Europe's dilemma

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

Despite protesting against Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, European leaders remain indecisive on any action against Israel. Meanwhile, the racial hatred of West Asia manifests itself in Europe, particularly in France.

VAIJU NARAVANE in Strasbourg and Paris

THE old Jewish cemetery of Kronenbourg, in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg, has been defiled. Home to the European Parliament, the city has large concentrations of Jewish and North African Arab people.

In the dead of night, someone painted the Nazi swastika over tombs and headstones, many of which belong to men and women deported to concentration camps during the Second World War. The crudely painted white swastikas stand out on the black marble of the tombs, ghosts from the past, reviving old demons of hate and intolerance.

Gerald, 30, mourns his grandfather, Raymond, as he attempts to scrape off the white paint. "I deplore such acts of violence. They are cowardly and gratuitous. I am no supporter of Ariel Sharon and I do not support what he is doing to the Palestinians today. But this has shocked me deeply, awakened in me a feeling of vulnerability as a Jew. I thought that the modern secular French state had helped us get over the trauma of the Holocaust. That, I realise, is an illusion. Acts of hate-filled violence only add to our consciousness as victims and galvanise support for the most extreme elements in Israel," he says.

In Garche les Gonesses, a suburb of Paris, Rachid, an 18-year-old apprentice plumber, strides down the street with his friends, Hachim and Moussa. They are young men with "attitude". Wearing sneakers and leather bomber jackets, they speak their own argot, a new Arab-French slang peculiar to the Maghreb ghettos on the periphery of Paris. These adolescents are a violent lot and elderly women refer to them as ruffians and bag-snatchers. Right-wing militants call them "dirty Arabs". They are the problematic young men from France's seething ghettos, riven by teenage crime, drugs and violence - the inheritors of decades of hate and racial prejudice.

"I wouldn't desecrate cemeteries myself, or throw bombs at synagogues or attack Jewish school kids. But I understand the frustration and the anger of those who do. Look at the way West Asia is portrayed. It is always Israel, Israel. The Jews control everything, the media, the banks. There are double standards in everything. You touch the hair of a dirty Jew and they call it anti-Semitism. Do they protest when young Arabs get regularly beaten up in police lock-ups? Do they ever talk of what it is to be clobbered by the police, to have people look at you as if you were a thief and a rapist, to have the odds stacked against you at school? Palestinians are our brothers and we feel for them. The Jewish community here supports Israel blindly and we cannot tolerate that," says Rachid.

Slowly but surely, the racial hatred in West Asia is spreading on the fabric of Europe. Over 400 acts of violence against Jewish interests have been registered this past year in France alone, and there have been ugly scenes between extremist Arab and Jewish people during pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian street demonstrations recently.

"There is no doubt that these are acts of anti-Semitism and they are to be condemned. But they should not be confused with the traditional anti-Jewish sentiment that has haunted France for centuries. There is anger and frustration at the double standards practised by many French people towards the immigrant population in this country. The North African Arabs who came here were piled into high-rise ghettos and left to their sort. They were expected to conform and become good Frenchmen but no attention was paid to their integration or their special needs. We are now reaping the fruits of what was sown. These young men are French, born here, bred here. Many of them know no other reality, no other language, no other landscape. But they are made to feel foreign, alien, less than equal. What do you expect, if not an explosion of anger? The Palestinian situation and Israeli incursions into the territory have given them the alibi. Had the incursions not taken place, this anger would have exploded, sooner or later, in another way," says noted Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jalloun, who writes in French and lives in Paris.

France is witnessing the worst of such violence as it is home to Europe's largest population of Jewish people and North African Arabs alike. There are about 700,000 Jewish people and an estimated four million Arabs on French soil. However, similar problems are there in Ger-many as well, says Rudolph Chimelli of Suddeutsche Zeitung, a German daily. "In Germany, the situation is even more delicate because there is a lingering collective sense of guilt over the Holocaust, just as there are undoubtedly elements who think of the Third Reich with a certain nostalgia. Therefore, Germans have tried to make reparations by becoming a steadfast friend of Israel, tipping the balance within Europe against the Palestin-ians. That might be changing now, because the majority of Germans feel that this time Israel has gone too far. I think the decision to delay the sale of spare parts for tanks to Israel and attempts to put an embargo on arms sales are indicative of this new attitude. That said, however, Germany did not vote for the United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution condemning Israel. The Jewish question remains very difficult for Germany," he says.

Indeed, Europe is torn by an inner dissension, incapable of adopting a common policy on West Asia. "To my mind, Europe looks like a toothless lion that can only roar but cannot act. Our incapacity to act, our collective paralysis, shames me. Poor Hubert Vedrine, the well-meaning French Foreign Minister, tries, but his pleas fall on deaf ears. The various nations within Europe have different histories and therefore different attitudes on the Jewish question. Our reactions are driven by what we have experienced during the Second World War and by different degrees of national shame or pride," says sociologist Jean Grosjean.

"Britain came out of the war looking good, but there remains the question of Prime Minister (Neville) Chamberlain's appeasement policies, the Balfour Declaration and duplicitous promises made to both the Zionists and the Palestinians. The British find it difficult to admit that they have made mistakes and prefer to continue in their folly, in this case supporting Israel rather than admitting that Palestinians were treated as if they were "mere natives". In Germany, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer comes out with his own seven-point peace plan but dithers when it comes to voting in the human rights commission or taking cognisance of the European Parliament's calls to take punitive measures against Israel," Grosjean says.

Indeed, the European Foreign Ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on April 15 buried any talk of sanctions against Israel and allowed United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to take the lead in any future West Asian peace initiative. The meeting also rejected a call for an emergency meeting with the Israelis to exert pressure on them for an immediate withdrawal from Palestinian lands.

The past fortnight had seen intense European Union activity on West Asia, but as usual it turned out to be a damp cracker. The E.U. has now accepted the idea of an international conference floated by Prime Minister Sharon and in all probability, despite feeble protests, it will agree that it be held without the presence of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. However, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin pronounced his protest for the record: "It is clear that there must be Palestinian representatives there. But an international conference without Yasser Arafat, or without the Europeans, obviously does not make sense."

Foreign Ministers of the E.U. nations discussed Fischer's new seven-point peace plan, but desultorily, and were relieved to give up the initiative to Powell and the Bush administration. With a two-year time-frame, the plan calls for a durable ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank towns, the dismantlement of Jewish settlements, and the speedy creation of a Palestinian state and an internationally monitored buffer zone.

The plan makes way for talks over difficult core issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the exact borders of Israel and the Palestinian state, once these are done. The plan also provides for international security guarantees under the auspices of the U.N., the U.S., the E.U. and Russia. E.U. leaders are worried that they may be denied a role in any upcoming peace talks. They have therefore begun calling for a strong European presence at the international conference. "An international conference, must, I believe, include the European Union, and in particular Mr. Javier Solana, the E.U.'s foreign policy representative, and the United Nations," French President Jacques Chirac said.

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