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Mr. Shirtsleeves and proportionality

Pondering the ugly reason Europeans can't abide Israel's exercise of its right to self defense

Europe is an interesting place to observe from Israel. Europeans live in a society that is not easy to understand. Their culture seems based on a flattering paradigm: When humanity is going to advance, it does so in Europe first. Yet the term “Europe” provokes a dual reaction in this region. On the one hand, there is all that culture, democracy and economic plenty. Then there is that dark side to Europe. Certainly, in the 20th Century whenever humanity was about to descend into a new kind of Hell, it did so first in Europe. In daily life we don’t see the dark side. But every time Israel fights Hamas, the eccentricity of European responses gob-smacks us.

Mr. Shirtsleeves is a good example. An interviewer on a British TV news show, he challenged an Israeli minister for wearing a shirt. Correspondents in Gaza must wear flak jackets, you see. This illustrates that Israel’s use of force is disproportionate. Proportionality, of course, relates to the degree of force used in a violent conflict in relation to the military goals toward which it is directed. To the best of my knowledge it has never been determined by comparing shirts and flak-jackets.

The loopiness of the challenge might be dismissed as harmless if it were a one time mis-statement, but the background is more serious. In Germany of all places we heard a public call for mass murder of “Zionist Jews” from a Muslim cleric. In France a mob assaulted a synagogue and destroyed Jewish-owned shops. An MP from Britain’s Liberal Democratic party tweeted his willingness to fire missiles at Israel. Several European governments have been outspoken in condemning anti-Semitic violence. Other government institutions have not spared themselves embarrassment.

The Irish Dail outdid itself. It rose for a moment of silence in solidarity with the people of Gaza. No solidarity with the people of Israel as they huddled in their bomb shelters. They remain seated in the face of over a thousand dead in the fighting last week in the lands of ISIS. They sat through the expulsion of Christians from Mosul. Starvation of Palestinians in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime left their fundaments firmly placed. Whatever the intent of individual parliamentarians as they rose, it is not the violent death of humans per se that made them upstanding. Neither was it the identity of the Palestinian victims as such (see under Syria). We must conclude that the operational variable was the Israeli (Oh say it … Jewish) identity of the current enemies of the Palestinians.

So much of this behavior is not proportionate to the rights and wrongs of the complex conflict over here, but it is a habit. Many Europeans lose their composure whenever the Israelis exercise their right to self defense. Why?

Some suggest this is because the European continent endures economic difficulties and it will pass when the economy improves. But the appalling behaviors every time Hamas acts on its goal of destroying Israelis have been irrational even when the economy booms. There must be something deeper, an ugly truth that drives these reactions. When all other explanations are eliminated, Conan-Doyle taught us, whatever remains must be the truth. Here is where the Dail’s moment of silent standing in identification with the people of Gaza and to the exclusion of the people of Israel was such an important moment.

A recent ADL poll found that one in four Europeans agreed with
classical anti-Semitic stereotypes. Few observers of the European scene
expressed surprise. but how hard it is for European leaders to connect
the dots with the conduct of their diplomats and media. That inability
carries a price.

On occasion, European political leaders ask why they have
dis-proportionally little influence in Israel and why they impact the
peace process on the margins. All that trade with Europe and the
European roots of about half of the Jewish population suggests a firm
basis for greater influence. But the continent produces so many
examples of bigoted behavior, especially at moments when Israelis have
heightened awareness of the dangers of their region.

Mr. Shirtsleeves is a helpful illustration. He elicited from the Israeli minister the fact that he had just spent the morning in a sheltered room with his daughter. It was an obvious professional failure that Shirtsleeves did not follow up on that human-interest fact. Imagine how his indifference to the girl’s suffering impacted on the minister. Small wonder that in a crunch the Europeans find themselves largely distrusted and sidelined.

To be fair, the nations of the EU have a problematic opening position vis a vis Israeli society. While many Europeans judge Israel harshly based on flawed analogies with their own colonialist history, most of us in Israel are products of those very failures of European society. Migrants who moved to this land questioned the future that Europe could offer. History bore them out. The half of Israelis without roots in Europe are descended from refugees from Muslim countries, most colonized by Europe. Both groups carry strong memories of the worst Europe has to offer, Holocaust and colonialism. European self-righteousness has little on which to base itself in the historical experience of the Israeli people. Humility, rather than selective denunciation might go a long way in helping them to gain some of the influence that eludes them.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.