I am standing in a queue waiting to buy a train ticket from London to Canterbury. A well-dressed lady standing behind me informs her friend that she “can’t wait till Israel disappears off the face of the earth.” What struck me was not her intense hostility to Israel but the mild-mannered, matter-of-fact tone with which she announced her wish for the annihilation of a nation. It seems that it is okay to condemn and demonize Israel. All of a sudden Israel has become an all-purpose target for a variety of disparate and confused causes. When I ask a group of Pakistani waiters sitting around a table in their restaurant why they “hate” Israel, they casually tell me that it is because Jews are their “religion’s enemy.” Those who are highly educated have their own pet prejudice. One of my young colleagues who teaches media studies in a London-based university was taken aback during a seminar discussion when some of her students insisted that since all the banks are owned by Jews, Israel was responsible for the current global financial crisis.
Increasingly expressions of aversion towards Israel have assumed the status of a taken-for-granted sentiment in many sections of polite European society. Such attitudes are underwritten by powerful cultural forces that communicate the idea that Israel is a malevolent society sui generis. It alone faces regular demands for academic and commercial boycotts. In the media and popular culture it is often portrayed as an intensely racist and barbaric society. Once upon a time its opponents depicted Israel as a guard dog of the West; these days they are more likely to castigate it as the biggest threat to world peace and stability. For a variety of reasons, Israel has come to bear the cross of all of the West’s sins. In Europe in particular, there is a powerful sense of weariness towards Israel. “If only it would go away, then we would have a chance for peace in the Middle East” is the fantasy view of some European officials and writers. Europe’s population agrees. Islamic terrorism is often portrayed as the inevitable consequence of Israel’s policies.
In reality, many Western European officials are worried not just about peace in the Middle East, but also about managing the radicalization of their own Muslim population. Distancing Europe from Israel is seen as necessary for appeasing the anger of Europe’s Muslim population. From this perspective, the problem is not simply Israel but also Europe’s Jewish population. So in order to accommodate what are taken to be Muslim sensibilities, Jewish interests often become a negotiable commodity. For example, in England some teachers are reluctant to discuss the experience of the Holocaust in the classroom in case it alienates children from a Muslim background. An illustration of a similar dynamic at work is shown by the example of Denmark.