Universality Is a Foreign Concept

It is a testimony to our weak moral compass that we always need to invoke the horrors that were inflicted on the Jews in order to feel compassion for others.

Quiz: Who said, "The egalitarian tendency of governments does not enable them to protect effectively the ethnic majority of their country."

Hint: The same person also said, "Of all immigrants, refugees are the most dangerous, from an ethnic, health and economic standpoint; they are the biggest threat to national security."

If you have been reading the papers of late, even a little bit, you may well have answered: "Eli Yishai," Israel's interior minister.

Alas, I must disappoint you. The speaker is someone you may not have heard of - the demographer Georges Mauco, who was a leading expert on immigration and population in France in the 1930s, someone who influenced the views of the Vichy regime on the question. Mauco published many articles on the harmful impact of foreigners - in particular refugees from Spain and Germany - on the French nation. (The Spanish refugees were fleeing Franco, while the Germans were running away from Hitler's Germany ).

Mauco was very concerned with the disastrous impact of these refugees because, he felt, they would debase the French nation. Like all racists, he was well versed in the art of making distinctions between groups. The Spanish were more acceptable, because they were closer to the French than the Russians, the Armenians or the Jews - all of the latter members of groups unable to assimilate into the French nation.

Of them all, Jews were the lowest of the immigrant or refugee groups. They had, in a figurative sense, the black skin of today's migrants from Sudan - that is, they were thought to be both the most alien to French values and to pose a dangerous threat to French women and society.

I quote Mauco not in order to say: "Gewalt, we are doing to others what others did to us!" (Indeed, it is a testimony to our weak moral compass that we always need to invoke the horrors that were inflicted on the Jews in order to feel compassion for others. ) I invoke Mauco to make another point. The issue of refugees and illegal migrants is a very good way to understand the state of the norms that regulate the speech of our public representatives. Since antiquity, the way in which it treated foreigners was viewed as a sign of a country's morality.

Ancient cultures and the medieval Church recognized the right of persecuted foreigners to find shelter in their midst. Modern and peaceful nation-states mark their membership in the community of civilized states by showing moral concern for refugees and by treating even illegal workers with humanity. Its attitude to foreigners - legal and illegal - is a crucial litmus test of a country's morality.

Sure, the regulation of citizenship has been, historically, the prerogative of nation-states. Immigration is and perhaps must be monitored. This is Israel's right, as is the case in other countries. But the legitimate regulation of immigration cannot be carried out in a way that betrays the norms that the world community has come to view as universal.

Eli Yishai's recent declarations on this issue expose and reveal either that he has no awareness of such norms, or that if he does know them, he does not care about them. But the interior minister's recent comments and behavior regarding the issue of illegal workers cannot be tolerated in a democratic country because a great deal of democracy rests on universal principles, on the recognition there is a fundamental equality of all human beings. Eli Yishai is someone even Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme right, would be reluctant to stand near.

But is Eli Yishai an anomaly or aberration in Israel politics? I am afraid not. There is one strong common point between the French demographer and our interior minister. Both want to preserve the ethnic integrity and purity of their country. Yishai himself gives us the key: "Infiltrators, along with the Palestinians, will bring a quick end to the Zionist dream." What he means by "Zionist dream" is the ethnic and religious purity of the country, a concern shared by very large segments of Israel's citizenry.

It would be entirely unfair to hold Yishai responsible for relying on notions reminiscent of racial purity, because these notions are tightly connected to how Israeli citizenship was forged, on the basis of religion and ethnicity. Racism is not behind the view that ethnic-religious purity must be preserved, but the other way around: It is the view of citizenship based on religion and ethnicity that produces racist worldviews.

Israel is the country of the Jews, but this does not mean we cannot and should not adopt and institutionalize the idea of a universal citizenship that is already in effect in many European countries. Only when we conceive of Israel as a country for all of its citizens will Yishai's words be viewed exactly for what they are - as a scandalous affront to the universal standards of morality without which democracies become empty of any real content.

Georges Mauco later repudiated or denied his racist views on immigration. This hypocrisy is an implicit acknowledgment that racism is inadmissible. I am reduced to the unenviable state where I long for such hypocrisy.

Prof. Eva Illouz is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality, and holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.