December 14, 2020 — New York
This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.
Dear European Union, we have to talk about a major foreign policy blind spot: your relations with Israel.
Countless times, I have heard European leaders, on commemorative anniversaries and at memorial sites, express their anguish over the Holocaust, the extermination of 6 million European Jews and the fertile European soil that nurtured antisemitism over centuries. I have heard them vow repeatedly, “never again.”
I don’t for a moment minimize these statements and gestures. To the contrary, they are extremely important, all the more so as antisemitism is again on the rise in Europe and knowledge of the Holocaust declines.
But — and it’s a big but — too many European leaders are not connecting this painful past to present policies.
I was particularly struck by this when I was invited, in 2013, to be one of six keynote speakers at a ceremony at Mauthausen, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Austria, where my cousin, Mila Racine, was killed in the last weeks of the war.
The four speakers who preceded me — the presidents of Austria, Hungary and Poland, and the speaker of the Russian parliament — all invoked painful images of the war and the massive loss of Jewish life. They made moving statements affirming their commitment to remembrance and their opposition to any resurgence of hatred against Jews.
Yet not one mentioned the word “Israel.” Not one connected the tragedy of the Holocaust to the absence of an Israel that, had it existed, might have rescued and offered safety to countless European Jews trapped on the Continent.
And not one noted that nearly half of the world’s Jews today live in Israel, which faces both military threats to its existence and endless challenges to its legitimacy.
How can any leader speak about the lessons of the Holocaust and the menace of modern-day antisemitism without reference to the ongoing threats against Israel and the Jewish right to self-determination?
What happened that day at Mauthausen was not unusual. Indeed, it was all too routine.
Every EU member country has bilateral ties with Israel, even if some, like Greece and Spain, were decades late. And the EU itself has an extensive network of links with Israel, including trade, research and development.
But when it comes to the threats confronting Israel, more often than not the EU is nowhere to be found. Sure, it might offer up the occasional rhetorical flourish here or there about “commitment” to Israel’s security, but there will be nothing concrete to back it up.
Take three revealing examples. On Iran, the EU has opted to ignore the dire warnings of Israel (and Sunni Arab nations) about Tehran’s ambitions to sow chaos in the region, believing it has a better understanding of the regime and how to contain the threat, including bone-chilling calls for the annihilation of Israel.
But does it really? There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest it. While others seek to disrupt the clandestine Iranian program to develop weapons of mass destruction, the EU clings to the deeply-flawed Iran nuclear deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — as a lifeline and its only real hope.
Then there is Hezbollah. An Iranian proxy, its stated aim is to destroy the Israeli state. Yet, until 2013, EU member countries, led by France, refused to list Hezbollah as a terror organization.
Then, following a deadly Hezbollah attack in Bulgaria, in which five Israelis tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed, the EU, again spearheaded by Paris, created an absurdity — it made a distinction between Hezbollah’s “armed wing,” which it added to its list of terror organizations, and the “political movement.”
The move is as credible as bifurcating the Nazi Party or ISIS. And so it remains to this day, even as six EU member countries — Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Slovenia — and the United Kingdom have laudably acted on their own to end this charade.
Finally, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the EU is quick to criticize Israel publicly, but rarely speaks out about Palestinian obstructionism, corruption or incitement, including at times via EU-funded NGOs. The lame argument is, “we expect more from Israel.”
Like (most) EU member countries, Israel seeks to live by democratic standards and the rule of law. But, alas, it has different neighbors: Syria is not Sweden, Iran is not Ireland, Hamas is not Holland and Gaza is not Germany.
To add insult to injury, the EU-Israel Association Council, the formal body charged with ensuring regular dialogues and identifying areas of cooperation, has not met since 2012. The blockage is politically motivated and comes from the EU side, driven by the opposition of certain member countries — including, reportedly, France and Sweden — to Israeli settlements and policies toward Palestinians.
Let me be clear. I do not believe that Israel is entitled to immunity from criticism because of Holocaust memory or a surge in antisemitism.
I write as a friend, who has said more than once that the EU is the single most ambitious and successful peace project in modern history. And I write as a fellow EU citizen, having accepted Austrian citizenship last year in honor and memory of my father, who was denied that citizenship as a Jew in Vienna in the 1930s.
But if the EU is serious about tackling antisemitism and preserving historical memory of the Holocaust, it cannot neglect, minimize or wish away threats to the existence of Israel, the world’s lone Jewish-majority country and home to nearly 7 million Jews.
The EU often complains that Israel does not trust Brussels or offer it a role in any unfolding peace process. A look in the mirror might offer an answer why.
David Harris is the CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC). Please join 76,100 others and follow him on Twitter @DavidHarrisAJC.
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