Voice from Israel: Watching the Refugee Crisis in Germany

Iseael is watching the developements of the refugee crisis in Germany with mixed feelings. Some concern the past, some concern the future. But Israelis also ask which stance they should take.

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Just like the rest of the world, Israelis watch the heartbreaking scenes of a body of a baby-refugee washed ashore in Turkey and the tragic pictures of refugees running for their lives. Just like the rest of the world, but with a double twist. Part of this ongoing drama is taking place in Syria, just around the corner on the northern border of Israel, now ruled by ISIS, Al-Qaida and other terrorist organisations. For Israelis the war there is tangible. It has a sound and a smell, and occasionally bullets fall the wrong way into northern Israel.

But more so, the pictures on television of terrified masses clinging to each other, climbing into trains going into unknown directions, begging for water and shelter from rain and cold, seem way too familiar. The trigger for the stream of associations may differ, but it boils down to one collective memory: the Holocaust. For Danny Gutwein, a prominent professor of History from Haifa University, the main trigger is the female headscarf. The Arab women, scarves wrapped around their heads remind him of the Jewish mothers and grandmothers, their heads covered in similar headscarves, of other religion, in way too familiar situations.

Yet from this stream of associations stems one major striking difference: Germany. Then the name of the perpetrator in the biggest catastrophe in the history of humankind, today the name associated with the savior. The masses now yearning to get into Germany, their new promised land, stand in acute contrast to the memory of the Jewish – and other minorities – fleeing the evil empire of the Second World War. To some extent, the same sentiment applies to Austria as well, the birthplace of Hitler, now a safe haven for other refugees. There is a pang of pain when Chancellor Angela Merkel surprisingly announces that Germany’s borders are open to all refugees; there is some envy attached to the pictures portraying kind Austrians welcoming refugees and their children with a smile and candy. These scenes and statements are widely reported in Israel. Most Israelis react with respect. Yet, at the same time, most of them ask themselves deep down: “Where were you 75 years ago?”

Yet this instinctively human reaction is not the only level on which Israelis experience this twist in the story. Here are two other, not less important responses. One remains on the moral level: if Germany can, what should Israel, the nation of refugees, do under those circumstances? Small groups of Israelis are actively involved in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees; officially Israel has already brought more than 1000 severely wounded Syrians to hospitals in the North of the country. MP Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition, suggested Israel gives shelter to a limited number of Syrian refugees. PM Benjamin Netanyahu responded swiftly, saying: “Israel is too small and doesn’t have the demographic and geographic depth to host refugees”. Another minister of the Israeli cabinet bluntly suggested: “Let Herzog host some refugees in his own home”. Herzog shot back by stating: “They (Netanyahu and others), forgot what being a Jew means”. In all this exchange, the words ‘Germany’ and ‘Holocaust’ were not mentioned; still, they were very much present there.

The other level were those two chapters in history coincide is the gloom vision of the future. Most Israelis believe that the initial kindness of heart and warm welcome will soon transform into harsh realpolitik. Fear will trump human kindness; the promise will turn into a threat. Some of it is already happening. The sons and daughters of Jewish refugees on shaky boats forced to turn back just few decades ago just have more acute senses. It certainly does not make them better. „The expectation of different feelings or actions based on Jewish history has no basis in human behavior”, told prof. Gutwein in an interview to I24NEWS; „People, by nature, do not accumulate historic consciousness”.

He is right. The lesson derived from the Jewish experience now leads Israelis in two different directions: one, saying “We as a nation of refugees cannot remain indifferent to another human tragedy of refugees”; the other stating just the contrary: “We as refugees and survivors have to protect ourselves because no one else will”. So with Germany now as a moral compass, Israelis move into two opposite directions. Not better, just more experienced.

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