Welcoming Refugees: Lessons from Israeli History

Since the refugee crisis hit headlines in a major way this summer, multiple voices -- both within Europe and here in the United States -- have been sounding the alarm about the difficulties of integrating the new arrivals. Just recently, these warnings have grown more dire in the wake of accusations that men -- particularly migrants from North Africa, the Levant, and Afghanistan -- robbed, sexually harassed and even raped women in some of Germany's major cities on New Year's Eve.

Indeed, some -- such as the New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat -- see the New Year's Eve assaults as further evidence that the only sane course for Germany is to stop the flow of migrants immediately and begin "an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men." His doubts about whether and how Germany and other European nations can absorb the largest human migration since WWII are widely shared.

But the discourse around the "integration" and "absorption" of refugees, especially from primarily Islamic countries, often assumes a kind of radical and essential difference that makes welcoming refugees an insurmountable task. The worldview espoused by Douthat and others (including Donald Trump) smacks of a Huntingtonian "Clash of Civilizations" model that sees the West and Islam as fundamentally different--and fundamentally at odds. But to see these differences as essential and thus unchanging -- or nearly impossible to change -- is to deny the ways both alterity and similarity are always constructed.

I am not suggesting that culture doesn't matter, or that differences between Germans and Syrians are constructed out of whole cloth. Cultural differences are real. But the extent to which we emphasize them, or deem them insurmountable, is based on whether we have a compelling interest to overcome the challenges these differences pose.

Enter Israel. Israel, too, is an immigrant nation -- especially during the first years of its existence, when its population more than doubled due to the arrival of Jews from all over the world. By the essentialist logic of Douthat and Huntington, the absorption of these immigrants should not have posed a problem for Israel. They were all Jews, right? Yet the integration of Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (Mizrahim) was anything but smooth. These Jews came with radically different cultural norms. And the Ashkenazi leaders who dominated the government saw the Mizrahim as a threat to their vision of the authentic Israel.

In 1949, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, observed that Moroccan Jews "love their wives, but they beat them...The culture of Morocco I would not like to have here. And I don't see what contribution present Persians [that is, Jews from Iran] have to make... We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies...."

Zalman Shazar, a member of the Knesset and later two-time president of Israel, similarly worried about the impact of the Mizrahim. In an interview in 1951, he asked: "Will the yishuv [the Jewish community] in Israel survive without more Europeans and Anglo-Saxons, Jews like us?" (Quotations are from Yusuf Sarfati, Mobilizing Religion in Middle East Politics: A Comparative Study of Israel and Turkey, 33-4.)

I am not arguing that Mizrahi Jews were culturally identical to European Jews; they were not. They spoke different languages, they ate different food, they prayed differently, and they had different social norms. But the Israeli state had a compelling interest in encouraging Mizrahi immigration to Israel. Israel was created as the Jewish national homeland -- both a refuge for persecuted Jews around the world, and a "normalization" in answer to the Jewish Question -- a nation-state for the stateless nation.

The will to welcome Mizrahim ultimately trumped Ashkenazi leaders' racism. Even though state officials wondered aloud about the dire effects of the "spirit of the Levant" corrupting Israeli society, they nonetheless put policies in place to actively encourage the arrival of Mizrahim. This does not mean they overcame their racism: on the contrary, prejudice pervaded the experience of Mizrahim in Israel, especially during the state's first decades (and, many would argue, up to the present). Yet this prejudice was ultimately dwarfed by the impetus to see Moroccan Jews as Jews first and Arabs second -- and, eventually, not Arabs at all. Even as Israelis officials emphasized sameness in order to absorb Mizrahi Jews into Israel, they simultaneously emphasized difference, thus making Mizrahi Jews into internal others.

My point is not that the arrival of Mizrahim in Israel is the same as the arrival of Syrians in Germany. My point is this: where there's a will, there's a way. If Israelis could welcome Mizrahim whom they deemed culturally (and perhaps even racially) inferior, then Germans can welcome Syrians and Afghanis and emphasize the ways in which they are similar -- as mothers and fathers, as ambitious 20-somethings, as men and women of faith, as secularists: as humans. Ultimately, similarity and difference are relative terms: there is no absolute sameness between two individuals, and there is no essential difference. It is in our power to emphasize difference or similarity -- and we have a duty as human beings not to succumb to the fear of difference.

The European countries that have welcomed refugees will undoubtedly face hurdles in adapting to the new cultural realities of refugees, and I do not want to minimize those challenges. Yet I believe it is incumbent upon us as human beings to reject a vision of these hurdles as insurmountable. In every generation, nativists deem the absorption of people who are different as impossible -- it happened in the United States in the nineteenth and 20th centuries, and it is happening now. But we do not have to believe these voices. Angela Merkel has got it right to see the absorption of refugees as a humanitarian duty. Indeed, I believe America should also welcome refugees from war-torn areas -- many more than even President Obama has suggested. We may not have the same case for welcoming Syrians and Afghanis as Ben-Gurion's for welcoming Mizrahi Jews. But we have a compelling case nonetheless, and we can do just as well, indeed better, than Israel.