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The Unspeakable Comparison

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The Unspeakable Comparison

Europe’s refugee crisis and the lessons of history September 8, 2015

We must sometimes compare the incomparable, if only to shake numbed consciousness into action. Several million refugees escaped from Germany, Poland, and the Baltic countries between 1933 and 1940, fleeing Nazism and throwing themselves against closed borders. Among them were Nathan, Samuel, and Rachel. Nathan had foreseen what was to come and fled Germany in summer 1933, five months after Adolf Hitler came to power. He tried to enter the United States, but his visa was refused. The same thing happened in Spain. Ultimately, Nathan stumbled upon France, where he was not welcomed but not rejected, either. The leftist Popular Front government of Édouard Daladier began handing Jews over to the Nazis in 1938. Nathan survived the Vichy Regime by joining the sparse ranks of the French Resistance in the Pyrenees Mountains, alongside Spanish Republicans fleeing the Civil War.

Nathan had ten siblings. All ten were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. His mother starved to death in a Warsaw ghetto. Outside the Jewish community, Nathan’s relatives and the 6 million other victims of the events that would later be named the Holocaust failed to inspire any kind of emotion, until Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem in 1961. The extermination of the Jews had previously been swallowed up by the collective unconsciousness, filed away as a collateral accident of the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were made aware of the situation in 1943, but they refused to let the Holocaust turn them away from their overall strategy of defeating the Nazis and forming an alliance with Stalin.

Let us now consider something incomparable: the exodus of millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea. Is this situation incomparable because Latifa, Ali, and Ahmed have not been exterminated with the same industrial efficiency as Samuel, Nathan, and Rachel? Why are they incomparable? Do we really think Latifa, Ali, and Ahmed are risking drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, suffocating to death in a truck in Austria, or dying of thirst on some Greek road because they love to travel? Because they are looking for a part-time job in England? Of course not. They too are fleeing extermination. They are taking the risk of drowning because they know the alternative is being gassed, bombed, or starved.

This is not the Holocaust—not yet. A few years from now, however, what will we call this human wave washing over Europe? How will our history books and official statements justify this exodus that the Europeans—both citizens and governments—are trying to reduce to a “technical crisis,” which simply requires a small legal adjustment to the definition of refugee status?

If Nathan were still alive, I have no doubt that he would see his own face, his own fate, and his own distress in those of Ali and Ahmed. Nathan would recognize the arguments now being peddled at the same borders he once tried to cross: Western Europe’s economies can’t handle an influx of foreigners; public opinion about immigrants is negative; there are already too many here. Nathan was accused of exaggerating the threat to him and his family. Surely, he was told, Hitler is more reasonable than you say. Are Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, or the Islamist gangs ravaging the Middle East reasonable? No one in the West is doing a thing to make them so. The only initiative ever considered was François Hollande’s push for military intervention against Assad. And this initiative was vetoed in 2013 by President Barack Obama, who seems not to have learned the Lesson of Munich. The only Western head of state to understand the true measure of this tragedy and suggest appropriate, humanitarian solutions is Angela Merkel. As a German, she knows. She doesn’t hide behind legal or economic quibbles. She knows that Ahmed is Nathan, 70 years on.

All Europeans know the seemingly rational objections: those people, who are not European, will not be able to assimilate into our cultures, and our economies will be unable to support them. But what seems so true is, in fact, false. These “refugees” accepted into Europe would contribute their education and their labor. Most are young and resourceful. Migration is a tragic selection process in which the strong win over the weak. The United States has always been able to develop faster than Europe thanks to the dynamism contributed by immigrants, whereas Europe is becoming feebler with age. Is it so unthinkable that the current crop of migrants could assimilate? Europe is not a pure, unblemished jewel in terms of its culture, ethnicity, and religion. It is in fact a melting pot of cultures that together form the European civilization.

While Europe has only managed to take in 300,000 refugees, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have somehow managed to welcome 3 million. This is why I am ashamed of Europe: I am ashamed of its selfishness, its blindness in the face of history and its arrogant, self-satisfied pouting. Ahmed is my brother, and Latifa is my sister. Why? Because Nathan was my father.

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