EYES ABROAD: The return of Vichyism

by Bret Stephens [The Jerusalem Post, April 21, 2002]

(April 21) - READING ABOUT the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Israel feeling in Europe, two points are clear.

The first point is that the perpetrators of the attacks are mainly Arab. In Montpellier, France, three Moroccans confessed to throwing Molotov cocktails at a synagogue. In Antwerp, Belgium, 14 Muslims are under arrest for smashing car and store windows in the city's diamond district. In Berlin, Germany, the men who set upon a Lubavitcher are described in a police report as Suedlaendisch - southlanders.

The second point is that those protesting Israel are mainly from the Left. The same people who marched in last year's massive antiglobalization protests have now returned to denounce Ariel Sharon. The same Nobel committee that in 1994 awarded the peace prize to Yasser Arafat now want to take it away from Shimon Peres. In Italy, pro-Palestinian marches are the handiwork of social democrats, Greens, Communists and trade-union leaders. In Britain, the ultra-left New Statesman devoted an issue to the "Kosher Conspiracy," its cover an illustration of a Star of David piercing the heart of the Union Jack.

None of this should come as a surprise. And yet it would be a mistake to argue that what's going on here is the return of the old anti-Semitism, as if it were a congenital disease whose symptoms had merely gone into remission these past 50-odd years. Were that the case, one would expect a rise in anti-Semitic attacks carried out by Europeans themselves. But the violence today is essentially a Middle Eastern phenomenon, imported into the Continent by a burgeoning Muslim population. Most Europeans - most West Europeans, at any rate - are appalled by it.

Then too, to say that the anti-Israel left has become anti-Semitic both overstates the case and misses the point. Overstates because, even while there's a hard core of Israel-haters who really are anti-Semitic - France's Robert Faurisson comes to mind - many more are simply well-wishers of what they see as the legitimate Palestinian struggle for self-determination within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And it misses the point because opposing Israel's policies in the territories (or just plain opposing Israel) is just one plank in a much broader political and cultural agenda covering everything from global warming to free trade to labor policy. In this, anti-Semitism is never a premise, and only rarely a conclusion, whereas for genuine anti-Semites the malevolence of Jews is always the premise.

SOMETHING ELSE, then, is at work here. Call it the politics of capitulation, or the triumph of Vichyism.

For those who follow European politics closely, and especially its foreign policy, two things especially stand out: the loftiness of the rhetoric, and the timidity of the deed."The hour of Europe has come!" said Luxembourg's foreign minister Jacques Poos in 1991, following a diplomatic mission to keep Serbia and Croatia from going to war. The Balkan wars were supposed to provide the occasion for Europe to take the place of the Soviet Union as the second main pole of power in the world, maintaining order within its sphere of influence. Instead, the EU sloughed off responsibility, first to the feckless UN, then to the United States. The result was Srebenica, carried out with the docile compliance of Dutch UN peacekeepers.

Part of the reason why Europe so often fails to act is structural: European states speak collectively, but act independently. Yet the structure is not an accident; it reflects a mutual convenience. Europe wants to put forth a view but it does not want to incur the costs - political, financial but most of all moral - of imposing its will.

Take the vote earlier this month by the basically powerless European Parliament to sanction Israel - and the decision by the powerful European Council to do nothing of the sort. Given the near unanimous European hysteria over alleged IDF massacres of Palestinians, there was something almost craven about the Council's decision: Countries that commit the kind of deeds of which the Israelis are accused should be sanctioned. Yet for the EU, posturing was enough. It offered just the right combination of self-congratulation, "responsiveness" to the street protestors, and appeasement of the Arabs, both within Europe and without. At the same time, it required nothing concrete of the European member states. It was a costless capitulation.

Indeed, capitulation has long been the hallmark of European governance. If French, German and Italian unions routinely go on strike, it's because they have learned that the government will likely give in to their demands. Ditto for European farmers, who command nearly 50% of the EU's total operating budget because EU governments live in fear of rural unrest.

But this is as nothing next to Europe's capitulations to the Arab world over the past three decades. Beginning in September 1970, when Europe agreed to the release of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the release of hijacked airline passengers, Europe has consistently pursued a policy of accommodation with terrorists, from the PLO to the PKK to the Tamil Tigers. In France, police routinely turn a blind eye to looting rampages in Arab eighborhoods. And cases of assault by Arabs against Jews were - until they became a political scandal this month - met with indifference by police authorities.

Given this, it's no surprise that Israel's policy of standing up to terrorism in the West Bank should elicit such hostility among Europe's governing class, for it threatens to arouse their own Arab street in ways beyond their capacity to appease. But I think it goes deeper than this. In Europe, the habits of capitulation are not merely a cowardly reflex and a source of shame, but a philosophical conceit. Europe is proud of its powerlessness, and sees it as proof of superior virtue.

Partly, I think, this reflects a Christian inheritance, seen today in the pacifism of Europe's Green parties. Partly, too, it is the product of Europe's historical decline. A continent that for 400 years directed world events cannot accept accept its sudden political irrelevance save by treating the matter as an inevitability from which it has derived great wisdom. Thus, for example, the collapse of Europe's empires was transformed into the positive good of "decolonization." (That decolonization hasn't exactly done good by, say, Algerians or Sierra Leoneans, doesn't trouble the European conscience. What matters is to hold to the belief that with the loss of power came a gain in virtue.)

More basic to this equation, however, is the memory of the Holocaust. Typically among Jews, the prevalence of anti-Zionism in Europe is ascribed to a latent anti-Semitism, not to mention a desire to overcome a guilty conscience by painting Israeli tactics as Nazi. This may be accurate in some instances, but I would argue that the opposite is generally closer to the truth. Hatred of Israel comes from too close an identification with the victims of the Holocaust, with too great a fetish for powerlessness. Because Israel stands for Jewish power, it was bound to lose favor to those who could present themselves as the new victims. And Palestinians have been very adept at this.

What Europe wants, then, is not to harm Jews. It wants to save them, and thereby avail itself of the only means of redeeming itself. But for that to happen, Israel must again become as weak and vulnerable as it was before 1967. Back then, recall, Israel was very popular among Europeans.

IT MAY SEEM strange that roughly the same people for whom consciousness of the Holocaust remains the great informing value would seek to castigate Israel at every turn and appease those who would destroy it. But this merely points out the incoherence of European policy, both toward Israel as well as the rest of the world. For the lesson that much of Europe - especially the European Left - has taken away from the Second World War is not that power must be exercised sensibly and morally, but that power must not really be exercised at all. Hence the politics of capitulation I described above.

Yet the essence of Vichy was not capitulation, even if capitulation is what led to Vichy's creation. The essence of Vichy was its complicity in evil. Vichy may have started out as a helpless regime that had no choice but to go along with Berlin's dictates. In fact, as we now know too well, Vichy soon became a willing partner in Nazi crimes.

Today, Europe follows the path of accommodation to terrorism, to the anti-Israel fashions of the Left, to the demands of its Arab street. It does so out of convenience and cowardice, but also because it believes that there is virtue in weakness and retreat. Yet a Europe that has voluntarily renounced the exercise of power and given in to the demands of its "street" is a complicitous Europe. This may be different from an anti-Semitic Europe, but it is no less disgraceful.