Timothy Garton Ash: Middle East War: Made in Europe

Roundup: Historians' Take

[ TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.]

WHEN AND WHERE did this war begin? Shortly after 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday, July 12, when Hezbollah 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? In January, when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in a backhanded triumph for an American policy of supporting democratization? In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon? In 1979, with the Islamic revolution in Iran? In 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 on, 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 to some antecedent horror, as poet James Fenton wrote in his "Ballad of the Imam and the Shah."

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.

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 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulets at the Ecole Militaire; the festering anti-Semitism of Austria about 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 full 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.

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 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 right-wing extremists who marched through the town of Verden in Lower Saxony on Saturday, waving Iranian flags and chanting "Israel — international genocide center." I also mean thinking people on the left....

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. On the contrary, the true friend is the one who speaks up when you're making a mistake.

It does not follow that every European who criticizes Israel is a covert anti-Semite, as some commentators in the U.S. tend to imply. And it 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 camps. The life of every Lebanese killed or wounded by Israeli bombing is worth exactly as much as that of every Israeli killed or wounded by Hezbollah 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. ...
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