Paris, America and refugees

Amid the cacophony of alarm bells and pontifications following the Paris massacre, let us pause to think about our own thinking. Horror has a way of stopping us in our tracks, as it should, and of revealing subtle habits of the mind. People watch scary movies to experience a thrill without suffering the consequences, to test one’s internal response to a pressure detached from the external parts of one’s life. The conscious spectator, however, interprets not only what they are watching; they interpret their interpretation as they are interpreting. And so it should always go — whether through watching or listening or experiencing — for any thinking being.

There is a disturbing trend that often follows the trauma of terrorism. It is what literary theorists call a ‘synecdoche,’ of taking the part for the whole (or, more rarely, the whole for the part). It is a pattern that has developed without ambiguity. For Americans, it was seen after September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda militants killed nearly 3,000 Americans; for Israelis, it was seen during the mid-1990s, after Baruch Goldstein, an Orthodox Jew, killed 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounded 125 praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and after Yigal Amir, also Orthodox, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In America, incidents and sentiments of Islamaphobia became commonplace, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented; in Israel, a new level of vitriol was directed at the Orthodox community, as Dan Ephron reported in his new book, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel:

A skullcap identified a person with the camp that included the murderer, even if he found the assassination abhorrent. Yedidia Stern, who served as the dean of the law school at Bar-Ilan and was horrified to learn … that the shooter was one of his students, felt the antagonism almost instantly. Raised in an Orthodox home, Stern had cultivated a kind of moderate observance that eschewed political or religious extremism. Yet on the stairs outside his home the next morning, a secular neighbor scolded him: ‘What did your people do to us?’”

These episodes of violence often trigger expressions of xenophobia, which in some of their expressers were already percolating. And it’s not just within populations. Since the November 13 Paris attacks, 26 governors in the United States, all Republicans, have said they won’t accept Syrian refugees. New Jersey Governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie emphasized this point by saying he would not allow a “three-year-old orphan” into his state.

So it was helpful when Ishaan Tharoor wrote in The Washington Post about the Twitter account @HistoricalOpinion, recalling American public opinion in July 1938 (pre-Kristallnacht) regarding political refugees — mostly Jews — fleeing fascism and persecution in Europe. At that point, 67 percent agreed that “we should try to keep them out.” By January 1939 (post-Kristallnacht), attitudes remained relatively stagnant, as 61 percent of respondents opposed welcoming 10,000 refugee children from Germany.

Such a linkage should be an important consideration for the 53 percent of Americans who, in the days following the deadly Paris attacks, have indicated they oppose Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States. As the 20th century Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau and Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe have instructed us, there is a profound usefulness in setting up “chains of equivalence” to change social prejudices and stereotypes — finding similarities between a group that is the object of prejudice and a group that is the object of endearment.

Though that is a job for the morally and politically imaginative, especially as terror succeeds in leading leaders into their own moral and political darkness. Presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have each intimated their belief that the US should allow only Syrian refugees who can prove they’re Christian. “There’s no credible threat that Christians fleeing Middle East violence are likely to carry out acts of terrorism,” Cruz told ABC. As if religious identity is what gains us access into the desires of a person’s heart. Just as there was no way to detect which European Jews might be communists, there’s no way to detect which Syrian Muslims might be terrorists. Cruz, a Christian himself, has taken epistemological solipsism to the level of the communal: only those like us are knowable.

Meanwhile, those like us has become a persistent theme. Social media has been replete with reminders of recent massacres of a similar scale — in Pakistan, Kenya and Lebanon — that have garnered considerably less attention than Paris. Is it really much of a surprise that when this kind of carnage hits the Western World, the West takes more notice?

But as Leon Wieseltier points out, there is no single West. There is the European West and the American West. The distinction is telling, and provides a needed historical context for this notably historical moment. In a conversation with Arsalan Iftikhar at this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Wieseltier explained:

In [Europe], there developed, in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, this idea of the nation-state. And the basic model was that every nation should be incarnated in a state and that every state should be embodied in a nation. And the political boundaries and the cultural boundaries would coincide. And, of course, they never do. So you had this problem that was known as ‘the problem of minorities.’ But in Europe, there was never any natural notion or understanding of multi-ethnicity … In the American West, even though it wasn’t always the case, now and in recent decades, multi-ethnicity is a natural social reality. It is normative. “

After all, it was Clermont-Tonnerre, the 16th Century French aristocrat and politician, who insisted the “existence of a nation within a nation is unacceptable to our country.” America, however, has always been a “composite nation,” where everyone comes from someplace else, where everyone has a hyphen.

Yet France, which just suffered this horror and carries its own burdens of history (the European hostility to the Other), has responded to Syria’s humanitarian crisis in a way that should embarrass the American conscience. French President Francois Hollande declared France will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees. The announcement, made at a gathering of mayors of French cities, was met with a standing ovation.

Yet America, as of this writing, intends to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, maintaining its commitment from September.

The disparity between the French and American governments reflects more than a historical irony (the US certainly has its own history of struggling with Otherness), it is a different response to fear.

“Islam is the second religion of France,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after the January shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, attacks carried out by Muslim assailants (its first religion is secularism, imposed by its ideal of laïcité). Valls understands that France being inhospitable to one group of people is as consequential for France as it is for the group. As record numbers of French Jews have emigrated in recent years amidst a resurgence of anti-Semitism, he has said firmly, “France without Jews is not France.”

The opposition to letting Syrians into the United States reflects a kind of myopic logic. Yes, there are legitimate concerns over Islamic State militants seeking entry into the US under the guise of being a refugee. Yes, a rigorous vetting process must be required. But allowing the Islamic State to infect our image of Syrian refugees is allowing them to distort the conditions of our perception.

And it is letting history repeat itself. We know the fate of those who were on the MS St. Louis, a German passenger ship filled with 937 Jewish refugees that was denied entry into the United States, along with Cuba and Canada, in 1939.

More than 200,000 thousand Syrians have been killed since 2011. How much longer will the architects of American foreign policy cling to a gospel of “realism” to justify its anti-interventionism? Who knows? That is another question. But as American discourse remains gripped in its deliberations over how to treat refugees, there should be a self-reflection, a way of thinking about our own thinking, that is a requisite for self-correction. Until then, few people will come to recognize that America without refugees is not America.

About the Author
Eric Cortellessa is The Times of Israel's Washington correspondent, where he covers American politics and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His writings have also appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, Newsweek, The Huffington Post and The Buffalo News.
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