Evelyn Gordon

Analysis from Israel

The media have recently been full of horror stories from around the globe. The terror attacks that killed over 100 people on three continents last Friday got the most press, but they were far from the worst. In Sudan, the government is deliberately bombing civilians in the Nuba Mountains. In South Sudan, a civil war has displaced more than 1.5 million people, left over half the country in danger of going hungry and produced endless atrocities, like boys who are castrated and left to bleed to death. In Myanmar, stateless Rohingya Muslims have effectively been put into concentration camps. Worldwide, the number of displaced people hit a record high of 59.5 million last year, with almost a fifth of this total coming from the Syrian civil war alone. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

With so many atrocities happening right this minute, it might seem hypocritical that the West’s moral outrage last week focused primarily on a very minor war in Gaza that ended 10 months ago, sent no destabilizing influx of refugees into other countries and produced total casualties equal to a mere 1% of those produced by Syria’s ongoing bloodbath. But since, for all their moralizing, Western countries usually put self-interest first, morally warped priorities aren’t necessarily surprising; they can often be explained as attempts to put a moral facade over national interests.

What is surprising, and genuinely frightening, however, is the degree to which the anti-Israel obsession can even trump national self-interest. As exhibit A, consider Europe.

Thanks to the above-mentioned horrors and many others, Europe faces a major refugee crisis, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week termed “the biggest challenge for the European Union that I have seen during my term in office.” Last year, 626,000 people sought asylum in the EU, an increase of almost 200,000 over 2013; this year’s influx is so far running much higher.

This refugee crisis has given a huge boost to fringe anti-immigrant parties; most recently, the Danish People’s Party placed second in Denmark’s June election. And this reflects a genuine public concern. In one recent poll, for instance, when Germans were asked to name the continent’s top 10 challenges, immigration ranked number one.

In a frantic effort to cope, the EU abandoned it normal aversion to military action and announced plans for a military operation targeting migrant smugglers at one of their main sources, war-torn Libya. But since the operation was conditioned on UN Security Council approval, it will probably never happen. It also proposed a plan to distribute refugees more fairly among its member states, since currently, they are heavily concentrated in certain countries. But following a rancorous debate that severely exacerbated the bloc’s internal tensions, the mandatory quota plan was killed last week.

Given all this, you might expect the crises producing this refugee influx to be top EU foreign-policy concerns. These include the Syrian civil war, responsible for fully 20 percent of all EU asylum seekers last year; the Libyan civil war, which has turned Libya into the main gateway for African migration to Europe by creating a governance void in which human traffickers operate freely; or the ongoing problems in the EU’s own backyard of Serbia and Kosovo, both of which made the top five on the list of countries sending the most asylum seekers to the EU.

Instead, Europe’s top foreign-policy priority appears to be a conflict that doesn’t even make the top 30 on this list, and whose solution would do nothing to ameliorate any of those other crises.

The consensus position of the EU’s foreign policy elite, as enunciated in an open letter from 19 European elder statesmen in May, is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “remains high on the list of the world’s worst crises” – and never mind that so many others are producing so many more deaths, displacements and atrocities. A senior French diplomat even declared recently that “inertia is deadly,” because it might lead ISIS to adopt the Palestinian cause. Has he somehow not noticed that ISIS is already perpetrating Mideast mayhem?

The EU’s big three – France, Germany and Britain – have consequently been working for months, at France’s initiative, to draft a UN Security Council resolution dictating the outline of a final-status solution to the conflict and setting a deadline for its achievement (or more accurately, dictating what concessions the EU wants Israel to make; the drafts have been remarkably coy about any Palestinian concessions). Similarly, 16 European foreign ministers demanded in April that the EU adopt binding guidelines on labeling settlement produce.

But the EU’s obsession with Israel doesn’t just trump other foreign-policy concerns; it even trumps domestic problems, as Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek inadvertently revealed in early June. In a diatribe threatening Israel with various harsh consequences if it didn’t immediately take steps to create a Palestinian state (while also, naturally, proclaiming his deep love for Israel), Zaoralek inter alia demanded Israeli action to fix the “catastrophe” he observed in Gaza.

“I met young people with no future and no hope,” he said in an interview with Walla, a Hebrew-language news site. “The youth unemployment rate there is inconceivable. It reminded me of meetings with young people in Greece.”

Greece, lest anyone has forgotten, is still an EU member state. Thus one might think solving the disaster in Greece – where hospital budgets have fallen by 93% and surgeons are working 20-hour days for weeks on end – is slightly more important to Europe’s well-being than solving Gaza’s problems. But despite endless negotiations that finally collapsed entirely this weekend, there’s been no discernible improvement in Greece’s situation for years.

In short, the EU is quite content to ignore foreign-policy crises that flood it with refugees and foment domestic unrest, and it’s even prepared to let one of its own member states go bankrupt. But it’s hell-bent on resolving an unimportant little foreign conflict that isn’t affecting it at all.

You can’t explain that by rational self-interest, or by any conceivable standard of morality. And the only explanation left isn’t a pretty one. The old-fashioned word for it is anti-Semitism.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on July 1, 2015

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Finding Meaning While Living on the Edge of a Knife

“Worried and Happy”: that was the title on the advance copy of Edward Grossman’s essay sent to me by Mosaic’s editors. Reading it, however, I couldn’t help feeling that for Grossman, Israel’s current mood is mainly worry and very little happiness. After all, about 90 percent of the essay focuses on a single major worry: Iran’s nuclear program. And Israel has no lack of other worries as well: Hamas, Hizballah, the Palestinian Authority, international isolation, the cost of living, Arab and ḥaredi integration, and on and on.

Nevertheless, I think the mood balance is actually the exact opposite. As Grossman himself notes, we in Israel don’t spend our days sitting around fretting about Iranian nukes falling on us; we’re too busy living, loving, creating, innovating, and otherwise building our modern miracle on the Mediterranean. That’s why Israel keeps scoring anomalously high on global happiness surveys; just this month, the OECD ranked it the fifth happiest country in the world, despite noting with some puzzlement that “by many measures, Israel is an outlier” in this group. Nor does this paradoxical insistence on being happy despite multiple threats stem from either masochism or oblivion; it’s rooted in some specific truths about the Iranian threat, but even more so in a general truth about the Jewish and Israeli experience.

For to be a Jew, of necessity, is to be capable of finding meaning and happiness even while living on a knife’s edge. Throughout history, Jews have experienced only intermittent periods of tranquility amid a multiplicity of threats. In biblical times, even great victories produced no more than “peace in the land for 40 years,” and most lulls were considerably briefer than that. In exile, the occasional golden ages were mere interruptions in an endless procession of expulsions and pogroms, in country after country. And in modern-day Israel, war has erupted roughly once a decade when it hasn’t come sooner. Thus, while threats obviously have to be prepared for and dealt with, Jews can’t afford to worry about them overmuch; if they did, they would have time to do little else.

Consequently, Jews have perforce perfected the art of thriving under threat. Amid wars, persecution, and expulsions, they produced the Bible and the Talmud, the great medieval commentaries and dazzling works of Jewish philosophy. Contemporary Israel has continued this tradition: amid wars, terror attacks, and threats of all sorts, it has absorbed immigrants and grown its economy, produced cutting-edge research and technological innovations. And all this is no less essential than preparing for the threats, because if Israel were ever to stop behaving in this way, it would shrivel and die of its own accord; no Iranian bomb would be needed to finish the job.

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