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The Globe and Mail

Love 'em, hate 'em - Israel's European complex

Participants of "March of the Living" carrying an Israeli flag walk through Budapest April 17, 2011, as they remember more than half a million Hungarian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust during World War Two.


The incident this past week in which an Israeli career officer slugged a pro-Palestinian Danish protester with his rifle stirred a range of opinions and emotions in Israel; none was more prevalent than an anti-European attitude expressed by many Israelis.

While it is true that the majority of participants in recent international protests against Israel -- the 2010 and 2011 flotillas, the marches on Gaza and last weekend's "flytilla," for example, -- have been European, Israeli contempt goes beyond that, it seems.

Europeans, some Israelis reason, are simply anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, charges that had particular resonance this week as Israel observed its annual day of remembrance of the Holocaust, an atrocity wrought not by its Arab adversaries but by Europeans.

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"Why don't they [the European protesters]demonstrate against Syria, against Iran?" many Israeli commentators and authors of letters-to-the-editor complained. "Why us?" they ask.

"Why else?" was the unspoken inference.

Anti-Jewishness is the elephant in the room one columnist wrote Friday. "They hold us to a higher standard than the Arabs," some argue.

And it's true, they do. But isn't that what the state longs for?

How often do its people boast that Israel is "the only democracy in the Middle East" (a claim that isn't as true as it once was)?

How often do they now refer to their recent admission to the elite, Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, some of whose standards Israel still struggles to meet.

Indeed, Israelis are torn. The anti-European attitude that surfaces here stands in stark contrast to the pro-European view exhibited in the country every day.

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Ask Israelis what continent Israel is in and many will be stumped for an answer.

They know they're not part of Africa, that's for sure. But they can't place Israel in Asia either.

They want to say they're in Europe, except even the most arch Europeanist realizes the inconvenient truth that Lebanon, Syria and Turkey stand, geographically, between them and EU membership.

This Euro-identity is not surprising. After all, in so many ways they ARE part of Europe.

Israel's best basketball and soccer clubs play in European leagues. Even Israel's handball players are part of a European circuit.

Its best singers compete in the Eurovision song competition each year.

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True, Israel wouldn't find many countries in Asia willing to compete with it, forcing the country to look elsewhere for membership in sport and cultural institutions, but Israelis prefer to rub shoulders with Europeans.

All of this leads people in Europe and throughout the West to hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold authoritarian regimes in the region, to hold Israelis to European standards.

Most of modern Israel's pioneers hailed from Europe, and though their proportion of the population fell considerably with the vast number of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries in the 1950s and 60s, European Jews' political parties and institutions held sway for many years. Indeed, a sense of European superiority still surfaces from time to time.

Just this week, an Ashkenazi (European) religious teacher wrote that while Sephardim (Jews from African and Asian lands) were purer Jews, they couldn't match the intellect and learning of the Jews from Europe.

It was a noteworthy example of pro-European sentiment especially considering the person who said it: the father-in-law of the Israeli Lieutenant Colonel who smashed his rifle into the face of the European protester.

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