Nothing to look up to

Europe's guise as the world's human rights capital won't lead the way to an era of tolerance.

Amos Oz 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Amos Oz 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
In the waning days of 2008, author Amos Oz received Germany's most prestigious award for literature, the Heinrich Heine Prize. According to reports Oz said, "The Arab-Israeli conflict could only be resolved in the context of European values of tolerance, rationality and pragmatism." Coming from someone who is celebrated as one of the country's greatest writers, this statement deserves attention for it represents a very common belief. There is a common belief in many circles here that the country needs to follow a "European" model, and that it needs to thus become more secular and more "tolerant." The signers of such documents as the Geneva Initiative continually show a belief that Europe and its "values" can solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Geneva Initiative calls for an "International Implementation and Verification Group (IVG) - including the US, Russia, the EU, the UN and others - and a Multinational Force (MF) in Palestine will be established to provide security guarantees to both parties." In essence it calls for a sort of European neocolonial force to sit between Israel and the Palestinians. These types of "international forces" have a long history of meddling unsuccessfully in the Middle East. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) placed in the Sinai between 1956 and 1967 withdrew without undue protest when Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered it to do so in May 1967 - an action that paved the way for the militarization of Sinai and Israel's need to defend itself. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has long been seen as an obstacle to peace, since the PLO in the 1970s and then Hizbullah have stored their weapons there and attacked Israel under its nose. UN forces in Haiti, Rwanda, the Congo and Kosovo have similarly failed. THIS RELIANCE on Europe both as a model and problem solver goes hand in hand with the false perception that European history represents values of "tolerance, rationality and pragmatism." January marked the 64th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. November will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which heralded the end of communism in Eastern Europe. When we think back to the dominance and impact that Nazism and communism had in Europe during the 20th century, it is hard to claim that there is such a thing as "European values" of tolerance, rationality or pragmatism. Mark Thompson, author of The White War, recently wrote that "Europe before the First World War was rackety and murderous - closer in its statecraft to the Middle East than today's docile continent." Amos Oz seeks to recall the Europe of the Enlightenment and the 19th century - something Amos Elon intended to do in his book Pity of It All, a tour de force on the history of German Jewry. But the 19th century was not without the extremism of Napoleon. In the 18th century we have only to look to Maximillien Robespierre, a towering figure of the French Revolution, who declared in 1794: "The spring of government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible." Hardly tolerant or rational. Oz's predilection to look outside Judaism to find tolerance, pragmatism and rationality is unfortunate. Within Judaism there is a deep sense of tolerance. Unlike some other religions, Judaism does not seek to convert the world, or to fight wars against "infidels." HEINRICH HEINE is a great example of the influence of Jewish values of tolerance. He was born into a family of assimilated Jews in Dusseldorf in 1797. He accurately predicted in his play Almansor: "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." He was referring to the Inquisition, although the statement has since seemed to predict the Holocaust. He was referring to Europe, both in the past and, as it turned out, the future. His source of tolerance was as much his Judaism as his European environment. Oz seems to have misunderstood Heine and wrongly seen him as representing "European values." But European values have so often meant terrible things, including fanaticism and the worst human rights violations. Modern Europe's guise as the human rights capital of the world may be a short-lived phenomenon, or it may be leading the way to an era of peace and tolerance. Jewish tolerance and rationality, however, have existed far longer and withstood the test of time. Oz and other Israeli intellectuals would be wise to understand that the next time they look to European history for inspiration for solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University.