Europe and the abused “Shoah guilt complex” after October 7

Claudia De Martino, CORIS, La Sapienza University

 

Accusations of European double standards and inconsistency in the war Israel is waging on Gaza have raged since October 7, coming from Arab states, the BRICS, European public opinion, and even from some Western officials themselves. The comparison between the EU reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and Israel’s war on Gaza is stunning. Moscow’s blatant violation of international law had then ushered a unanimous response by European powers and peoples and triggered sanctions, economic boycotts, and mass economic, cultural, and diplomatic disengagement from Russia. On the other hand, since October 7 many European governments have been perceived as colluding with the Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip which has prompted one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century. In fact, many EU states, both from the staunchly pro-Israel Visegrad group (four former Communist eastern and central European countries: Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia) and the Western bloc (the “filo-Atlantic” Western European countries and founders of the EU, such as France, Germany, the Benelux and Italy plus Spain and Portugal), usually more balanced in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have abstained on UNSC resolutions asking for an immediate ceasefire and cracked down on Palestinian NGO’s and institutional funding – including to UNRWA,  in the midst of a tremendous humanitarian crisis.

The EU-Israeli relationship is tarnished by a guilt complex based on the Holocaust (Shoah) nurtured by most Western states towards the Jewish state. This partially explains the recent and vocal emphasis in Shoah commemorations displayed by European heads of states and party leaders in attending the “March of the Living” in Auschwitz or laying wreaths of flowers in places where Jews were murdered in World War II, all actions that are doing little in helping raising awareness among the public about racism, intolerance, and Islamophobic violence again on the rise throughout Europe. This Shoah-related “guilt complex” buys into the rhetoric of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who throughout his 20 years in power has framed the existence of Israel as the single shelter of Jewish life and prioritized anti-Islamist and anti-terror security discourses in its relations with Europe.

The European “guilt complex” acts in two ways: first, fully supporting Israel, shielding it from attacks in the diplomatic arena by subscribing to its victimization’s narrative of a lonely “David-style” oppressed single Jewish state confronting a “Goliath-like” galaxy of enemies, all united against it under the banner of “terror”; and second, in defending Israel from any critique and any attempt to address it as a normal country expected to act responsibly in the international arena.

Paradoxically, the “guilt complex” has recently been emphasized by governing right-wing parties in Western Europe more than it used to be in the past, when left-leaning or central Christian Democratic coalitions were ruling. European right-wing government use it instrumentally to advance a so-called Judeo-Christian identity of the EU in deep contrast to the multinational and multicultural vision of the EU, embracing Muslim minorities and new immigrants of any background, supported by left-leaning parties. Yet, the alliance between European right-wing parties, among which lie many formerly anti-Semitic political forces, with Israel is quite controversial even among Israeli right-wing politicians. For instance, in 2016 the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin publicly denounced members of the ruling party (Likud) for flirting with far-right European politicians. At that time, the warning was directed at those government members who had invited Austrian leader Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), previously accused of anti-Semitism, to visit Israel as a gesture of normalization. On that occasion, Rivlin thundered against “those who try to form alliances with xenophobic and anti-Semitic parties and groups that only seemingly support the State of Israel,” adding that “it was up to his generation, closer to that of the Holocaust, to draw a clear line: no interest in the world could justify this unfortunate alliance with groups (…) committed to fighting all foreigners, refugees, and migrants who dare to enter their space”.[1] Since 2017, though, Netanyahu’s Israel has been strengthening its cooperation with the right-wing “Visegrád Group”, (Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) with the goal of expanding its international relations beyond Western Europe, often perceived as hostile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while also playing on the traditional “guilt complex” of Western Europe and the EU growing understanding of Israel in Western Europe as a bulwark against “Muslim terror”.

In an era where the memory of the Shoah has never been so central in the political agendas of half of Europe, the United States, and Israel, Shmuel Rozeman, President of the Jewish association managing the “March of the Living” and an authoritative voice in matters of Holocaust studies, bucked the trend articulating a rather pessimist opinion in an interview with the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung(April 24, 2017), predicting that “in the next ten years there won’t be any direct witness of the Shoah and (thus) antisemitism and denialism will pull themselves back together”.  His prophecy touches a raw nerve: the universal message against genocide and its ever possibility of recurrence that the Shoah was supposed to convey is gaining legitimacy in institutions, but it is progressively fading out in European societal fabrics. The memory of the Shoah should have acted as a powerful reminder of the rejection of any form of discrimination against minorities, ethnic, national, or racial hatred propaganda eventually leading to new genocides, and the refusal of unjust orders, even if imposed by lawful authorities, which should in turn represent the fundamental core of any liberal democracy’s social contract. However, this message has failed to transcend the specific case of the Jewish suffering during the Shoah, failing to boost international vigilance against discrimination of any oppressed or colonised minority. Even the establishment of a dedicated day for the memory of the Shoah (the 27th of January), introduced by the United Nations in 2005 (UN General Assembly Resolution 60/7) was originally meant to shore up the compliance with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1951) –  signed or ratified by 152 states –  which lies at the foundation of the International Criminal Court based in The Hague (1998). The link between the Jewish genocide’s yearly commemoration and its universal value as moral warning against any possible mass persecution has not been enshrined either by European states’ policies or those of Israel. In addition, the divisions between the two main Jewish organizations engaged in the commemoration of the Shoah – the US-leaning World Jewish Congress and the Russian-leaning European Jewish Congress – has further complicated these narratives and, as I have argued elsewhere,  “undermines the common intent that both declare to pursue as well as the moral authority of those very institutions that would like to stand as guardians of the memory of the Shoah when there will be no more witnesses.”[2] This development raises the question whether the memory of the Shoah has become so politicized over time that it can no longer unite even the Jewish community around its commemoration.

Indeed, a “Holocaust fatigue” has been noticed in German public opinion as much as in other European countries: according to the Anti-Defamation League, three-quarters of Poles declare that Jews talk excessively about the Holocaust, followed by 44% of Austrians, 40% of Belgians, 38% of Italians, and 37% of Spaniards.[3] This societal “fatigue”, in sharp contrast to most European governments’ pro-Israel vocal support and Holocaust state canonization, is marking the emergence of a young generation no longer defined by World War II’s memory, but also increasingly moving away from the Holocaust guilt complex by acknowledging that “Jews also have also committed crimes”[4] in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2015, a survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung on Israeli-German relations highlighted a strong desire in Germany for a “Schlusstrich” (“to draw a line” or “to put an end to something”), meaning the emergence of the need to move away from a heavy historical legacy such as the Holocaust responsibility. Such a shift was supported by a remarkable 65% of respondents under the age of 40. Young Germans are tired of bearing the burden of events dating back to 80 years ago. It marks no attempt at denialism, but rather an aspiration to be relieved from a burdensome past loosely connected to the present. The Auschwitz memory stays important for young Germans at national level, but no longer defines identity at a personal one. Young German feelings are in line with those of their Europeans peers, with the European newspaper Politico reporting that a third of Europeans interviewed on this matter complain that Jews are too much invested in commemorating the Holocaust to “advance their own political agenda” (November 27, 2018)[5], mistaking Jews with Israelis, and showing a high degree of confusion between diaspora Jews and Israel, primarily generated by Israeli government authorities who would not miss an opportunity to blur the distinction between them. And while anti-Semitism is not yet a rampant phenomenon in Western Europe, despite being again on the rise since October 7, conspiracy theories about the supranational Jewish lobby are already the rule.

Muslim minority communities stand at an uneasy relationship with such trends. Some worry that the authorities’ attachment to the Holocaust as a “European moral norm” might further alienate social and religious minority groups of Arab and Islamic descent who already feel little part of the respective European national communities and see it as a way to silence criticism of Israel. Frantic reactions such as those of Germany’s Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, blaming Muslim groups for the rise of antisemitism in Germany but also indiscriminately identifying pro-Palestinian demonstrations with pro-Islamist supporters, together with the proposal to make migrants’ residency status conditional on the public rejection of Antisemitism, could only deepen the cleavage and fan the flames.[6] Muslim groups already blame the authorities for applying a double standard, overemphasizing Europe’s historical role in the Shoah while paying little notice to other crimes, such as colonial ones, perpetrated in countries from which many migrants in Europe today originate. A “selective memory” process frown upon by the Arab collective and acutely described by Professor Karim Emile Bitar as a “double traumatism” (Shoah versus colonialism) nurturing two separate, and mutually exclusive, historical legacies and marking the cleavage between the Global South and the former colonial West.[7]

Finally, some observers project diverging trajectories between Israel and Europe in the near future, due to multiple factors: the small number of Jews living in Europe (about 1 million); the growing value-based distance towards Israel (reciprocated by Israel, with 69% of Israeli citizens considering “Europe” an enemy[8] by virtue of its support of the “two state solution”);  the increasing irrelevance of the values stemming from WWII, such as the commitment to build a united Europe; and the flare-up of small countries nationalisms within the EU.

In the next European elections due in May 2024, opinion polls show most of European countries projected to shift further right-wing, driven by a strong opposition to migrants, and particularly Muslim migrants. Yet, there seems to be a growing divide among generations on hostility to Muslims: negative attitudes toward Muslims, in fact, are much more common among older people (60+), while 18-34 years old seem to adopt more lenient or tolerant positions, with a gap of over 25% points.[9] Additional surveys, such as the popular Economist/YouGov poll[10], confirm this trend. Consequently, there seems to be a positive correlation between appraisal of Muslim migrants and support of the Palestinian cause among youth aged 18-29, which tend to side slightly more with Palestinians than with Israelis (28%-20%) compared to those aged 65 and over, consistently siding with Israel by a margin of 65% to 6%. A trend in line with similar surveys conducted in the USA, with only 48% of Millennial and Gen Z’ers approving U.S. support to Israel.[11]

Youth (Gen-Z’s) engagement with the Palestinian cause reveals a wide generational gap in attitudes towards social justice on a global scale. If youth are generally more likely to embrace change in their respective societies, Generation Z’s mark is its tech-savviness and its consequential wide exposure to global social media, producing a horizontal rather than top-down information filtered by the governments.[12] In contrast to national official media, in facts, social media are more likely to host contributions by on-the-ground, free-lance journalists from the Global South providing alternative readings of events. This feeds Generation Z’s main generational hallmark of being highly invested in promoting global campaigns based on racial and gender equality and individual rights.

In the current conflict on Gaza, social media have been far less shaped by authorities’ attempts to control speech, accessing more alternative sources released directly from Gaza, displaying the extent of sufferance of average civilian people, and challenging or, at least, denting official narratives of the Israeli Defence Forces acting with restraint in warfare. In addition to being exposed to the brutality of war in full display, they have been stricken by the lack of intervention of the international community and by the stark contrast between sound international laws and humanitarian international laws’ provisions and real-time images of mass bombings and starvation in the Gaza Strip, which these same laws seemed completely unable to stop. Dramatic images of Palestinian suffering posted on social media have fostered a sense of solidarity with those perceived as killed by a great military power, that is Israel, able to bomb the Strip for successive 180 days. Therefore, the Palestinian cause has been ranked among the “just causes” by young activists already protesting century-old oppression of great powers or Western white elites, linking it up with other global contention movement, such as “Black Lives Matter” or anti-apartheid ones, based on intersectionality. A latest development marking a global shift in narratives in which Israel is rapidly losing out the support it once enjoyed among Black activists, who used to sympathize with Jews as a people historically oppressed throughout and by the West, and European leftists, who associated it with collective farms.

In the latest round of war in Gaza, however, many Muslim youth in Europe are seizing the opportunity to raise their voice on Palestine to voice their discomfort of being regarded as second-class citizens in many European states, where they feel more tolerated by than equal to natives. “Freedom for Palestine” is a catch-all slogan superseding all internal differences among Muslim groups, providing them with an opportunity to denounce the Islamophobia they experience in their daily life in Europe, this time for a humanitarian just cause shared by many of their peers. Yet, Islamophobia has been on the rise throughout the conflict in Gaza, with Federal Germany, for example, invested by a wave of hostile acts against Muslims, digging further the trench between German native citizens and new minorities. Particularly in the Bundesrepublik, pro-Palestinian demonstrations chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” have been forbidden, thus curbing freedom of expression in favour of a blind check and widespread consensus for Israel just now starting to crack. In France too, the Government has been caught between a rock and a hard place by pro-Palestinian mass protests, fearing the recovery of youth clashes of Arab descent with the police in the banlieues, like the riots sparked by the shooting of a 17-year-old driver of Maghrebi descent in a Paris suburb in June 2023, which ravaged the city’s outskirts.[13] Yet, this time, pro-Palestinian support is also very spread among European youth and University students, who from Ghent to Berin, from Pisa to London[14], have been voicing their discontent with their respective authorities siding with Israel and thus making themselves complicit with genocide in Gaza. This trend could show an increasing bond between young EU natives and their fellow citizens of migrant background, signalling a potential convergence on attitudes towards global issues and conflicts in the Gen-Z, overcoming deep cultural and societal cleavages.

Finally, the EU should not be blinded by its “Shoah guilt complex” in relation to current affairs in the MENA region and should be seriously concerned by its plummeting reputation among Arab countries. Having bet on civil societies’ cooperation as the largest donor in the Mediterranean region, its activity in MENA countries could not be insulated from widespread repercussions due to its one-sidedness in the Gaza conflict and its non-abidance to international law, in sharp contrast to the Ukrainian war, where sanctions on Russia had been advocated on a moral ground. The EU’s reputation in advocating for human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in the Arab world – all values and objectives pompously outlined in the “EU’s 2021 New Agenda for the Mediterranean strategy” – relies on good connections with civil societies and local communities, now massively alienated by EU stances on the Gaza conflict and its alleged complicity with genocide. Buit the blatant double standards over Gaza have drawn much criticism from activists of the region. The same activists supposed to challenge their own governments on human rights with EU assistance no longer perceive it as neutral. In November, for instance, the Tunisian foreign minister is reported to have said “we want an authentically Tunisian democracy, without intervention from the outside or foreign NGOs” just before the European NGO’s office in Tunis was vandalised.[15]  In other countries, such as Egypt, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights led by Hossam Baghat has cut all ties with the EU Commission. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) concludes that by now “Europe’s soft power in the Arab world may have suffered irreversible harm”[16], much more serious than the one caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when some major EU countries (Germany and France among them) refrained from partaking to the US-driven but UN-justified military campaign. Furthermore, the devastation inflicted on Gaza could fuel terrorist attacks of lone wolves and scattered jihadi groups in Europe, such as the one defused in Brussels on the 6th of March.[17]  For Europe rebuilding strong ties with the Arab world is a high priority which would prove not only rewarding in political gains and moral standing, but also a rational and far-sighted decision, aligning the EU with the positions advanced by many BRICS and Global South countries in defence of the decisions of the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and of a more multipolar order yet to emerge, but this major shift will require a firm resolve from EU institutions and governments and a breakaway from the “Shoah guilt complex” to embrace a more universal understanding of 20th century history and, consequently, of present events too.

 

 

[1]Jeremy Sharon, “Rivlin warns of Israeli alliance with antisemitic parties in Europe”, The Jerusalem Post, May 1, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/rivlin-warns-of-israeli-alliance-with-antisemitic-parties-in-europe-588437.

[2] Claudia De Martino, “Storia, memoria, politica. Il ricordo della Shoah oltre l’epoca dei testimoni. Una riflessione sul futuro della memoria, i rischi storiografici e politici”, Reset, 29 giugno 2020, https://www.reset.it/idee/la-memoria-della-shoah-oltre-lepoca-dei-testimoni.

[3] ADL survey, November 15, 2019, https://www.adl.org/resources/press-release/adl-global-survey-18-countries-finds-hardcore-anti-semitic-attitudes-remain.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] POLITICO, “Third of Europeans know little or nothing about Holocaust: poll”, November 27, 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/holocaust-poll-third-of-europeans-know-little-or-nothing/.

[6] POLITICO, Claudia Chiappa, November 2, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-robert-habeck-vice-chancellor-concerned-over-rise-of-antisemitism/.

[7] IREMMO, «Hezbollah face à la guerre», January 24, 2024, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beFJIiEACHA.

[8] Mitvim Israel Foreign Policy Index, 2023, https://mitvim.org.il/en/publication/the-israeli-foreign-policy-index-of-2023/.

[9]Pew Research Center, Minority groups survey, October 14, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/10/14/minority-groups/.

[10] Matthew Smith, “Attitudes to the Israel-Palestine conflict in Western Europe and the USA in 2023”, July 3, 2023,

https://yougov.co.uk/international/articles/45869-attitudes-israel-palestine-conflict-western-europe.

[11] NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, November 15, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/11/15/1212913674/poll-israel-hamas-war-biden-democrats-republicans.

[12] (PDF) How is Gaza Inspiring Gen-Z and Changing their Mindsets?. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/377085097_How_is_Gaza_Inspiring_Gen-Z_and_Changing_their_Mindsets#fullTextFileContent [accessed Mar 02 2024].

[13] Paul Taylor, The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/02/antisemitism-jews-france-emmanuel-macron-israel-hamas-warved police racism

[14] VRT news, “Pro-Palestinian activists attack Ghent University in protest against ties with Israel”, February 15, 2024, https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/en/2024/02/15/pro-palestinian-activists-attack-ghent-university-in-protest-aga/.

[15] European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), “When soft power is spent: Gaza, Ukraine, and Europeans’ standing in the Arab world”, March 7, 24, https://www.pubaffairsbruxelles.eu/opinion-analysis/when-soft-power-is-spent-gaza-ukraine-and-europeans-standing-in-the-arab-world/ .

[16] Ibidem.

[17] RTBF, «Projet d’attentat déjoué visant le Botanique à Bruxelles : le suspect majeur conteste toute implication», March 7, 2024, https://www.rtbf.be/article/projet-dattentat-dejoue-visant-le-botanique-a-bruxelles-le-suspect-majeur-conteste-toute-implication-11340511 .