Wednesday, June 13, 2007

We are pleased to present Alex Arndt. He is working as a Research Associate and Web Editor for the Knowing Israel - a study tour project that helps to expose young European journalists to Israel's diversity and unique situation (

He is a PhD candidate at the University of Potsdam. In addition, he has been working for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, especially for the Post-Holocaust Anti-Semitism program, with translation, research, and briefings on European Anti-Semitism, with a special focus on Germany. He has also contributed with book reviews to the Jewish Political Studies Review. He holds two Master degrees from German and American universities in the fields of History and Cultural Studies.

Interview with Alex Arndt

WTW: Does Europe really know what is going on here in Israel?

Alex: The impression is that Europe does not understand Israel that well, there are a number of reasons and people have already written about this. I’d like to mention just three of these reasons. Western Europe, actually all of Europe with the exception of the old Yugoslavia has not experienced war in the last 60 years. Therefore, the public does not live in a society or a culture where you have to think about war. Nor do they have to plan for the next time someone is going to attack you. This is completely out of the mind of people in Europe, therefore the journalists and sometimes the European public tends to underestimate Israel’s situation. Another thing, Europe is a very post-nationalist society. Europeans, after all these wars that were fought for European identity, race and whatever crazy beliefs they feel that nationalism is a thing of the past which makes them a bit hesitant to embrace things like a Jewish identity many different kinds of things, like religion, cultural and ethnic, there are so many different things that form a Jewish identity, people just do not understand. Thirdly, there is this past of anti-Semitism in Europe which makes it a difficult subject to claim that a people they feel, at least subconsciously, that the wars in Europe and elsewhere has been responsible for the Jewish people looking for a state of their own. Although many do not want to admit it, they do say, “What you people are doing is what the Nazis did to you.” This inversion of holocaust themes are put upon Israel, I think, speaks of some sub-conscious feeling of guilt that one tries to project on Israel. Therefore I think many things come together and make the Europeans to be very hesitant to embrace Israel.

WTW: At the JCPA we monitored the French riots, and at that time there was a Muslim leader in Germany who said we do not have to learn German ; Germany is an Islamic country. Did you hear that remark?

Alex: I think I remember hearing something like that but I don’t think this is something that causes the German people a lot of controversy at the moment. The people still believe and hope that this is really only a problem due to a lack of integration for Muslim immigrants into European society. Many parties are asking, “How can we integrate them? What can we do?” The problem is due to some crazies and then one tries to get rid of them. For example, one man had to leave Germany because he was just a hate monger. I think the majority of the German people have their problems with integration but I think more because it is a problem of difficulty in integrating not because they think Islam is going to conquer Europe.

WTW: So Germans feel secure; there is such an influx of Muslims into Europe altogether. We know, for instance, that in France the police were told not to go into the neighborhoods where the Muslims were living because it was ' occupied territory'. This then is not a prevalent attitude in Germany; Germans do not fear that the Muslims are going to take over?

Alex: Not at all. I think that there are some scandals, last year there was this problem with an opera; it had a strange interpretation of Mozart’s interpretation of religious leaders like Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed was to be beheaded on stage and they cancelled the show; they were afraid of Muslims attacking the opera. The thing is that no one ever proved that the Muslims intended to do so. It was like preemptive surrender-people were afraid-this was rather an example of political correctness rather than really a threat there because there was no proof that the Muslims would have acted that strongly. The debate asks are we overreacting, are we Islamophobic, or are we failing to integrate those people properly? I think there is not a belief that Muslims are taking over Europe. Also, the French riots were perceived in Germany (apart from the far right) as a social problem. For example, those people have no jobs, they have no income, they are frustrated, they are young, they are not feeling integrated into the French society; therefore, they go out and burn cars. Basically you would have the same thing in Germany if we had problems with Muslim immigrants, Germans look for the cause in social problems not so much that there might be some ideology that is completely averse to Western values.

WTW: At this point in time in Germany there is no sense that we are in a 'clash of civilizations' or as some have said WW III has already begun, we haven’t recognized it yet? Just to be clear, the perception in Germany is that all the problems associated with Islam can be answered by economic or by social explanations?

Alex: Yes, I think this is the belief by the majority of the politicians and the public. Of course, there is a hope we can have peace. The cartoon incident definitely hit the European psyche hard, like what is going on was the thinking. If you read the German blogoshperes, more and more people are writing op-ed pieces in the major mainstream newspapers in Germany; more and more people are concerned with this development. They are really worried about Iran speeding to have nuclear weapons and the ongoing frustration with all these peace efforts that Europe invests so much money in and seeing, like in Lebanon and in the territories, they see all this money being expended and it is wasted, burned and they see all the violence going on there. I think the number of people concerned about what is going on. The whole idea of the term 'clash of civilizations' has been with us for a long time. This is considered politically incorrect. Therefore people would never try to talk in this manner and they try to avoid this term. They also try to downplay whatever is going on and thus provide analysis on a structure based upon social and economic issues. Also, the apparent failures of the USA with their policies in Iraq helps now to push those who were against the war from the start and who were against the war on terror from the start to say, “this is not about democratizing the Middle East, just leave them alone and the reasons they hate us is because of the way we treat them. The division between these camps is getting sharper.

WTW: You have just completed the first year of this program with three different groups of young reporters. Can you do a pre and post Israeli visit analysis of the program’s impact thus far?

Alex: We are still working on the program's design and we are learning from our mistakes. During our very first tour the Lebanon War broke out and on the other hand all the journalists were gathered together and were eager to go to this place. They brought with them their own values and beliefs and they wanted to go to several hot spots; they had plenty to write about. I think some of the journalists then focused more on the Middle East from then on. On the other hand the situation was very tense in Israel; everyone you talked to was pro war and again there were some journalists who were left with an impression that Israel is in a unique situation. These people did not know too much about Israel before their visit. Being here made it difficult for them to fully understand what is going on. Of course, we exposed them to many different points of view, they met Palestinians and these were not living up to the journalist’s expectations although they were moderate. They were extremely tense I think the journalists were also extremely frustrated from this interaction. There was also this constant reflection from their side that what Israel was doing was disproportionate. Although we tried to expose them to as many people as was possible, Netanyahu, Dore Gold, Carolyn Glick, they had am impression that they were not sure of their messages. This entire time of hard security talk was “too much for them” to digest. Why don’t you just get the job done and then withdraw or calm down? We did our best. If you have - say 5 people of the 9 people on the tour going away with amore profound and deeper knowledge of this situation and what Israel has to go through then I think the program is successful. After the first tour, we decided to change the program. The journalists come with an effective filter. They want to have Palestinians, they want to have Israeli-Arabs; they want to have left-wingers from Israel-we give it to them. We feel that first, this is a Democracy, it is a pluralistic society it is not a one party country who determines who goes to war or if we kill children –it is a pluralistic society and there are so many different opinions out there we should expose them to these different opinions. Now, during the war even the left - wingers were pro war. Even in our second tour, we met through Haaretz, thanks to a Czech ambassador's hospitality one evening-they were all pretty much pro-Zionist. The last tour was the most diversified and most liberal one to date. This is a thin line. I know this. Talking to a post-Zionist professor gives the reporters a completely different picture of Israel than say Dore Gold whom they will meet right after. The idea behind this is to have them have a didactic experience with regards to Israel. Fr example, have them listen to an Arab- Israeli then go for a tour with an Israeli across Israel-have them see Sderot, let them see how the people live and the destruction. Every time, the journalists were able to pick up the problems raised, they understood and came to their own answers and conclusions. They then were able to also expose the next speaker to the issues they witnessed. If this post-Zionist professor says the wall is insignificant, is there only for symbolic reasons, it does not prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel therefore it is exaggerated what Israel claims the wall does. Let the reporters hear this. Then take these issues to the next speaker to Uzi Arad and let them talk to him-ask him about the significance of the wall. Is the wall really completely senseless and is it really only for symbolic reasons? He will explain the opposite point of view. Let the reporters get the facts from different sides and try to get their own picture of the truth. The reporters are here for one week, they hardly have time to access the internet. How can they check these 'facts'? I do my best; I constantly am having discussions with them and provide them with some more knowledge. In the end, I hope that if they walk away from this experience, we give them evaluation sheets, they tell us what they liked most, what they found was the most difficult, I am sure, although they are not so sure of the 'defensible borders concept' or the fence, at least they have the knowledge that Israel wants peace. They leave understanding it is more complicated than they expected and they know this cannot be solved over night and that nothing can be solved by European wishful thinking. If this is the result then I think this program is successful.

WTW: This sounds like a wonderful program . Are you interested in taking this to other European countries?

Alex: This program is for European journalists, it is not just for German journalists. We get them from all over Europe, We have them from Italy, Germany, Russia, Poland, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark.

WTW: Thank you for the clarification. You sponsor the program and you have young journalists from all over Europe. Is the issue of our three captured soldiers kept alive in Europe? Do they know that there are Arab members of the Knesset? Do they know it was an Arab Knesset member that suggested our soldiers be kidnapped?

Alex: The issue of the soldiers-they think that Israel acted disproportionately because only three soldiers were kidnapped and a few more killed. The majority of the German politicians supported Israel for the first two weeks-then they started to defect and put pressure on Israel to stop. In the mind of many people it is still felt that, yes, it was three soldiers but killing so many people and bombing Beirut in the manner we did. You have to argue with this interpretation. You have to tell them it is not only about 3 soldiers, but it is about constant exposure to Kassam missiles and they basically raid our border on a regular basis, then they start to realize this situation is more difficult than they first believed. Regarding language, 'occupied territories', I always put together articles by JCPA and Dore Gold’s famous article on ' occupation' to give them a legal background on just what is going on. They learn more about the history of the situation with this tour; most of these young journalists have very little historical understanding of this situation-it is their weakness. They have limited knowledge of Israel’s history. They see only Israel now, they do not know about 1948, the early Zionist movement of the Mufti of Jerusalem, many do not know these things. They do not know the history and, thus, they cannot appreciate how difficult it is to live in this neighborhood. Thus, the first Intifada, the Palestinians are seen as a people who are oppressed and suppressed by Israel. They do not realize that the Palestinians had many offers of peace but chose different direction-one of terror. The idea of the 'settlements' is a hard sell to the journalists. What you have is European pragmatism. I have to be honest here, although there is some sympathy for the Zionist idea and I feel that Judea and Samaria are 'disputed territories', from a pragmatic point of view and realistically point of view, you have this demographic that there is a Palestinian people living in the territories and their numbers are growing. This is an issue and this is what the Europeans realize when they hear and use the term 'occupied'. Europeans still have questions about Israel’s need for security and thus being inside these territories.

WTW: What does Europe think about the issue of 'settlements'?

Alex: So the 'settlement' issue is, you know, the Europeans feel like we should let the Palestinians have their state. Now the obstacle to this is that there is no space for the Palestinians. Now they regard any attempt by Israel to claim any of these disputed territories as her own is something detrimental to the peace process. You can argue that the peace process has failed and that Oslo has failed, and you can try to explain but still there is this issue of five million Palestinians altogether and they have to go somewhere. You can’t deport them; you have to find a solution. They feel the 'settlements', such as Hebron, are really difficult to hold. They are obstacles, you can try to tell them something, you can reason with them, you can tell them Hebron was always a Jewish city, there was a massacre in 1929, Look, right here now, the security regime for the Palestinian regime believe 'settlements' are detrimental to something called 'peace'. You can’t do much right now and you have to think about the future. The Palestinian population is growing, you will have over 10 million of them years ahead of now. Thus, you cannot forever hang on to the idea that you can have 'settlements' where there are more Arabs than Jewish people. You can’t have a democracy or Jewish democracy if there are more Arabs living there. We try to tell the young reporters that Israel can’t go backward, the issue is one of security. Security is a prerequisite for peace and without security, and without a reliable partner you cannot achieve peace.

WTW: Have they ever thought about Arab countries taking in the 'refugees' just as Israel took in 750,000 to 850,000 refugees?

Alex: Yes, we tell them about this, we give them this perspective. Even when we tell them that Israel is a Democracy and that it must put up with neighbors that reluctant to help the Palestinians out of this situation. So what is Israel suppose to do? In Germany we have a saying, “the smarter ones give in” and another saying “Always the smarter one is giving in, the stupid one is winning in the end.” Thus, Israel must find a solution, Israel must, of course, take care of its own interests and provide security for its people.

WTW: This will still be an unequal equation as there will still be Arabs living in Israel and they will multiply; the Palestinian state would be an apartheid state as no others would be allowed to live there. There are already 22 other Arab countries-that is not a fair exchange.

Alex: Yes, sure but they are asking for a state and yet they are not able to structure themselves in the manner that allows them to make a state. You still have the situation that the Europeans think that Israel should give them a state, leave them alone and they will all be happy. Although this is a fallacy, Europeans think this way. What can you do?

WTW: Alex, thank you very much, that is an interesting analysis of Europe’s point of view. Let me finish this by asking you to complete the following sentence-“There will be peace in the Middle East… “left for a time when the messiah comes.”

WTW: Thank you very much Alex, we wish you all the best

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