Why Europeans Like the Palestinians

Why has European public opinion generally grown to be supportive of the Palestinian cause?

April 23, 2002

Why has European public opinion generally grown to be supportive of the Palestinian cause?

The U.S. media has been genuinely perplexed as to why Western Europe is so “pro-Palestinian.” Many cite Europe’s historic anti-Semitism — which gave rise to the Holocaust and prompted many under Nazi occupation to collaborate in the destruction of Europe’s Jewish population — as an explanation. Others focus on the number of Arab immigrants in Western Europe.

The real reason may lie in the different historical experiences of Americans and Europeans. Americans certainly like to think of themselves as rebels, mavericks — and underdogs. Yet, over the past several decades, America has been a dominant global power. Any attempt to change or undermine the status quo has been regarded by the United States as a direct challenge to its international standing.

As a result, in the Western Hemisphere, rebel movements have been seen from U.S. shores as either a communist guerilla insurgency funded by the Soviet Union, or simply as the activity of a terrorist group.

And indeed, many of Latin America’s guerrillas have been unsavory characters — ranging from the Maoist Shining Path in Peru to the narco-leftist FARC movement in Colombia.

This U.S. view has extended to other global hot spots as well. Attempts to present the North Vietnamese government and the Vietcong to U.S. citizens as national liberation movements ultimately failed — particularly after South Vietnam was finally overrun in 1975. In Laos and Cambodia, according to this view, the fighters who took up arms against the United States were guilty of brutal war crimes — and even genocide.

Europe, on the other hand, is more willing to embrace a national liberation movement fighting against unjust occupying powers. Many of those who shape today’s public opinion in Europe were raised in the ethos of anti-Nazi resistance.

An oppressive military force — hunkering down with an abundance of heavy fighting power in an essentially unarmed populace — conjures up an image that most Europeans were trained to despise.

Whether you were a resistance fighter in Poland or the Netherlands, Norway or France, anything you did against Hitler and his army was considered appropriate, if not heroic and good. In short, Europeans — in their collective minds — are trained to support the underdog.

Unfortunately for Israel, it has just become too militarily powerful to earn much popular sympathy in the European public relations battle. It is one of the profoundest of ironies that, due to the power of TV images, the Israeli army is subconsciously viewed as the contemporary equivalent of the German army occupying European lands six decades ago.

More recently, historians have shown that the extent of resistance to the Nazis in France, Italy and Northern Europe may have been exaggerated. But the powerful myths — and their influence — live on.

Into this potent mix, you need to add the memory of the popular resistance to Communist rule in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In both places, ordinary people fought Soviet tanks in the streets with their bare hands and little else.

In fact, over the past 15 years, Europe’s TV screens have been filled by images of peaceful and not-so-peaceful rebellions in the Baltics, across the former Iron Curtain — and in the Balkans.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, the fall of the Berlin Wall remains an enduring image of how people can fight against oppression — and triumph in the end.

In fact, when Israelis fought against the British after World War II, they were using the same resistance tactics currently employed by the Palestinians. Many Europeans supported them — precisely because they saw the citizens of the newly created nation as underdogs and freedom fighters.

All in all, Europeans are a priori more favorably disposed toward rebels than Americans. As Israel uses its overwhelming military might against Palestinians — armed only with stones and guns — the lasting image for those outside the conflict is one of freedom fighters. It’s an image that Europe understands — and sympathizes with — much more readily than the United States.