Is there a useful analogy to make between the streams of Syrian refugees and the Biblical Israelites? After all, analogy is the weakest form of proof. It only means that this seems to be like that and it can be mistaken, the comparison far-fetched.
At first judgment, nothing seems to justify comparing the two. Syrians now streaming into Europe are leaving their own country, a land where their roots as a civilization go back 3000 years to the first Assyrian Empire. Syrians have always had a country whereas the Israelites, later known as the Jews, did not until the creation of Israel in 1948. Old Testament Israelites, led by Moses, escaped from Ancient Egypt, where they were new arrivals, a tiny foreign people that had been enslaved by the pharaohs.
Nevertheless, something is right in comparing today’s Syrians and Biblical Israelites. That something is the concept of Exodus; an enduring theme in the history of human civilization. Syrians heading toward Europe today are certainly an exodus, small cap e. But this is something more. Syria today represents the world’s greatest humanitarian tragedy. It pales before what happened to the Jewish people in the Holocaust but the Syrians fleeing their own country and their refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere, constitute contemporary Exodus in the Biblical sense. Resettling them is more than a European Union policy problem of how to divide them among various member countries as a problem of burden-sharing.
Thinking of the situation against the story in the Bible inspires a sense of common humanity about the Middle Eastern morass rather than seeing it as just a war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad regime, Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other marauding bands of thugs as reported in the media. This is a story that could be recorded in some future great book, written not by God but by historians. Syrian Exodus (leaving aside the thousands of opportunistic, carpe diem refugees with other origins and reasons) is an escape from hell. If empathy prevails and analogy is admitted, Syria’s suffering could influence the very course of Middle Eastern history. Centuries-old antagonisms between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and Islamic State’s murderous intention to pulverize stones, monuments and people in an attempt to destroy everyone else in a Sunni Muslim conquest, will be seen for what it is: a dishonoring of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a world community of believers. Perhaps even attitudes toward the Jews and Israel will be gradually affected as Arab Muslim grudges against them get set against the background of what they have been doing to themselves.
For the Syrians—even for those who still remain—their own country has become “Egypt.” Dealing with their situation is not a matter of foreign and domestic policies. It’s an international reckoning with historic collapse at the center of the Arab Muslim world. The consequences are geopolitical, geo-social, geo-emotional.
Syrians in Europe will be a new fact on the ground in Europe as well.
For many months shunned by European governments, their appeal for asylum is suddenly being accepted as a humanitarian and moral duty impossible to ignore. Syrians will become small but perhaps significant minorities in a few European countries, first of all Germany. Pope Francis, who has stepped out from papal reserve in so many ways, implores Europe’s Catholics to welcome the migrants. National European governments and European Union officials are no longer deadlocked because they must deal with what they can no longer avoid.
The issue of German Redemption
Then there is the significance of German leadership in accepting the Syrian asylum seekers into the European Union. For Germany in particular, government and civil society’s welcoming Syrian refugees continues its quest for redemption of the unspeakable crimes of their grandparents and great-grandparents. The German people’s attempt at redemption is a secular cause at a Biblical scale because the Holocaust was a crime against not only humanity but against human civilization itself. For religious believers, it was a crime against God. In some sense “Germany” may never redeem its crimes but “Germany” is not today’s German people, difficult as that may be for some people to accept.
Germans for decades shied away from international political leadership. Its leaders made of Germany’s economic success and generosity in financing European integration (plus its unyielding political support of Israel) the basis of its international influence. During these decades Germany’s foreign economic generosity was its foreign policy. With the French, Germany organized the complexities of European Union internal contradictions into a vision of Europe’s renewal, the possibilities of resurrection. German money underwrote France’s political leadership. The two countries produced leaders of vision on the scale of History: Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle; Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand. Today no other country’s political and business elites, not even those in France, are thinking as deeply as Germany’s about how to move European integration forward in a strategy that combines national interests and Europe’s necessities. Germany’s partner countries want more rather than less German leadership, an astonishing international recognition of redemption. Germany’s willingness to accept large numbers of refugees is only the most recent act of this attempt to prove that the “German problem” is history.
Accepting large numbers of refugees is also good for Germany itself. Along with Europe’s other demographically-withered countries, Germany, whose birth rate is among the lowest in the world, needs significant immigration to finance its future while doubters and racism have rendered it thus far impossible. From the point of view of German interests Syrians (and many opportunist refugees) are an educated population, willing, indeed desperate, for jobs and acceptance. Ties to the Syrian homeland will remain strong but gratitude to Germany will be real. America’s experience, despite current electoral posturing, shows that immigration is a boon to national vibrancy. Why not for Germany and Europe as well? Furthermore, a significant Syrian minority population will increase social pluralism, among other things diluting domestic focus on Germany’s Turkish minority.
A few hundred thousand or even a few million new immigrants won’t solve Germany’s or Europe’s demographic problems. But the irrepressible urgency of the current refugee crisis is accomplishing what politics failed to do — lancing a boil, unlocking a self-defeating national stalemate. In contrast, Germany’s reception of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing former Yugoslavia’s wars in the 1990s was not an economic necessity because the demographic deficit was not so evident then. Taking in Croats, Serbs, Bosnia’s Albanian Muslims was a political act of redemption and, for Germans themselves an act of national catharsis. Yet strong internal opposition to immigrants did not abate.
Accepting Syrians inevitably increases the need for German leadership in Europe’s response. Germany’s government led by the indomitable Mrs. Merkel, is stepping up to the task successfully. (It will accept at least 800,000 asylum seekers in the coming year, far more than any other EU country and probably not the end of what Germany will do). The trouble with German Redemption, however, is that dealing with a problem may not solve it but increase demand for the solution, which has happening over the past weeks. I often wondered during years of teaching European politics how long the German Problem would endure, at least in people’s minds. When would Redemption be complete? I don’t know the answer but at a certain distance from the event, people realize that history makes such questions irrelevant.