Europe can be lonely for Israelis. Particularly during campaigns against the Palestinians. In between the anti-war demonstrations, the flyers and the graffiti, there is a perennial sense of favoritism, which many translate as anti-Semitism. Why else would they (the British, the Italians, etc.) always ignore Israel’s suffering? What about the rockets? Do they have any idea what it’s like to spend weeks in underground shelters?
Not all Israelis think this way. However, reinforced by a healthy, and increasingly dominant rightwing media, government and military spokespeople, the consensus has unfortunately grown over the years, eroding much of the diversity of opinion that was once ascribed to Israeli politics. So much so that spending time abroad, where there is, in many respects, an opposite consensus today, it can be extremely challenging. Such is the case in Western European capitols, which, since the height of the era of decolonization in the late 1960s, have become routine sites of mass protest against Israel’s policies.
No European city has come to symbolize the continent’s partiality towards the Palestinians better than London. The lead photo in this series (top left) is one such example. A Palestinian solidarity flyer, it hangs from the door of an Arab-owned grocery on Golbourne road. Uncontroversial, such media are especially ubiquitous in London neighborhoods like the Portobello area, which serves as a home to both Muslims and Jews, as well as a number of Israeli expats. (Just go and visit one of the areas hummus places, and you’ll hear a lot of Israeli-accented Hebrew.) To little or no controversy, one might add. Certainly, Jews in the neighborhood, even if discomfited by such political messaging, accept it as part of the package of living with so much familiar immigrant culture.
Palestinian solidarity graffiti, in cities like Berlin, can be a little more difficult to digest, for obvious historical reasons. Home to a growing Palestinian community, the borough of Neukölln is especially attuned to the Middle East conflict. The graffiti above is but one example. Featuring a slogan typical to pro-Israel, rightwing activists (who consider themselves on the left, ironically,) “Free Gaza From Hamas” frequently appears on street media considered to be anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any Jews, or members of Berlin’s growing Israeli community, associated with it. It is, in effect, an example of how foreigners hijack the Mideast crisis for their own political ends. To such activists, Israel and Palestine are simply foils.
Few local Jews would argue that London can be extremely difficult, though. Such is the case seeing flyers like the one above, at the top of Brixton High Street, at the height of Operation Cast Lead. The idea that Israeli forces had massacred civilians (or that they would ever do such a thing) can still be a hard sell, due to the legacy of the Nazi genocide, and the generally liberal politics of the Diaspora Jewish community. Nonetheless, enough information was coming out about civilian deaths to give one pause. Following widespread reporting of human rights abuses and the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by NATO forces, the suggestion that the IDF was guilty of similar transgressions did not fall on entirely deaf ears.
Few European countries, unfortunately, have become more associated with anti-Semitism, than France, home to the continent’s largest Jewish community. Also home to one of Europe’s most widespread populist movements, the legendary National Front, there is ample reason to fear xenophobia in general, most particularly from the country’s Caucasian community. Historically anti-Semitic, in addition to being Islamophobic, it is only in recent years that the NF has made a concerted attempt to reach out to potential Jewish voters. Eager to leverage Jewish anxieties about French Islamists, their efforts have been welcomed in certain quarters, most notably Israel’s current political leadership, which has gone out of its way to embrace European extremists like National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
Is that what the critical headline, about Israel’s Gaza policy, in the advertisement above, a reflection of? No, though there are conservative critics of liberal news media who would argue something of that order. Like many foreign news periodicals, this publication reflects a position critical of Israel’s policies that stems from more complex sources than that. (It is a weekly digest of international news media.) Though one might be tempted to ascribe it to similarly racist leftwing intellectuals (or Palestinian sympathizers,) that remains a a hard sell, too. Still, the reiteration of such criticism, in such a charged political context, makes it difficult for many to separate left from right. This contributes to the fear that Europe is simply anti-Semitic, and that the prejudice is subscribed to equally, by persons of all political persuasions.
It is hard to imagine this situation changing, especially as communal conflicts in France intensify. Not only do minorities have to contend with the rising threat of the National Front. Relations between Muslims and Jews are on the decline, too. Often citing the Arab-Israeli conflict as a source of this stress (Mohamed Merah, for example,) French Islamists do little to help dampen the conflation of anti-Semitism with Israel criticism in their country. Still, they need to be separated, even in instances of stress between French minorities, as Israel, and religion, may have little to do with what divides them.
The biggest concern about Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians is that it will inevitably lead to the radicalization of foreign opinions about Israel, and, ultimately, Jewry. Such anxieties are on the rise, as Israel’s political establishment continues to move to the right, and prosecutes security policies which stand little to no chance of being sympathized with abroad (even amongst Diaspora Jewry.) The intense anger expressed in this photograph, shot in Milan’s Via Padova neighborhood not longer after Operation Cast Lead, can easily be understood as a harbinger of such potential prejudices.
“For the children of Gaza, fuck Israel,” the main piece of graffiti reads. Accompanying prints including “Boycott Israel,” (with a crossed out Israeli flag) and “No to government (concentration) camps. Free everybody,” in reference to the criminalization and internment of illegal migrants, many of whom come from Middle Eastern countries. The use of the word ‘lager’ of course, is harsh, given the fact that the German world is also used as a term to designate Nazi death camps. To include such language, together with anti-Israeli graffiti, will never stop being difficult to swallow. Still, it is important to remember that it is in reference to Europe, not Israel.
Photographs courtesy of the author