Israel’s opposition leader and all-around invisible man, MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), weighed in on the escalating migrant crisis in Europe on Saturday, saying it was Israel’s moral duty to accept Syrian refugees. The wellspring for this no-doubt noble sentiment, as is customary in the multifaceted world of post-trauma Israel, was a very thinly veiled reference to the Holocaust: “Our nation knows the lessons of history well. We cannot remain indifferent to this great suffering.”
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Herzog’s comment came just days after the world was moved by the announcement that some European nations, led by Germany, would accept thousands of refugees into their territory. This followed weeks of unbearable scenes, with desperate families storming the borders of Southern and Eastern Europe.
While the Holocaust always seems to pop up everywhere in the Israeli public discourse, its appearance this time is especially poignant. What is it, the world is asking, that Europe has learned from the Holocaust? And what has Israel yet to learn?
Despite the fact that the Holocaust ended 70 years ago, the argument over the lessons of the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century continues to rage. “The Holocaust taught us to be sensitive to the plight of other people,” some say, while others claim the only lesson is that “the Jews must have their own country, their own army, so as to prevent another Holocaust.”
With his comments, however, Herzog is demonstrating his own lesson from the Holocaust: To continue a proud and, to say the least, imperfect European tradition of empty gestures geared at washing over continuing, continent-sized, injustices, as opposed to facing the reality he is actually responsible for – the flimsy future of Jews and Palestinians. Taking on refugees from a global crisis feels and looks right, but Israel is in far too deep in the debris of its own making to perform empty gestures.
The reality is that Israel can’t accept Syrian refugees, not morally. Not because taking them in wouldn’t seem moral – it certainly would, and the pictures would no doubt be heartwarming. But because Israel, as long as its dispute with the Palestinians isn’t resolved, owes a debt first and foremost to the refugees it actually is responsible for creating: the millions of Palestinian refugees waiting on the sidelines of a nonexistent peace process.
To assume moral responsibility and take responsibility for the lives of other human beings requires that one be not only committed to their well-being, but that one’s own well-being, at least to a degree, also depends on it. Israel’s life depends on resolving the Palestinian issue, and not a PR stunt aimed at none other than the shining moral beacon that is Europe. Or, in other words, aimed at buying time and aiding everything that is preventing an actual peace process – a photo op, and then some occupation.
After all, Germany and Austria – who are receiving boatloads of moral points for accepting refugees – have their own agenda in doing so: to attempt, yet again, to erase the gaping moral vacuum they are responsible for, one that seems to serve as a constant chilling backdrop to the current crisis. And whether they live up to this promise, whether they intend to actually take care of thousands of incoming refugees – as opposed to deserting them moments after the photo op – remains to be seen.
To a degree, another important player in this crisis, Hungary, could also be said to be studying the lessons of the Holocaust. Hungary’s insistent reluctance to accept refugees is not only a sign of that nation’s obsession with xenophobia, but also its crystal-clear memory. You see, the last time Hungary – then the Austro-Hungarian Empire – took in a mass of refugees, it was thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in the 19th century. The same Jews it took just six or so months to nearly annihilate a century later. Perhaps it's an important lesson: Maybe both Hungary and the Syrian refugees are better off without each other.
Ultimately, this is perhaps the greatest lesson from the Holocaust that Herzog needs to be mindful of. Take care of what you’re responsible for first, and only think of what makes you feel good much, much later.