Nations on the Move, Now and Then

by NORMAN SIMMS February 27, 2016

Time and again as the refugee crisis in Europe continues to threaten the stability of the European Union and the cultural integrity of the member nations, we are told that this is the population movement across the Continent since the end of World War Two.  While such statements help to some degree to put the picture of the crisis into context, there are several other factors needing to be placed before the eyes of the public, so that we can all prepare ourselves to take decisive action.  It is not a matter simply of sentimental responses to emotionally vivid (or as they say "graphic") images of distressed families, drowned children, and frustrated young men piling up at various barbed-wire borders.

To be compassionate, we must be just, and to be just we must be truthful to ourselves and about the situation, and not distort by virtue of subjective and biased reports.  The long crowds trudging along the highways of Eastern Europe, having crossed from Turkey into Greece, are one thing.  The millions of families stuck in camps inside Syria and in the surrounding countries are another.  They are not the same as hundreds of young men camped in the so-called "jungle" in Calais trying to smuggle themselves into the United Kingdom and disrupting rail traffic and shipping across the Channel.  There thousands from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa with their own personal histories and ideologies still another.  Not all of them are fleeing war and persecution, and therefore not all of them are refugees, but many are would-be immigrants who by disguising their real identities and motives become illegal migrants.  What the media allows us to see and hear does not always equal the truth.

How do we disentangle this mass of diverse peoples seeking asylum? How do we act in accord with our consciences and remain true to the laws, customs and principles of a Judeo-Christian civilization in Europe?  How do we avoid the humanitarian crisis about to explode and yet avoid committing cultural suicide?

To begin with, the nature of the refugee crisis in 1945 needs to be outlined with maps, numbers and discussion of consequences.  The long war between 1939 and 1945 (as well as the population shifts before and after World War One, the Spanish Civil War, and other smaller conflicts of the interwar years) involved millions of displaced persons voluntarily or forcibly seeking to escape and find new homes somewhere in war-ravaged Europe, which means that the current crisis of hundreds of thousands Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and other large groups of illegal migrants seeking entry into Western Europe is on a different scale, and the causes of their wish to skip through Turkey, Greece or other Eastern European states in search, not so much safety from civil wars, political collapse and religious persecution, as economic benefits belong to another category altogether.  Moreover, the vast numbers of non-Europeans and non-Christians seeking entry into Europe raises questions of how far nation-states, many created out of the breakdown of the Soviet Union and others not yet recovered from the economic woes of the early decades of the twenty-first century, can be integrated.  The difference between the people in actual need of immediate aid and protection and those who for a range of other reasons (and these would constitute not the families with young children and aged relatives, but the young men of military age, many with a criminal past) are seeking to establish themselves in an environment they are ill-prepared to participate in and often hostile to its primary moral and social values.

Perhaps more apt analogies and predisposing historical precedents for today's crisis can be found in the last quarter of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries in the Balkans and the Levant. Then a combination of a territorially aggressive Czarist Empire, the retreating Ottoman Empire (the Sick Man of Europe) and a new series of ambitious nationalisms in Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia led to massive ethnic cleansing, population exchanges and panicked flight by dispossessed and conquered peoples, resulting in hundreds of thousands killed (the most egregious example being the first genocide of the new century against the Armenians), made homeless and stateless and thus wandering from place to palace.  Various Western powers attempted to stem the flow, provide food and shelter and protection for the refugees and stabilize borders.  There were benefit concerts, charitable bazaars and other activities organized to raise funds for the victims. 

It should be noted that often enough the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and forced evacuations were the Christian nationalists-Greeks, Bulgarians, Russians-and not only the various Muslim states and break-away provinces of the Ottoman Empire.  This is important because many theories on current terrorism presume an essentialist quality in Islam itself, rather than in relatively modern radical factions.  At the same time, some of the predisposing causes of rage and mass-murder lie in social factors that cross religious boundaries, such as repression of female rights, absentee fathers and honour-based codes of conduct.  In addition, strategies to cope with large numbers of refugees and migrants by cities and single nations, as well as by ad hoc international agencies and later the League of Nations often were able to provide emergency housing, distribute basic supplies and provide various counselling services; when these arrangements failed it was due, more often than not, to external circumstances, such as wars, further political divisions and re-arrangements of territory, and even natural events, such as flood, fire and famine.  Therefore, it might pay for our contemporary leaders to study action undertaken in cities like Salonika and Izmir in the early 1900s. 

These older traumatic events are still felt in throughout the region, certainly exacerbated in the wake of World War Two and further disruptions in the Cold War and its aftermath in the breakdown of the Soviet Empire, and may help to explain current attitudes.  Trying to see the documentary images shown on television with no historical context can only leave the public puzzled by what seem like heartless attempts to seal national frontiers, unwillingness to accept large numbers of what are most likely economic migrants disguised as refugees, and ideological confrontations along older cultural, religious and imperial divides throughout Central and Eastern Europe...

So should be going out of our way to help refugees resettle, re-establish their lives and make real contributions to their host society?  Of course, we should.  But refugees are not people who are feeling uncomfortable where they are and inconvenienced by political events; they are men and women, children and the elderly whose lives are in imminent danger, that is, they are being persecuted, arrested for being who they are, and have nowhere else to go.  They are not ordinary criminals-burglars, rapists, murderers-or disgruntled husbands or wives trying to get away from spouses they no longer love or like.  They are not failed businessmen, lazy and failed students, lonely young men looking for "easy meat" among western women whom they fantasize about based on semi-pornographic Hollywood films or inane television comedies. 

When you are a real refugee you take the first opportunity to save your life, and you don't whine and whinge about wanting to be close to your better-off relatives or complain about the weather or the absence of complete welfare systems to service your every whim and caprice.  When you are a real refugee, you don't immediately set about causing mayhem and disorder, and you don't demand that your new host country bow to your every political, religious or psychological propensity.

Real refugees need proper food, shelter, health-care and instruction in a new language, culture and criminal code.  They need some time to adjust, to be sure, but not open slather on all rights, privileges and perks. 

My relatives were refugees; they escaped from programs in Eastern Europe, where many died in pogroms, were excluded from education, and had no legal futures at all.  They were glad to get out and come to America or Canada or Australia, and against many inconveniences and discomforts, they worked hard, accepting jobs they found demeaning and degrading, but they took them so their children and their gran children could have a future; and they were profoundly grateful, even if often nostalgic for the Old Country at its best, because they knew that was a fantasy.  Our task is to try to balance real needs against fantasies based on either hate and compassion.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as amazon.com and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    


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