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Aryeh Schonbrun

And in the Darkness Bind Them: The Promise of a Unified Europe

Graffiti from Naples, Italy (Aryeh Schonbrun)

Europe has been a problematic continent since its inception. From the violence of Ancient Rome to the bloody jihad of the crusades and numerous expulsions and religious book burnings, from feudalism, colonialism and the slave trade to the two World Wars and the Holocaust, Europe has not shown itself to act in the general interest of humanity. A small continent plagued by cold, disease and war,  she somehow managed to overcome many obstacles and build what we now know as Western culture. Of course, she had help. It was the Arabs, after all, who preserved much of the literary and scientific treasures of the ancient world, and it was through such cross-cultural communication that Europe even managed to get her foot in the door.

Growing up in the New World, in the former Lenape homeland, now New York, I was always fascinated by the colonial dynamics that gave birth to the U.S. I would imagine the virgin forests, uncorrupted by modern, Western development, and the many cultures and languages that were spoken on the very ground I currently inhabited. On my first few trips abroad, to Israel at the age of fifteen, and to Italy at sixteen, I remember looking out of the window and taking in the aerial view of the Old World, realizing how very young America was. When driving around suburban Westchester, I remember seeing the signposts denoting town and city limits, along with the year that each settlement had been founded. Even the oldest and most significant of the settlements of the region, which could be traced to at least the early eighteenth century, could not compare with the age of even the younger cities of Europe.

America’s novelty, its youth, played a major role in its attractiveness as a land of new hope, opportunity and prosperity. My family made the leap, enticed by its liberal culture and social security, inadvertently saving themselves from the horrors of the Holocaust. My grandmother’s cousins who stayed behind were not as lucky. However, as we well know, America was not the land of opportunity for all its inhabitants. The natives were struck down by European disease and driven off their lands, black Africans were delivered as enslaved labor to rich property owners, and even the early pioneers, many who came over as indentured servants, suffered from incredibly high rates of attrition, due to war with the natives, disease and starvation. Even so, as the young nation began to take form, America captured the imagination of many Europeans, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville, who praised the newfound American ethos in his famous book “Democracy in America.” For many Europeans, America was an opportunity to start over, not only as individuals, but as ethnic groups (e.g. Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews), and, even more generally, for the West. As President George Washington once said, “the establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.”

Regardless of the actual fate of this experiment, America was clearly regarded by some in Europe as a new beginning, a restart, and a chance to learn and improve from the historic corruption and bloodshed of Europe. The American Civil War surely put a dent in America’s standing abroad, but, as a result of America’s openness to immigration and, later on, her patriotic stand against European fascism, many Europeans came to see the U.S. not only as a strong, independent power, but as a legitimate representative of the West. It is out of this recognition, initially a violent military capitulation but eventually a profound identification with American liberal ideals, that Europe successfully extricated herself from the ravages of her two “World Wars”. It is also out of such a dynamic that the idea for a united Europe began to take shape.

To be sure, a “United States of Europe” was not a novel idea. It was discussed for at least as long as the United States of America has existed, however, it would not be realized, apart from two vain and unsuccessful attempts by Napoleon Bonaparte and the Nazis, until the latter part of the twentieth century. At the time of its ratification, the proposal for the European Union came as a response to the fear, still present among many Europeans, of reverting back to the nationalistic policies that instigated Europe’s many wars and perpetuated baseless hatred among its peoples. The idea of a union of European peoples, bound by a common land, and, seemingly, a shared destiny, seemed obvious for many leaders and was encouraged by the U.S. as a way of consolidating its diplomatic and military functions in an efficient manner. Instead of having to invest heavily in disparate policies for the many individual European nations, the U.S. could now utilize European Union channels in order to engage collectively with their Western allies.

However, as we all know, the E.U. is now facing many administrative and democratic obstacles, some of which can be blamed on entire structures of illicit foreign interference. The centralization of Brussels has diverted many government activities away from individual states’ legislative and regulatory oversight. Additionally, the relationship the E.U. maintains with N.A.T.O. HQ, also in Brussels, over-represents American interests, who make use of America’s military hegemony in order to lobby the E.U. for their neoliberal economic policies. Personally, I see the E.U. as no more than a delegated administrative division of NATO, effectively translating American military policy into political directives. Much as how the Palestinian Authority is bound by Israeli interests as a result of Israel’s military occupation, coordinated through COGAT, a branch of the IDF, the E.U., or the “European Authority,” serves the American occupation and her greater, global interests, coordinated through the EEAS (European External Action Service). Of course, America does not exert total control over Europe, and much dissent and discord continues to fester beneath the thin veneer of European democracy. Just like as with the Palestinians, pockets of political resistance remain and are dealt with heavy-handedly, though mostly by political means.

Having discovered the true nature of the European Union and the Palestinian Authority, I began to assess the ethics of the dual occupations. In other words, is occupying Europe and Palestine a legitimate political decision, or could they both be construed as crimes against humanity. To be fair, many mitigating factors do exist. European society’s self-implosion over the first half of the past century may justify her continued occupation. Similarly, the presence of terrorist organizations in Palestine may legitimize Israel’s continued military presence in the West Bank. Objectively speaking, these two, contradicting narratives, that of the occupiers and of the occupied, appear to be irreconcilable, but, upon further analysis, I began to detect inherent inconsistencies on both sides. On the one hand, many Europeans have willingly accepted their new American identities and even some Palestinians have come to terms with the Israeli occupation (usually those who work in Israel), and, on the other hand, many Americans voice profound criticism and concern about the overreach of American interests in Europe, which many claim have led to the current war in the Ukraine, and many Israelis likewise protest their country’s influence over Palestinian society.

In my opinion, both narratives can be found to lack the requisite complexity in order to sufficiently describe the actual situation. Surely the American occupation was once justified beyond doubt, shortly after WWII and possibly throughout the Cold War, and perhaps the Israeli occupation of the West Bank even benefitted the local population in its initial years, fairly administering the region before expanding Jewish settlements soured relations? However, in our current period of transition and geopolitical repositioning, we must consider not just the underlying causes and reasons for the continued occupations, but how to develop a realistic roadmap for the future.

I do not believe in a shared, unified European identity and see it as a barrier for desperately needed global progress. Additionally, I even see this novel “European” identity as dangerous and a cowardly deflection of the major questions that Europeans must ask themselves about what went wrong not so long ago. To simply reject traditional European nationalism and advocate for the total dissolution of individual nationhood is not only morally problematic, as it may amount to a political form of genocide, but seems to me equally disingenuous and manipulative. Throughout my travels in Europe, I’ve often found myself contemplating the authenticity of post-modern Europe’s refutation of nationalism. I struggle with the ease at which many Europeans, especially Germans, tend to fall back onto the commercialized ethos of American individualism and I sometimes interpret it as a sophisticated attempt at avoiding the collective blame associated with the Holocaust.

As an American Jew, I am perturbed by my own country’s failures at completing the task of denazification in time and view the complete “normalization” of relations with my people’s former aggressors as a corrupt betrayal of moral historical perspective. Surely, I do not blame today’s Germans for the Holocaust, but I cannot say the same about the corruption within the German state. How can I trust a country that has been so neutered and “Americanized,” that has lost most of its identifying characteristics as German, to behave normally once set free? Ironically, America’s ongoing occupation of Germany has not only strengthened problematic elements of the European establishment, but has also frozen and distorted the natural process of reflection, restructuring and repentance, making it difficult for me, as a Jew, to accept it at face value. From my perspective, America’s dominant political influence over Europe calls into question the authenticity of any true remorse shown by European leaders, let alone Germans, over the Holocaust, World Wars, etc. When Germany’s Chancellor issues a statement commemorating the Holocaust, is he representing Germany, or is he paying lip service to the Americans in an attempt to gain favor in the eyes of his perennial occupiers. When Palestinian leaders publicly denounce terrorism, are they genuinely concerned about the lives of innocent civilians, or are they just serving their own Western-dominated interests?

When I encounter this strange new multi-cultural European identity, I tend to dismiss it as a cheap knock-off of American liberalism. Growing up in the U.S., I benefitted greatly from the relative security that America’s democratic ethos afforded me as a practicing Jew. However, its application in Europe is misguided, counterproductive and even a bit racist (see European FM Borrell’s comments on European order and ensuing backlash). Europeans should not be focused on creating a unified, superficial and exclusive identity based on shared citizenship, but should rather strive to foster deep cross-cultural exchange and further shared global interests. Just as the U.S. has concerned itself with global affairs for more than seventy years, I propose that the Europeans turn outwards and begin to develop a new, independent global framework that will eventually supplant the top-down corrupt and inefficient institutions such as the UN, IMF, World Bank, etc. Since the end of the war, Europe has concentrated on solving its internal issues, but, as Rosa Luxemburg illustrated, it was European imperialism that led to the political instability that sparked World War I, and I believe that only by addressing global problems and helping weaker regions of the world can Europe fully reach its true potential and finally atone for her sins.

I am not advocating for a new age of European colonialism. Such “neocolonialism” already exists in the form of Western, American-backed neoliberalism. Rather, I would encourage European leaders to explore the possibility of constructing an alternative form of world government that would build off the experience of unifying Europe under purportedly responsible, neutral institutions. In other words, I dream of seeing a reinvigorated European Union expand to other regions, in tandem with the development and strengthening of other, similar unions elsewhere (e.g. African Union, Arab League). Eventually, I see the entire world unifying under one flexible government, looser than the American federal model, but stronger than the current international model that lacks actual clout. In order to wean the world off of the totalitarian control that it has known for the past two hundred years, we must build an alternative model that can at once approximate the functional stability of the current one, but slowly but surely relinquish its centralized power, finally reinstating the natural equilibrium that humanity has sought from the dawn of civilization. Like noise-cancelling headphones, we must induce interference patterns between today’s current international system and the artificial construct that is the European Union. When these two opposing structures collide, the errant forces will cancel each other out, leaving us in rich tranquility.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(Emma Lazarus)

About the Author
Originally from Westchester, NY, Aryeh made Aliyah 6 years ago.
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