Aug 2001 Journal

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The widening Atlantic

In the 1820s Foreign Secretary Canning looked to the New World – America – to counterbalance the Old. From the 1840s on, the United States absorbed Europe’s huddled masses yearning to be free, most famously the Irish fleeing the potato famine, and Jews fleeing Russian pogroms. In 1917/18, America became a global player and helped determine the outcome of the Great War. In the interwar years her retreat into isolationism crippled the League of Nations and triggered the Slump. Pearl Harbour brought a vacillating country into the Second World War and, ever since, Washington has played a preponderant – and largely beneficent – role in world affairs. The (flawed) elections of last November brought George Bush to the White House with an agenda that carried troubling echoes of 1930s isolationism. This agenda has since been modified by the pressure of events, for instance in the Middle East, where the new President felt obliged to dispatch the Director of the CIA. In other areas though – most notably the Kyoto Accord and arms control – President Bush has stubbornly ignored the views of his European allies.

If America and Europe are currently drifting apart, the fault is not all on one side, however. Some of the founder members of the EU, most notoriously France, have often subordinated the common Western interest to selfish financial advantage in their dealings with Iran and other oil-rich countries. The European Union is, overall, a most positive development – pace the current Franco-German ‘alliance’ after three hundred years of blood-bespattered enmity, and the sanctions on Austria in response to the Freedom Party’s inclusion in the government – but it does have its flaws. Most notably, Europe takes what it pleases to call a more ‘even handed’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio than does the US. This is undoubtedly motivated by the above-mentioned financial considerations, as well as the presence of millions of Moslems in countries like France, Belgium and Spain. Then again, though Europe was the actual arena – as well as the seedbed – of the Final Solution, the Washington Holocaust Museum plays a more central role in the national psyche than do corresponding institutions in France, or even Germany.

This is not to downplay the progress Europe, especially its formerly Jewish-populated East, has been making in facing the past. In Poland the publication of Jan Gross’s book on the horrific Jedwabne massacre of July 1941 has ignited a countrywide debate about Polish-Jewish relations under the German Occupation; in consequence the myth that Jews earned their neighbours’ hatred by collaborating with the Soviets is wearing increasingly thin. In Russia itself the self-appointed ‘conscience of the nation’, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in the past has depicted Jews both as promoters and beneficiaries of the Bolshevik terror has signalled a significant new departure. He is currently engaged on a historical magnum opus which, he says, will when completed, absolve him of the taint of antisemitism.

Thus Europe is shining a fitful light into its gradually receding dark past. Where this dark past is still alive – at least in mens’ minds – is the Arab and Muslim world. Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan presidents, Iranian and Saudi clerics, Egyptian journalists, and others, use invective against the Jews for which they ought to pay split royalties to medieval popes and to Julius Streicher. By significant coincidence some of the countries from which this lethal propaganda emanates are the very ‘rogue states’ against whom President Bush wants to employ his missile shield. It would be a pity – not to say an unintentional crime – if America’s go-it-alone policy were to prompt Europe into taking unilateral counter-actions. That would shatter the Western unity that has provided large parts of the world with prosperity for the past half century.

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