice versa, embodies this defect, and the fact that Israel is in violation of all sorts of laws about occupation makes it an obvious target, much as South Africa was in the 60's and 70's, because it is against everything that Europeans see themselves as standing for."

The question remains, however: Does the endless scrutiny and criticism of Israel to be found in Europe amount to anti-Semitism? Alexandre Adler, a French Jew and columnist for Le Monde, gives the phenomenon an anti-globalist interpretation. Anti-globalization, which is especially strong in France, is the new anti-Americanism, he argues, and Israel, America's close ally, is seen as an example of supposed American indifference to the plight of the world's poor.

The French anti-globalization activist José Bové, who won worldwide fame by leading an attack on a McDonald's in southern France, epitomizes this attitude, in Mr. Adler's view. Mr. Bové led a delegation that appeared alongside Yasir Arafat during Israel's military assault on Mr. Arafat's headquarters a few months ago, but he made no condemnation of Palestinian encouragement of suicide bombings against Israelis. When he returned to France, he made a statement on the radio to the effect that the Mossad, Israel's secret service, was behind the attacks on synagogues in France — a view very close to the popular opinion in France that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by the C.I.A.

"These are the people who refused to show solidarity with the United States after 9/11 and who think of Israel as one expression of American opposition to the wretched of the earth," Mr. Adler said. "They're not technically anti-Semitic in what they say, but what they say is nasty and it's of concern."

STILL, those who see a revival of European anti-Semitism masked as sympathy for Palestinians or anti-Zionism argue that the obsessive attention to the moral worth of the tiny country of Israel echoes the special attention that the tiny minority of Jews received in centuries past.

"I have to wonder about people who compare Israelis to Nazis," said Elie Wiesel, the writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and holocaust survivor. "I ask myself, why do they hate Israel, which is, after all, the Jewish state, so much?" And Martin Sieff of United Press International, surveying press coverage of Israel's reoccupation of Jenin, which came after a week of suicide bombings that killed 33 Israelis, accused West European newspapers of a "wild and remarkably uniform hysteria."

The Guardian, for example, editorialized that Israeli actions in Jenin were "every bit as repellent" as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 against the United States, and many publications simply accepted as fact Palestinian accusations of massacres and atrocities.

Indeed, the death toll in the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which began in September 2000, is just over 2,000 people, roughly 1,500 of them Palestinian. That is a far lower number than in most of the world's conflicts, and a fact that makes condemnation of Israel in Europe seem all the more disproportionate.

For example, Rwanda and Congo have just signed a treaty that may end their war of intertribal slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, but at no point have editorial writers like Mr. Wilson "reluctantly" suggested that those countries should no longer exist.

Similarly, the Russian bombing of civilians in Chechnya and the Chinese policies in Tibet have elicited less moral outrage in Europe than Israel's actions.

Once again, the question is why.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company