News from a beleaguered country: What we could learn from Israel

Europe seems jaded. In particular, the elite are in despair.

REFUGEES WALK along train tracks leading from Serbia into Hungary on Friday (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
REFUGEES WALK along train tracks leading from Serbia into Hungary on Friday
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Back from Israel, after long conversations with good Israeli friends, I arrive in Europe, an area that in comparison to Israel has little to worry about, except perhaps for those that do not want to be European, or German or French or Swiss anymore. One doesn’t need to ask the question here as to why Israel -- which is once again being ravaged by terror attack -- exists. None of my friends - mature, intelligent, with influence in their country - would ever dream of thinking about it, not to mention that there exists that bad-tempered, somewhat decadent despondence that plagues us in Europe, especially among the more educated. The West - aren’t we all guilty for the imperialism and the impoverishment of the Third World and isn’t that the reason why we have to take in millions of Syrians - or Africans, Afghans and Iraqis? The West. Its values are indeed overestimated. Whether a state is under the rule of law or Sharia law, who gives us the right to decide if the one is considered good, and the other evil? The West. Is its existence still necessary, or is it time to dissolve? That is how the discussion goes once you get together with intelligent Europeans. That is rare in Israel.
Progressive Confusion
If you look at how confusedly and irresponsibly, how defensively and absentmindedly European politicians react to the fact that millions of people, who are at risk to some extent, but who are mostly leaving their homeland and flocking to us because their countries have failed, it looks as though we no longer want to defend what our ancestors have developed over centuries. From point of view of civilizing there are unique achievements: Democracy and the rule of law, capitalism and individual freedom. The right to be able to say whatever you want, even when others are hurt by it; the right to vote; the right for women  to determine as  much as men,  the right to be gay, the right to enrich yourself, the right to own property that no government, priest or envious person can take away from you. All these achievements are not nearly self-evident in most parts of the world. And they seem to count for little when people head out to Europe – people with little understanding of precisely these values and who sometimes even fight them openly. It seems that everyone is welcome, whether they appreciate the West, do not understand it - or hate it.
Let’s make no mistake about it: There's a reason why the Middle East is sinking into war and poverty. The West certainly helped with its contributions, but that was - for the most part - a long time ago and by now negligible. The war in Iraq? Of course that was a huge mistake - and it is certainly having after-effects. However, if any accusation is not allowed to be made against the Americans, it is this one: that they didn’t invest in Iraq. They spent billions in Mesopotamia - but all of it has evaporated. A mistake, no question - but the civil war in Syria cannot be blamed on them, nor the collapse of North Africa and Egypt, or the grinding poverty in those countries for over fifty years. Nothing works. And that's the fate of the Arabs, not of the West.
In the Land of the Scapegoat
A great ancient religion  called Islam is struggling with modernity - and instead of the Arab elite (the Turks were much better at this until recently) having focused on educating their people and enlightening them as to the reasons why the West can do so many things better, it is mainly resentment which is being cultivated in the Middle East. Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, some Arab leaders have done nothing but place the blame on the West for their own failures.  At first they were set on pan-Arab socialism (against the West), more recently on Islamism (against the evil West) but always on the hatred of Israel. As if this small country could prevent the region that is the richest with oil in the world, from developing prosperity and freedom.
Nothing is more impressive than the view of Tel Aviv by plane. A city of the easy life on the sea could not be more Western: Skyscrapers, highways, factories, vibrant modern life, above trees and forests. A garden by the sea. A green island in the devastated East. It is an unmatched achievement, what the Jews have created here over the past century, with their Western know-how, their genius, hard work, and a political commitment that we in Europe have long experienced. If you want to understand why Europe became rich while Africa or the Middle East have remained poor, you can find the answer in Israel. Without going into all the details here, it is not the capital or luck or a cosmic "justice" which ensure that a country rises and another impoverishes,  but rather the intelligent (Western) institutions, a Western culture and mentality, Western education and work ethic, Western freedom and Western protection of property, that make the difference. The Asians realized this a long time ago. Now they are about to overtake us - or that is at least what they believe - with some justification.
The Unteachable
Why have the Arabs not glanced more often into this display window of the West in order to learn from the Israelis? Instead, for decades, they have not come to terms with their repeated defeats. Or with the fact that they have lost forever a tiny area that could merely feed a few sheep and a couple of poor farmers over centuries while they, the Arabs, still dispose of immeasurable lands in the Middle East. Why can’t they just grant the Jews this small piece of land? This is not the place to discuss the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but let me just say this much: The Arabs rejected the UN partition plan in 1947 and chose war - the Jews accepted the plan and were victorious in the war. In 2001, the Palestinians (Arafat) rejected the compromise proposed by the Israelis, which would have brought them 97 percent of the occupied territory (and compensations in the Negev desert) and the greater part of ancient Jerusalem. And the many settlements in the West Bank? The Israelis were even ready to abandon these. But Arafat said no. He preferred war over peace ­ missed opportunities.
In the Abyss
Certainly, the Israelis have also made mistakes, but to make the amount of mistakes the leaders of the Palestinians (and Arabs in general) have made – for that you usually need two thousand years. I can’t think of any elite worldwide throughout history that has so often and so fatally been mistaken as the Arab one. Soon the Middle East, home to so many civilizations, could be poorer than Africa. The tragedy is who will have to pay for these mistakes. It is not the unfortunate or inept leaders, but the young Syrians; it is not Arafat, but the young Palestinians who act out of hatred towards Israel with increasing recklessness and futility. Lately they head out with kitchen knives and stab every Jew they see: Children, pregnant women, old people. They are willing to take the chances of being shot afterwards by the security forces. And their irresponsible leaders don’t stop them but rather encourage them ­ terror and infamy in Jerusalem.
Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the Israelis love their country and stand by it, more than any Western European by his. It hurts to realize this; it seems as though all the achievements we enjoy here in the West, will only be valued b some of us, when they are lost again. We lack the will to stand up for what we and our ancestors have achieved. Once upon a time in the West.
This article was first published on October 16th under the title Europa wirkt matt. Besonders seine Eliten verzagen. Was wir von Israel lernen könnten in the Basler Zeitung (BaZ)
The article was translated by Audiatur Online