Why I Can’t Feel Pity for the Syrian Refugees in Europe

‘Long live Viktor Orbán!’ I mumble under my breath, for fear of being lynched if I am suspected of racism and Islamophobia.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Syrian and Afghan refugees on and around a dinghy that deflated just before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015.
Syrian and Afghan refugees on and around a dinghy that deflated just before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

I must confess that, try as I might, I could not bring myself to pity the Syrian refugees who were seen streaming across the roads of Europe to Austria and Germany last week. Not even the photograph of the 3-year-old boy washed up on the shore in Bodrum, Turkey – after the boat in which his parents had hoped to reach Greece sank – made a difference. Why can’t I feel empathy with the suffering, like everyone else?

I’ve no doubt I have lost the ability for compassion as a direct result of the French education I received. Was it the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who said that compassion is an extension of our egotism? I recall “Is compassion moral?” being one of the most common questions on the French matriculation exam in philosophy. The student is expected to answer that compassion is largely no more than the instinct for convenience, that it frequently has no connection to morality, and that rational people must avoid the pitfall of their convenience instinct.

“You would speak differently if the toddler who drowned was your son or grandson,” people will say, angrily. Those are the people who believe that compassion is obvious in a situation like the one that has emerged before our very eyes, with thousands of people fleeing for their lives from the Middle East to Europe. And it is exactly this argument that closes me off even more from compassion, because that’s an argument which disguises itself as logical but is entirely based on the egotistical instinct.

Moreover, the shock aroused by the photograph of the drowned boy also proved how capricious pity is; what about the thousands of refugees from Africa whose boats capsized in the Mediterranean and whose bodies were pulled from the sea on the shores of Spain and Italy? Why don’t they engender such empathy?

This capriciousness scares me because, on the one hand, we hear endlessly about the discomfiture of Europeans in light of the migration of the poor of the world in their direction. And on the other, we see Germany’s chancellor making a gesture of grandiose generosity – that her country will shelter thousands of refugees from Syria. And we see Germans applauding as the convoys of refugees enter Frankfurt. Where is the logic?

Readers will forgive me if I confess that in this world, in which people have lost logic and wisdom, I have no choice but to rely on those currently deemed the most evil members of the human race. First and foremost among them is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who didn’t fall prey to the fashion of pity and declared, in no uncertain terms, that the convoys fleeing from the Middle East are unwelcome in his country.

It is absolutely clear to me that the Hungarian prime minister is nationalist and right wing, and thumbs his nose at what is being said about him and his country. As opposed to Germany, which is more concerned about its image than anything else, he doesn’t care when people say his cynical and compassionless stand on the refugees – he also claims they are only pretending to be refugees – shows his country in an inhumane light. To my mind, this should be appreciated, since he is revealed as a person who understands the extent of the damage wrought in this world by postmodern illusions, which have accustomed us to deny the essence and relate only to image and the way things look.

Orbán’s logic is that Europe has amassed bitter experience with the Muslim population multiplying there and taking advantage of Western tolerance to undermine the foundations of liberalism and the assurance of Westerners of the rightness of their path. Therefore, one would have to be crazy to put a healthy head into this sickbed and accept more Muslims, who will continue to subvert Europe from within.

German Chancellor Angela MerkelCredit: Eran Wolkowski

Does this mean Orban is racist and Islamophobic? Or our prime minister, who declared that Israel wouldn’t take in Syrian refugees? My answer to this comes straight from the words of the renowned French writer Michel Houellebecq, who for more than a decade has been waging a literary and intellectual crusade against Islam. When he was sued at the time for racism and Islamophobia, he argued that a person who defends his cultural values against those who threaten them cannot be called racist. He said he had no problem with migrants from Arab countries who wholeheartedly adopt French values. His problem is that many of these people, instead of adopting the values of their host continent, barricade themselves in values that contradict the essence of Europe.

“Long live Houellebecq, long live Viktor Orbán!” I mumble under my breath, for fear of being lynched if I am suspected of racism and Islamophobia. As for the masses of Syrians and others now being welcomed with cheers at Germany’s train stations, I hope they don’t fall prey to the compassion lavished on them.

My family had a similar experience at another time. My father’s father was part of the wave of refugees fleeing Istanbul in the first decade of the 20th century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and he was welcomed with open arms by Austria. There, he hoped to build his life. And there he married and fathered my father. But soon the kindness with which he was welcomed was replaced by sick hatred, and they were lucky they had Turkey to flee back to. And so, with the New Year upon us, let us wish each other a little more logic and a little less compassion.

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