On May Day 2002, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen marched to protest the presence of Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the right-wing National Front, on the second round ballot in the presidential election. When Le Pen was soundly defeated, Alain Finkielkraut, one of France’s leading public intellectuals, the son of Polish Jews, whose father was deported from France to Auschwitz, was relieved. But he did not celebrate with the anti-Le Pen forces. He already knew that the most dangerous of Europe’s future haters were to be found in the camp of the celebrants and not among the remnants of the Vichy faithful.
In a series of essays, books and lectures over the past few years, Finkielkraut has offered the most compelling explanation for the rise of left-wing hatred of Jews in Europe. It is often said that today’s Europe was “born in Auschwitz.” Ironically, the primary consequence of the obsession with Auschwitz has been to turn Auschwitz’s victims once again into the objects of European hatred.
The memory of Auschwitz has transformed Europeans into permanent penitents, constantly on guard against themselves. Europeans intellectuals are forever on the look-out for anything that smacks of the Nazi dehumanization of the Jews, the transformation of the Jew into the Other lacking a shared humanity.
And, in one of history’s great ironies, the Nazis’ chief victims have become the prime suspects precisely because of their victimhood. Because the Jews have nothing about which to be penitent — or so the theory goes – they are the most likely to turn another people into the Other.
“All confess the crimes they committed or let others commit. All admit their share of darkness, All accept humbly the civilizing burden of guilt. All distrust the Nazi that sleeps within them . . . . All, that is, except the Jews. For them, there is no obligation of memory and reparation,” writes Finkielkraut, in a remarkable 2004 essay in Azure, “In the Name of the Other: Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism.”
From this suspicion of the Jews it is but a short step to assuming that the Jews have dehumanized the Arabs, turned them into the Other. Thus French political scientist Emmanuel Todd writes, “The incapacity of more and more Israelis to perceive the Arabs as human beings in general is obvious to the people who follow the news in print or on television.”
That obviousness, however, is not the result of empirical observation but the outgrowth of the theory of the Jews’ supposed susceptibility to casting another people as the Other. In this theory, the Palestinians are not the enemy of the Israelis, but their Other. And the result is clear, writes Finkielkraut: “Being at war with one’s enemy is a human possibility; waging war on one’s other is a crime against humanity.”
The Other can do no wrong. The Palestinians are thus absolved of all blame for their fate; everything that befalls them is a result of their Otherness. The Jews are responsible for everything. Just as the godfather of modern French thinkers, Jean Paul Sartre, once defined a Jew as nothing more than the product of the anti-Semite’s imagination, so the Palestinians are denied any existence, except as a projection of the Jewish psyche.
They are not actors; they have no goals of their own; they perpetrate no crimes. “If the Other commits reprehensible acts, it is only . . . in response . . . to the apartheid practices and the harsh security measures to which he has been unfairly subjected. . . . If he is a fanatic, it is because of the degradation to which . . . the Zionists have condemned him.”
THE EUROPEAN OBSESSION WITH AUSCHWITZ works against Jews and Israel in another way as well. To say that Europe was born in Auschwitz is to deny that Europe is a civilization, with a rich history and its unique culture. European intellectuals flee from the idea that they are heirs to a particular civilization, and they react in horror to Samuel Huntington’s vision of a “war of civilizations.”
Osama bin Laden does not doubt that he is waging a war against an enemy civilization, but the modern European denies it. So wary is the modern European intellectual of viewing others as the Other that he cannot recognize that an alien culture is breeding in his midst or take steps to defend himself.
For the European penitents, everything that distinguishes people from one another, that divides one man from another, is bad. Borders are bad; fences are bad. Internet is good. Europe today, argues Finkielkraut, shows “the passion for sameness” that Alexis de Tocqueville identified with democracy.
And here too, the Jews are on the wrong side of history, with their stubborn insistence in establishing a state based on national identity; in their building of a fence to protect themselves from suicide bombers; in their attempt to establish permanent borders.. Israel provokes hatred by its “untimely assimilation among the nations” just in time “for the great penitential deconstruction of nation states. . . “ Finkielkraut notes with more than a little irony. Or as University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla puts it, “Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation-state. Now they are criticized for having one.”
WHAT MAKES THESE IDEAS so dangerous to Jews and Israel is that they have hardened into theory. Finkielkraut began a recent lecture at the Ben-Zvi lnstitute by quoting G.K. Chesterton, “The madman is not the one who has lost his reason. The madman is the one who has lost everything except his reason.” Modern intellectual life, with its love of overarching theories that explain everything, suffers from this form of madness. We live today, said Finkielkraut, in a time of a passion for ideology. And with that passion for ideology goes another passion – a passion for denial of all those facts that don’t fit with the theory.
Maurice Barres “knew” that Dreyfus must be guilty because he belonged to a race of traitors; Communists and their fellow-travellers “knew” that there could be no gulags in the U.S.S.R. because it was a socialist state; and today the theory of the Other convinces European intellectuals of Israeli guilt, guilt without mitigation.
That is what makes arguing with the rabid critics of Israel, like the leaders of the British boycott movement, so frustrating and, ultimately, futile. They are not interested in facts. If the facts don’t fit their theory, out with the facts.
If, according to the theory, Israeli Jews have cast the Arabs as the Other, then it follows that Israel is an apartheid society. The theory renders irrelevant all Ben-Dror Yemini’s statistics showing that the disparities between the economic status of Moslem immigrants and those of native European stock are greater in every Western European country than the disparity between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Equally irrelevant are all Yemini’s statistics showing how minimal is Arab emigration from “apartheid Israel,” compared to rates of emigration and applications for exit visas from all the surrounding Arab countries.
If, according to the theory, Israeli Jews are the new Nazis and the Palestinians the new Jews, then obviously the Jews harbor genocidal intent vis-à-vis the Palestinians. No sense in pointing out, as the indomitable Yemini has done, that the number of Arabs killed by Israel, including in war, since 1948, is but a small fraction of those killed in intra-Arab violence. Even as Palestinian rockets fall in the hundreds on Israel cities, the number of Palestinians killed by Israel in 2007 is fewer than the number killed in gang warfare in Gaza, and fewer than those killed last week in the ongoing fighting between Palestinian terrorists and Lebanese troops in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
And don’t bother noting how oddly the Jews have expressed their genocidal intent. Under “occupation” by the “genocidal” Israelis, Palestinian life-expectancy leapt from 48 in 1967 to 72 in 2000. Infant mortality dropped from 60 per 1,000 live births to 15 in 2000, compared to 40 per thousand in Egypt, and 22 in Jordan and Syria.
Seven universities were built under Israeli “occupation,” where none had existed. Adult illiteracy dropped to 14%, compared to 69% in Egypt and 44% in Syria.
Under that same “occupation,” the Palestinian economy grew at the fourth highest rate in the world in the 1970s. Per-capita Palestinian GNP grew tenfold between 1968 and 1991, and exceeded that of every neighboring country by a considerable margin. Only the outbreak of Palestinian terrorism, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, which claimed over twice as many Israeli lives as were lost to Palestinian terrorism between 1967 and Oslo, brought Palestinian economic growth come to a halt. And when terrorism abated, as it did under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999, the Palestinian economy resumed healthy rates of growth. (These statistics are found in Efraim Karsh, “What Occupation?” Commentary, July-August 2002.)
AFTER AUSCHWITZ, the one unforgivable sin in European eyes is racism, And Israel is charged and convicted on this count above all the nations of the world. Israel has turned the Arabs into the Other. Israel thus has no right to exist.
That is why we waste our breath asking boycott advocates, who decry Israeli actions in Gaza or last summer’s invasion of Lebanon: What would your country do if one of its cities were subjected to constant missile fire from across the border? What would your country do if a paramilitary organization, given free rein to operate from across its international border, kidnapped two of its soldiers and launched thousands of missiles at its cities? Those would be perfectly legitimate questions if Israel were another country and granted the right to exist. But if its very right to exist is denied, those questions are entirely beside the point.
Similarly, we waste our time demonstrating that the “occupation” cannot explain the Arab rejection of Israel or Palestinian terrorism by pointing out that the Arabs vowed to destroy Israel in both 1948 and 1967 before it “occupied” Judea and Samaria. Nor will it make any difference to note that Israel accepted the U.N. partition plan in 1947; or that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol offered to return virtually all the territory captured in 1967, in return for mutual recognition, and received the three no’s of Khartoum – no negotiation, no recognition, no peace – in response; or that Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state on 97% of captured territory in 2000 and got a new war as his answer.
Again, all that is only relevant if is Israel is granted the right to exist. But in European eyes the Israeli project is racist from the outset; it is last example of European imperialism.
Europe needs expiation. And the Jews are once again its korban.
Appeared in Yated Ne’eman yesterday.