A Clash of Western Civilizations

PARIS – Images from the refugee crisis in Europe have juxtaposed smiling crowds in Vienna and Munich with grim, unwelcoming faces in Budapest. The result has been a surge of commentary about the “two Europes” – one welcoming, one forbidding. The truth is that disagreements over whether countries should take in refugees are hardly unique to Europe. The contrast on display is symptomatic of a deep rift within the Western world.

The divide cuts across the United States, the European Union, and Israel – and, equally important, across Jewish and Christian communities. On one side are politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, US President Barack Obama, former Israeli Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, and religious figures like Pope Francis. On the other are Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, US Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the Cardinal of Hungary, Péter Erdő, and legions of other Eastern European clergy.

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Each of the camps shares a fundamental outlook on the role refugees play in society. The first group consists of those who consider democratic values to be more important than ethnic or national identities. In their view, anyone who abides by a country’s laws can become a full-fledged citizen and contribute to the vitality of his or her adopted country.

According to this view, inclusion of “the other” – people from different countries and cultures – does not destroy national identity; it enriches it with new ideas and behaviors. Proponents of such cross-fertilization point to outsiders or their descendants who have attained high positions in their adopted countries: a Latino member of the US Supreme Court, German constitutional lawyers of Turkish origin, French prefects whose parents and grandparents arrived from North Africa, British lords and baronesses with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, and Italian writers of Indian descent.

Accordingly, advocates of this worldview regard fences and walls as insults to humanity, proof that those who build and maintain them have no trust in their countries’ vibrancy and strength. Above all, they adhere to a universal discourse based on international law and ethical, moral, and religious principles.

Christians and Jews in this camp stress that welcoming strangers and people in need lies at the very heart of their respective faiths. Taking in the needy is an ethical imperative, not a politically conditioned choice. Despite the fact that most refugees come from Arab lands known for their anti-Semitism and anti-Israel stance, Jewish intellectuals in this camp have been unanimous in welcoming them with open arms. Meanwhile, Pope Francis has been clear that Christian values include caring for refugees.

On the other side of the divide are those who fear the other as a threat to national identity. Their gut-level response is to build fences and walls, as long and as tall as possible, whether on the border between Mexico and the US, on Israel’s border with Egypt, or on Hungary’s border with Serbia (or even with fellow EU member Croatia). It is no coincidence that Hungarian and Bulgarian policymakers have turned to Israeli companies to seek technical advice on how to build their fences.

Members of this camp do not believe that dynamic civil societies can integrate people of different origins within open democratic settings, or that their countries can benefit from welcoming them. The risk of a few bad apples (Mexican drug dealers, Islamic terrorists, economic migrants, or those wishing to cash in on welfare systems) outweighs any benefits that the vast majority of young and determined newcomers could bring.

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Nor does this camp believe in international conventions on the rights of asylum-seekers or the duty of signatory countries to take them in. Any appeal to human rights is derided as dangerous naiveté, as are references to moral or religious imperatives. Instead, the emphasis is on protecting the “nation” against foreign viruses. These views are promoted not only by politicians, but also by leading religious authorities, including the evangelical right in the US, Catholic prelates in Eastern Europe, and Israel’s nationalist rabbis.

This clash of Western civilizations could not be more important. Those who shut doors and build walls do not belong to the same family as those who welcome the needy in the name of higher values. The foundational principles of our democratic traditions are at stake – principles that are being weakened by the clash itself.