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Oliver Hartwich: How Europe’s ‘culture of welcome’ backfired

Publish Date
Wed, 18 Oct 2023, 5:00am

Oliver Hartwich: How Europe’s ‘culture of welcome’ backfired

Publish Date
Wed, 18 Oct 2023, 5:00am

Hamas’ attacks on Israel have repercussions that extend beyond the Middle East. These events have also magnified the social and political consequences of large-scale migration from Muslim nations to Europe. 

Images of anti-Israel protests in European countries and the US, Canada, and Australia predominantly feature radical groups of young men. These rallies go beyond mere opposition to what is perceived as “Israeli occupation” of Palestinian land.  

The messages displayed in cities like Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin were overtly antisemitic, targeting Jews universally rather than focusing on territorial disputes. Disturbingly, there was even support for violence against civilians, including children. 

This antisemitism is not confined to rallies alone. It showed in vox-pops interviews following Hamas’ attacks.  

For example, when asked about the attacks, a young woman wearing a headscarf told German television in broken German: “That is good. That is very good. I am happy they made it happen. Very good. We celebrated this at home.” 

Antisemitism, although never entirely eradicated from Europe after the Holocaust, was largely restricted to fringe groups on the far right. However, in recent years, a new form of antisemitism has surfaced. It gained its momentum from both recent immigrants and left-wing activists, creating a toxic combination. 

In 2015, Europe temporarily opened its borders to many refugees and migrants, mainly from the Middle East and Northern Africa. They were admitted without stringent checks or a formal process.  

In Germany, this approach was even hailed as a new “culture of welcome,” epitomised by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phrase “We can do it.” 

While the sentiment at the time was optimistic, it was one I did not share – even though I am generally in favour of open borders and am a migrant myself.  

The challenges back then were not just logistical, like providing housing, language classes, and social services (and paying for it all).  

A more profound issue was integrating the newcomers into modern, secular, democratic, and pluralistic European societies—environments that starkly contrasted with the conditions these migrants were fleeing. 

Historically, Europeans across the democratic spectrum held certain values as given. These included freedom of religion, women’s rights, acceptance of different sexual orientations – and also support for Israel’s right to exist. However, at least some migrants who arrived post-2015 did not share these principles. 

Certainly, it is important not to make sweeping generalisations. Among those migrants who arrived in 2015, some have successfully integrated into their new societies. There are inspiring stories, such as students who knew no German upon arrival and are now excelling academically, even preparing to study medicine. These success stories exist and should be celebrated. 

However, there are other stories making the news, too. Refugees are well over-represented in crime statistics given their share of the total population. That said, this is at least partly explained by their demographic characteristics (since young men generally tend to be more criminal than other parts of the population).  

It is clear, though, that there are significant problems with the integration of some refugees into society. An alarming example was the New Year’s Eve incident in 2015/16 in Cologne, where hundreds of young men of Middle Eastern and North African descent sexually harassed partygoers. Such incidents showed that core values like respect for women were not as uniformly held among the large migrant group as one would wish. 

There was hope that, at least as time progressed, Europe’s migrants would assimilate into European cultures. Yet, the unsettling events following Hamas’ attacks serve as a harsh reality check. In practice, large segments have developed parallel societies. 

Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, just published an opinion piece stating that “hatred of Jews is mainstream among youth and young adults in some Arab milieus.”  

Images of large crowds of Arab men rejoicing over the loss of Israeli lives confirm Schuster’s words. The fact that European Jewish institutions like kindergartens and football clubs have halted their activities due to safety concerns underscores the severity of the situation. 

What is particularly disconcerting is the indifference some sectors of European society exhibited toward this emerging antisemitism. People who are usually quick to decry ‘microaggressions’ or apologise for historical injustices now find excuses for even the most heinous acts against Jews. 

Yanis Varoufakis, the former left-wing Greek finance minister, is a case in point. In a recent interview, he stated that “those who try very hard to extract from people like me a condemnation of the attack by the Hamas guerillas will never get it.” He then sought to rationalise Hamas’ actions based on Israel’s past conduct. 

It is a dangerous blend when activists like Varoufakis lend support to some Middle Eastern migrants with their radical and anti-liberal perspectives. 

Europe displayed a ‘culture of welcome’ when it opened its borders to refugees from regions like Syria.  

However, it is now evident that this should have been counterbalanced by a ‘culture of non-welcome.’ A culture that would have made it clear to newcomers that in a liberal, democratic and secular society, there are some non-negotiables of living together. Some attitudes, beliefs and behaviours should never be welcome in modern, democratic societies. 

That said, it is not enough to demand respect for such non-negotiables from migrants. It is also something that Europe’s mainstream society must practice itself. That means, for example, asserting its values against foreign-funded extremist organisations or outlawing Hamas on European soil. Surprisingly it has not happened yet. 

As Israel fights for its existence, European governments have pledged their support. But apart from supporting Israel directly, that support must include fighting the new antisemitism that has built up on the fringes of Europe’s society. 

Crucially, Europe must learn that opening the doors to large numbers of refugees without adequately ensuring they are integrated into mainstream society is a recipe for social unrest and political extremism. It is a lesson that Europe is learning the hard way. 

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative (www.nzinitiative.org.nz). 

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