Opinion |

When It Comes to Taking in Ukrainian Refugees, Israel Is Master of the Dual Conscience

yossi klein
Yossi Klein
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A Ukrainian refugee fills out a form at Israel's Population and Immigration Authority.
A Ukrainian refugee fills out a form at Israel's Population and Immigration Authority.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
yossi klein
Yossi Klein

In the spring of 1940, Denmark surrendered to Germany without a fight. Given the balance of power between the two, the Danes had no chance. Perhaps they argued in the cabinet. Perhaps someone there spoke of “prestige” and “national honor.” But a fly-by of German bombers over Copenhagen cut the debate short, and Denmark surrendered unconditionally.

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It took 60 years for the Danish Prime Minister to say that “collaborating with the Germans was immoral.” I don’t know what was immoral about it. The damage to national honor? Is saving lives not moral? Is it moral to allow for a mass slaughter in a war that’s already been lost? People don’t fight against occupation and oppression for honor and prestige. Honor and prestige don’t matter to the woman pushing a stroller along the side of a road in Ukraine. She may even accept a deal with the devil himself if it could bring her back home. There is no honor or prestige for those trudging in the cold along the roads, carrying a bundle that holds their entire world. Pride and honor belong to leaders in TV studios, not refugees on the roadside.

We don’t need to be told what it’s like to be refugees. There’s no honor in it. And because we know, we don’t want them here. Refugees scare us, black or white. We treat them like the homeless person squatting in our lobby. They remind us that we’re still refugees, that the trauma of wandering has not yet left us. Over a million of us have foreign passports. We maintain a refugee mentality. Even with two cars in the garage and an 80-inch TV in the living room, we still suspect the tired and hungry of wanting our stale piece of bread, of coveting our identity. We’re pragmatists. Compassion, we explain, is something we left behind in Auschwitz.

We have no compassion for those who are now where we once were. It’s every refugee for himself, and each refugee will fight for any patch of ground where they can lay their head. In our unique and exclusive Holocaust, we were refugees. Just refugees – neither unique nor exclusive – like the refugees from Sudan and Syria, the kind with a backpack just looking for a place to rest. Just 80 years ago, Leo Fuld sang in our name: “Where can I go? Every door is closed to me.”

We’ve closed the door, but we won’t give up our conscience. We’ve invented a dual conscience – like a dual citizenship – one Jewish, one universal. One in each pocket. When we need help, we draw on the universal. When others are in trouble – we Jews have nothing to do with it. When we want to be right, our conscience is Ukrainian. When we want to bomb Syria, it’s Russia.

A conscience can bend like rubber, but it needs bureaucracy, and bureaucracy depends on officials. Good officials have the right ideology. Every unhappy refugee is unhappy in their own way, but all officials are similarly obtuse: The same arrogance, the same smugness, the same quivering offended look when they feel cheated of the recognition they believe they are owed. The head of the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority, Tomer Moskowitz, feels entitled to that recognition. As soon as he opened his mouth, he appointed himself the country’s gatekeeper. Of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked – the less said, the better.

There is a line connecting the drab official Moskowitz and Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin. The Dugins of the world can’t make Russia great again without the Moskowitzes. The Dugins think, the Moskowitzes do. It is no coincidence that Moskowitz is a settler and that Yair Hirsh, the director general of the Interior Ministry, lives in an illegal settlement and his house is under a demolition order. Itamar Ben-Gvir thinks, Hirsh does. Moskowitz and Hirsh are gray soldiers in the army of the dual conscience. They too have feelings, but they don’t bring them to work. “At home I cry, but it’s my job,” the Population Authority junior official responsible for deporting refugees told Ynet.

The Population and Immigration Authority is a practical-sounding name. Refugees, beware of government agencies with practical names. “The SS Race and Settlement Main Office’’ also sounded practical. Both agencies obeyed their orders faithfully and efficiently. They implement policies that someone else has decided on, operate according to the rules, regulations and documents. As Hanna Arendt put it, “How easily we say: But it’s written in the law… How easily we say that if we obey we’ll be better. This is how the banality of evil is formed.”

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