This week the campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has taken on a distinctive European flavor. To coincide with Europe Day on May 9 (tomorrow) the Center for the Study of European Politics and Society (CSEPS) organizes an annual EuroFest week, during which the university community is invited to a series of academic, cultural and culinary events focusing on the diverse European experience.

This ranges from Italian and Irish evenings, lectures by visiting leading European scholars on topics relating to European history and contemporary European social and political affairs, culminating in a lecture to be delivered by the EU Ambassador to Israel, Mr. Andrew Standley, on EU policy to the Middle East and an evening reception, in the presence of many of the European ambassadors to Israel, to mark the occasion.

This year the EU has decided to branch out and to take Europe to the peripheries, instead of just having its single annual cocktail event for diplomats and politicians in Tel Aviv. For an outside observer it may seem strange for Europe to come to Beersheba and the desert, but during the past decade, CSEPS, under the able leadership of Dr. Sharon Pardo of the university’s Politics and Government Department, has probably become the leading exponent of European studies and research in Israel.

A Jean Monnet Chair for European studies, student exchange programs and visits to European and NATO institutions in Brussels and elsewhere, visiting European scholars and researchers, along with the funding of European-related research projects for graduate and doctoral students, have turned the Ben-Gurion campus into a European powerhouse.

CSEPS just established a Bologna Training Center and will now take the leading role in adapting many of the academic courses and research projects of Israeli universities according to the guidelines of the Bologna Process. The purpose of the Bologna Process (or Bologna Accords) is the creation of the European Higher Education Area by making academic degree standards and quality assurance standards more comparable and compatible throughout Europe.

THE BOLOGNA declaration was signed by education ministers from 29 European countries in 1999 and is open to all countries who are signatories to the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe.

While this does not directly include Israel, the strong academic links and cooperation between Israeli and European universities and research institutes means that Israel’s universities are increasingly preparing their course structures and proposals according to the Bologna outlines so that it will be easier to integrate and to undertake future cooperative projects.

But there continues to be a major dissonance between the level and degree of cooperation between Israel and Europe, along with the desire to further expand these connections on the one hand, with the sentiments and feelings of many Israelis toward Europe on the other.

However close our trade, cultural and sporting contacts are, there always remains the deep imprint of recent history, especially the Holocaust years. Our ambivalence toward Europe is felt most when it touches upon such sensitive issues as the policies of the Israeli government vis-à-vis Palestinian statehood. We refuse to allow Europe to be critical of Israel’s policies, even when the criticism is exactly the same as that directed toward us by our main ally, the United States of America.

Whenever political issues are raised, we immediately respond with suspicion, at best, and outright rejection at the worst, reminding the European leaders and their ambassadors of the history which, many Israelis constantly believe, has not been internalized among Europe’s governments.

This has become even stronger in recent years with a growth in anti-Semitism in some parts of Europe, an anti-Semitism which is not only limited to the fascist, racist and xenophobic right-wing inheritors of Nazi philosophies, but which has also found roots within certain parts of the intellectual Left and which is closely tied in with their delegitimization of Israel as a nation state for the Jewish people.

MOST ISRAELIS are unable to differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel and outright anti-Semitism, but equally there are not a few anti-Semites out there who find it convenient to jump on the bandwagon of criticizing Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians as a means of hiding their deeply rooted anti-Jewish sentiments. But for the discerning majority, there is a difference, and we should not automatically take up a rallying cry of “unchanging European anti-Semitism” as a means of avoiding the very difficult and unpleasant debate concerning Israel and the Palestinians.

In the recent European elections for the presidency in France (just two days ago) and the Mayor of London (held last Thursday), the “Jewish” factor played a major role among many of the local Jewish communities.

Unlike the traditional role of Jews voting for the socialist and liberal democratic parties, there has been a significant increase in the way in which Jews have been voting for candidates and parties of the Right (such as Sarkozy in France or Boris Johnson in London) because of what they perceive as a growing anti-Jewish tendency among parties of the Left.

In neither election was the Jewish vote significant in determining the final outcome. But their support or rejection of the candidates and the parties they represent, based on what they perceive as their pro- or anti- Israel sentiments and, by association, their attitude toward the Jewish community, is much more pronounced today than in previous elections.

Europe remains a question mark for most Israelis. We want to be part of its cultural and sporting ecumene.

Fifty-five percent of Israelis visited Europe in the past three years, while those who are able take out European passports and citizenship based on the nationality of their parents and grandparents are doing so in large numbers. While the younger generation is much more open to Europe, the older generations remain deeply suspicious of Europe and this suspicion has only been strengthened in recent years.

Ironically, our present government, and in particular the Foreign Minister, who advocates for Israeli membership in the European Union and NATO, seem to do everything possible to drive a new wedge between Israel and the EU with some of their anti-European statements, while at the same time complaining that the EU is not upgrading its political and trade relations with the country.

We can not have it both ways. Either we are able to move beyond the understandable suspicions of the past and accept that there is a new generation of European politicians and leaders who have no part in the atrocities of the past or in the renewed anti-Semitism of fringe groups in the present. Or, we remain doomed to becoming prisoners of our own history, never allowing Europe to have anything more than a small and marginal influence, despite its close proximity and the fact that Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner.

Europe is an important friend and ally of Israel. And while we must always be prepared to raise issues of concern to the global Jewish community, we should not use these issues as a reason to reject contemporary Europe for what it is – an ally and a friend, even when there are differences of opinion.

Happy Europe Day!

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.

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