By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 27/07/06):
When and where did this war begin? Shortly after 9am local time on Wednesday July 12, when Hizbullah militants seized Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev – Israeli reservists on the last day of their tour of duty – in a cross-border raid into northern Israel? Friday June 9, when Israeli shells killed at least seven Palestinian civilians on a beach in the Gaza strip? January this year, when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, in a backhanded triumph for an American policy of supporting democratisation? 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon? 1979, with the Islamic revolution in Iran? 1948, with the creation of the state of Israel? Or how about Russia in the spring of 1881?
Simple questions require such complicated answers. Even if the basic facts are agreed, every term is disputed: militants, soldiers or terrorists? Seized, captured or kidnapped? Every selection of facts implies an interpretation. And in tortured histories like this, every horror will be explained or justified by reference back to some antecedent horror:
From tyranny to tyranny to war
From dynasty to dynasty to hate
From villainy to villainy to death
From policy to policy to grave…
“The song is yours. Arrange it as you will,” writes the poet James Fenton, in his Ballad of the Imam and the Shah.
Yet observing European responses to the current conflict, I want to insist on Europe’s own strong claim to be among the earliest causes. The Russian pogroms of 1881; the French mob chanting “à bas les juifs” as Captain Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulettes at the École Militaire; the festering anti-semitism of Austria around 1900, shaping the young Adolf Hitler; all the way to the Holocaust of European Jewry and the waves of anti-semitism that convulsed parts of Europe in its immediate aftermath. It was that history of increasingly radical European rejection, from the 1880s to the 1940s, that produced the driving force for political Zionism, Jewish emigration to Palestine and eventually the creation of the state of Israel.
“What made me a Zionist was the Dreyfus trial,” said Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. If Europe decided that each nation should have its own state, would not accept even emancipated Jews as fully members of the French or German nation, and eventually became the scene of the attempted extermination of all Jewry, then the Jews must have their own national home somewhere else. Home – in a definition beloved of Isaiah Berlin – is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in. And never again would Jews go as lambs to the slaughter. As Israelis, they would fight for the life of every single fellow Jew. The 19th-century stereotypes of German Helden and Jewish Händler have been reversed. The Germans, and with them most of today’s bourgeois Europeans, have become the eternal traders; the Jews, in Israel, the eternal warriors.
Of course, this is only one thread in perhaps the world’s most complicated political tapestry; but it’s a very important one. I don’t think any European should speak or write about today’s conflict in the Middle East without displaying some consciousness of our own historical responsibility. I’m afraid that some Europeans today do so speak and write; and I don’t just mean the German rightwing extremists who marched through the town of Verden in Lower Saxony last Saturday, waving Iranian flags and chanting “Israel – international genocide centre”. I also mean thinking people on the left, contributors to discussion threads on Guardian blogs and the like. Even as we criticise the way the Israeli military are killing Lebanese civilians and UN monitors in the name of recovering Ehud Goldwasser (and destroying the military infrastructure of Hizbullah), we must remember that all of this would almost certainly not be happening if some Europeans had not attempted, a few decades back, to remove everyone called Goldwasser from the face of Europe – if not the earth.
Let me be very clear what I mean. It does not follow from this terrible European history that Europeans must display uncritical solidarity with whatever the current government of Israel chooses to do, however violent or ill-advised. On the contrary, the true friend is the one who speaks up when you’re making a mistake. It does not follow that we should sign up to the latest dangerous simplifications about a “third world war” against “an Iran-Syrian-Hizbullah-Hamas terrorist alliance” (according to the US Republican Newt Gingrich) or a “seamless totalitarian movement” of political Islamism (according to the Conservative MP and journalist Michael Gove).
It does not follow that every European who criticises Israel is a covert anti-semite, as some commentators in the United States tend to imply. And it certainly does not follow that we should be any less alert to the suffering of the Arabs, including the Palestinian Arabs who fled or were driven out of their homes at the founding of the state of Israel, and their descendants who grew up in refugee camps. The life of every single Lebanese killed or wounded by Israeli bombing is worth exactly as much as that of every Israeli killed or wounded by Hizbullah rocket attacks.
Does it follow that Europeans have a special obligation to get involved in trying to secure a peace settlement in which the state of Israel can live in secure frontiers next to a viable Palestinian state? I think it does. To be sure, since Europeans have one way or another affected almost every corner of the earth, such an argument from history could in theory take us everywhere – the legacy of European imperialism providing a universal moral excuse for European neo-imperialism. But the story of the Jews driven from their European homelands, and in their turn driving Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, is unique. Even if you don’t accept this argument from historical and moral responsibility, Europe’s vital interests are plainly at stake: oil, nuclear proliferation and the potential reaction among our alienated Muslim minorities, to name but three.
It’s less clear what that involvement should be. One proposal is for European forces to participate in a multinational peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, but that only makes sense if realistic parameters are established for a clear, feasible and finite mission. Those are not yet in sight. Even a ceasefire is not yet in sight. The Rome summit concluded yesterday afternoon barely papering over a clear difference between the United States and Israel, on the one side, and most of the rest of the world, including the EU and the UN, on the other, about how a ceasefire should be achieved. The truth is that now, more than ever, the diplomatic key lies in the full engagement of the United States, using its unique influence with Israel and negotiating as directly as possible with all partners to the conflict, however unsavoury. Until that happens, Europe alone can do little.
Yet the issue here is not just changing the realities on the ground in the Middle East. How Europeans speak and write about the position of the Jews in the region to which Europeans drove them is also a matter of our own self-definition. We should weigh every word.