Europe’s refugee crisis has created the kind of images that reverberate around the world. They have the power to evoke the strongest emotions of moral outrage and a determination, however inchoate, that something must be done.
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The body of a lifeless 3-year-old washing up onto a beach, a truck stuffed with corpses and surging crowds of desperate people in railway stations are especially provocative because they are occurring in places so remote from the war – in peaceful and (sort of) prosperous Europe; a bucolic Turkish beach at the end of the summer. “How can humanity countenance such things?” the average person has to ask himself. If he or she can take some solace, it is from another set of images, of German and Austrian volunteers providing food, clothing and toys to the refugees streaming into their countries. There, at least, is humankind at its best.
For Jews and most Israelis, the images have an added dimension. Seventy-five years ago, we were in much the same situation as today’s refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, but Europe was considerably less welcoming.
Germany seems to have learned the lessons of that era and is making extra special efforts to take in the victims of war and persecution. Israel on the other hand, on the face of it, seems to be doing very little. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s timid call to admit a symbolic 10,000 Syrians isn’t being taken seriously, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s response (“Israel is a very small country, with neither demographic or geographic depth, and therefore we must control our borders”) seems small-minded and lacking in moral fiber.
Perhaps Israel deserves a little slack. Germany recovered quickly from the Nazi era to become a prosperous, powerful country, the kingpin of a Europe that has been at peace for nearly all the last 70 years. Under such circumstances, it’s human nature to be generous. Israeli Jews traded the trauma of the Holocaust years for a place in the war-torn, troubled Middle East. In the Israeli mindset, real peace and prosperity haven’t yet arrived.
Still, given the scale of the human disaster, Israel should do more to overcome its demons, however understandable they are.
Lofty reasons, terrible outcome
The real problem, however, is making moral decisions based on vague impressions and assuming that acting in the name of doing what seems to be the right thing will achieve the right results. Here are two examples from recent history.
Case 1: Within weeks after the rebellion in Libya against Muammar Gadhafi broke out in early 2011, NATO felt compelled to intervene. Gadhafi, a brutal dictator, committed multiple atrocities against his people and the death toll was quickly mounting. NATO assistance did the trick and within seven months Gadhafi was gone.
And the result? The war against Gadhafi cost about 9,400 lives, but the fighting that has followed when Libyan rebels failed to unite and form a government added another 4,700 deaths and counting. Though Libya hasn't descended into anarchy and violence like Syria or Iraq, it is a repressive Islamic state. What looked like the right thing to do in early 2011 from the perspective of 2015 doesn’t look so obvious. Maybe Libya would have done better if Gadhafi had stayed.
Case 2: On the other hand, when Hitler came to power in 1933, the allies did nothing. The German leader quickly began arresting political enemies, harassing Jews and threatening neighboring countries, but by the standards of the time he wasn’t such an outlier.
Imagine France and Britain mobilizing their armies, invading Germany and toppling Hitler, which in the early days of the Nazi regime they could have done relatively easily. It would have gone down in history as the allies launching a needless war, sacrificing young men for the sake of stopping a blowhard buffoon and interfering in another country’s internal affairs.
Yet if they had, tens of millions of lives would have been spared, there would have been no death camps and Eastern Europe would have been saved from decades of repression and misrule because Stalin would not have been able to use the war to impose Communist rule.
Ready, aim, wait a sec
The lesson is, don’t engage in moral fire without doing a lot of aiming.
That seems counterintuitive: Doing the right thing is supposed to be above practical calculations that might incline you to do what seems to be the immoral thing.
But doing the right and moral thing without considering the consequences isn’t doing the right thing at all, even if it makes you feel good.
In the case of Europe, people’s first reaction is that something must be done to save the refugees. They’ve been driven from their homes in Syria, they face violence and political repression, they have no way of sustaining themselves and they risk drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating to death in the back of a truck.
It’s all true. But what will happen when the refugees arrive in Europe?
Let’s look at Germany, the favored destination of the refugees. It is already home to some 4.5 million Muslims, nearly all Turks who arrived decades ago as “guest-workers” .
Germany’s economy is a story of miraculous growth and its unemployment rate is well under 5%, yet its record of integrating its Muslim minority has been poor, to say the least. Now, the country is proposing to take on 800,000 refugees this year alone, equivalent to 1% of its population.
Certainly on paper, Germany can afford what its Social Affairs Ministry estimates could reach some $3.7 billion to provide basic necessities, language lessons and job training in 2016. But that won’t be the end of it: The country will have to provide housing, schools, healthcare services and infrastructure, not just now but for years to come. And the bill will grow as more refugees stream into Europe and stay there, perhaps forever.
No one expects the Syrian civil war to end anytime soon, and when it does the most likely candidates to be running the country will either be a paranoid, repressive regime headed by Bashar Assad or a paranoid, repressive regime headed by Islamic State. They will have inherited an economy shattered by war, but the Assad family have been economic bunglers for decades and certainly there is no reason to assume they will make the best of the war’s destruction to rebuild the economy quickly and efficiently. ISIS is only capable of doing worse.
No doubt a Syrian refugee would prefer life in Dusseldorf -- even if it means living in poor housing, working at a low-paying job or not all, alienated from the society around him and feeling the butt of petty discrimination -- over the prospect of remaining in Syria or a tent camp in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. But the Germans and Austrians feeling good about themselves for welcoming the refugees today should be giving a lot more thought to tomorrow.