In the face of one of the most serious humanitarian crises of the past several decades, now taking place in the expanses between Syria, Iraq and Turkey and Hungary, Austria and Germany, the response of the national leadership and several journalists proves how similar Israel has become to states that are not worthy of being called enlightened – to countries that are violent and unrelenting and that promote an ethnocentric nationalism with racist elements. Israel is a fitting ally for Hungary and Slovakia.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims he is not indifferent to their plight, but that Israel cannot absorb refugees because it is a small country that must defend itself from infiltration by work migrants and terrorists. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz suggested that Syrian refugees find refuge in the home of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, saying the idea of taking them in is an expression of national irresponsibility.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked denounced the call to absorb refugees as demagogic, while Tourism Minister Yariv Levin described it as populism. But how could such a suggestion be deemed populism – something meant to curry favor with the public – when alienation and hostility toward refugees and asylum seekers, as toward any non-Jew, is clearly the people’s will?
Benny Ziffer, writing in Haaretz (“Why I can’t feel pity for the Syrian refugees in Europe,” September 16) gave a clear and unapologetic expression of the Israeli wickedness given the suffering of the Syrian refugees. “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?”
If the photo of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi doesn’t spark pity in someone’s heart, that’s a matter for psychologists. Ziffer has long become a rather grotesque figure, a type of enfant terrible, who enjoys provocation and saying controversial things. But he is saying what Netanyahu and his ministers don’t dare say aloud: that “the Muslim population is multiplying [in Europe] and taking advantage of Western tolerance to undermine the foundations of liberalism and the Westerners’ assurance of the justice 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.”
In other words, the Europeans are suckers, but that’s their problem. As far as we’re concerned, the refugees can sink in their rickety boats, or rot in the camps set up for them. They will not enter this wicked country.
Netanyahu and Ziffer, who have struck up a wonderful friendship lately, would have felt right at home around the table at the Evian Conference, which convened in June 1938 to find a solution for the Jewish refugees fleeing from discrimination and persecution in Germany and Austria. It was an event extraordinary in the alienated cynicism the politicians there displayed toward the Jews’ plight. It peaked with the words of the Australian delegate, who declared, “We have no real racial problem and we are not desirous of importing one.” Or, in Netanyahu’s version, we are a state with limited demographic depth – that is, we can’t bring in foreigners who will put our uni-ethnic demographic stability at risk.
The Latin American representatives at Evian-les-Bains were a bit more restrained. Several of them (Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Paraguay) agreed to absorb some agricultural workers – in other words, to import some of the equivalent of our Thai and Filipino laborers. Small countries in Europe spoke of the need to find emigration solutions outside of Europe, as they stressed their limited demographic capacity. Holland, Denmark, and Switzerland were proud of their humane policy: They allowed refugees to pass through them to third countries. But even that much humanism is not possible in Israel. No one would dream of accepting refugees, if only to relieve them of their immediate distress and allow them to rebuild their lives somewhat before considering permanent resettlement elsewhere.
In contrast to Israel, Germany stands out as the new Promised Land. The woman at the helm there hasn’t hesitated to speak in the name of historical responsibility that obligates Germany to take an unequivocal stance in the face of such extensive human suffering.
Not everything is going smoothly and even an economic power like Germany has its limits, but German public opinion is largely supportive of providing the Syrian asylum seekers with a new home. Germany is not just a Promised Land to Muslims; hundreds of thousands of Jews who left the former Soviet Union in the 1990s preferred to go there over the Jewish state, and as we know, thousands of Israelis are discovering that its open and tolerant atmosphere is suited to their needs and values.
So what is the historical lesson here? It seems that a wicked state has to undergo a horrible and destructive national trauma to become a Promised Land, first and foremost for its own people, but also to hundreds of thousands of people seeking a new future.
The writer is a Holocaust researcher at Hebrew University.
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