On February 12, 2017, the New York Times carried a story from Winnipeg, Manitoba, titled “Losing Hope in the US: Refugees Making Icy Trips to Canada.” The first few weeks of the Trump Administration managed to alarm people all over the world, but nothing more so than the spectacle of incompetence, brutality, and paranoid logic provided by the executive order on immigration. In sharp contrast there is the well-deserved Canadian reputation of generosity toward both legal and illegal immigrants. There is a long tradition of Canadians feeling morally superior to the big neighbor south of the border. The national identity of Canada is indeed based on a negative—the only part of British North America that did not join the United States. Especially intellectuals in places like Winnipeg spend time worrying about the values that make up their peculiar identity. There is supposed to be a large waiting room encountered upon arrival in heaven. There are two signs: “Exit to heaven.” And “Exit to seminar about Canadian national identity.” All the Canadians go to the seminar. They may start by singing “O Canada,” their national anthem.
I’m not sure what other countries could learn from the Canadian example in the handling of immigrants. The Canadian welfare state is more generous than the American one, but it has been very active in organizing and supporting volunteers to supplement state services. Canadian families “adopt” immigrant ones, helping with everything the latter need—language teaching, housing, employment for adults, schools for children. Revulsion at Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during his campaign and the prompt initiation of anti-immigrant actions as soon as he controlled the levers of power should not lead us to exaggerate its difference from the Obama Administration. The mass deportation of illegal immigrants reached new heights under Barack Obama, though his rhetoric was less abrasive. In both Canada and the United States the role of religious institutions—churches, synagogues, mosques—was exemplary in mobilizing civil society to augment government services. In the matter of immigration Canada resembles the Scandinavian countries. (Could it be that cold weather enhances humane impulses? Unfortunately, Russia hardly supports this hypothesis.)
If there is one institution that deserves a gold medal for heroic services to immigrants, it is the Italian navy and coast guard, which day in and day out combs the Mediterranean for the unseaworthy little boats and rafts in which unscrupulous smugglers have overloaded migrants in Libya and ferried them across to Italy. If there is one individual deserving the title of Mother of Refugees, it is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. As huge numbers of refugees were fleeing the horrors of terror and war in the Middle East and moving north through mostly unwelcoming countries in the Balkans, Merkel suddenly opened the borders of Germany. In 2015 over a million refugees came to Germany. When asked how the country could manage that huge an influx in so short a time, Merkel gave a lapidary answer: “Wir schaffen das”/ ”We will manage this.” Well, they did, at least for a while. But she paid, is still paying, an enormous political price for doing it. Why did she? She made her political career by always acting prudently, without great dramatic moves. Suddenly, one might say recklessly, she did this and put her political existence at risk. Why? The only reason I can think of is—simple compassion. I can venture to describe the scene that triggered her action—I saw it on television. Merkel was visiting a refugee camp. She was talking with a girl, about ten years old, who came from somewhere in the Middle East, had been in a German school, evidently spoke German quite well. The refugee status of her family was in question and they were threatened with deportation. She sobbed, saying to the chancellor: “I am at home here. All my friends are here. Please let us stay in Germany.” Merkel was clearly moved, didn’t know what to say. She just rubbed the girl’s back.
But the masses kept moving toward Germany, which suddenly became the promised land. The refugees held up signs that said “Deutschland, Deutschland!” /“Germany, Germany!” Only a few years ago, who could have imagined such signs! The spontaneously formed “welcome culture” did not disappear, but still exists, with signs reading “Welcome Refugees” at all the big railway stations. But this type of reception has been getting weaker. Instead populist, anti-immigrant parties have been growing all over Europe, including Germany. There will be federal elections in the fall and Merkel will be the main candidate for her conservative party. She might lose.
Merkel grew up in ex-Communist East Germany, a daughter of a Lutheran pastor. German politicians don’t usually mention their religion. Some time ago, just before the onset of the immigrant crisis, Merkel mentioned in passing that she always prays before important decisions. Religion matters—on both sides of the global mass migration. On the migrants’ side, the hope of a safer and less impoverished life has messianic undertones. Hope for a New Zion has moved masses of people who, in the words of the historian Harold Lamb (author of The Crusades, 1931) “will always seek that Jerusalem which lies forever beyond all the seas of this world.” On the receiving end of this migration there are two contradictory responses, both with religious themes. There is the “welcome culture,” legitimated in Judeo-Christian terms by the God who commands Jews to take care of the stranger, remembering that they too were strangers in Egypt—and/or legitimated by Jesus who tells his followers that, if they take in the stranger, they will be taking in Jesus. But what is utopia to some, is dystopia to others: The natives are threatened in their sense of being at home by all these people pouring in with different beliefs and values. Then the utopia is in the past, the lost golden age to which one would like to return. We are learning again how ugly this can become—“go back where you came from”—or even better, “we’ll build a wall to keep you out.”
The current migration has become a global phenomenon. It has no single cause. There are economic causes—globalization has produced winners and losers, both within and among societies. Both groups can be politically mobilized, sometimes with ideas that reflect social reality, sometimes by fantasies. There are demographic causes: The winners have fewer children; the poor have many (often their fertility is supported by religious values). The paradox is that classes and countries with a majority of winners face a stark alternative: Either their women will have more children, or they will be dependent on massive immigration by people who already have many children. It is rational, I think, for rich countries (O Canada) to encourage immigration. Political mobilization for rational policies is usually more difficult than mobilization in the service of violent emotions. Then there are cultural factors: The Austrian Jewish writer Friedrich Torberg has proposed that “one feels at home where one was as a child.” The wish to preserve the culture one knew as a child, at least in some of its features, is not necessarily accompanied by racial, ethnic, or religious hatred. (Torberg, 1908-1979, curiously exemplifies what he proposed: Driven out by the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938, he lived in America until he returned to Vienna after World War II to play an important role on the literary scene there. Incidentally, the sentence I quoted is from a novel about Suesskind von Trimberg, a Jewish medieval troubadour, who really lived and who wrote in Middle German.)
If one looks at the number of causal factors that helped produce the current global phenomenon of mass migration from poor to rich countries, one might say that it could have been predicted. Or more dramatically: If the phenomenon did not exist, it should have been invented. Well, it was. It 1973 the French writer Jean Raspail published a novel titled The Camp of the Saints; an English translation came out in 1975. The novel begins with a charismatic prophet in India proclaiming that the poor in what was then called the Third World had a divine right to the wealth of the rich countries. He called on the poor masses to invade the rich countries, to defeat them by sheer numbers, and appropriate the wealth which rightly belongs to the poor (the “saints”). Enormous masses of people responded to the call by any available means of transportation. It was implied that all rich countries were targeted, but the action of the novel was focused on Europe and more specifically on the Mediterranean coast of France. Although the prophet (a Hindu holy man?) invoked divine authority for his call, the religious content of his message was left quite vague. Islam was not a factor. The French navy made some half-hearted attempts to stop the invasion. The effort was abandoned when it became clear that it would require firing on the ships and killing large numbers of the unarmed “saints.” The military pushed back from the coast and the entire population was evacuated from the region. The new arrivals came by the millions and began the trek toward Paris. On the day on which the landing began all normal radio programs were cancelled. Nothing was put on the air except music by Mozart. It was the last cry of a dying civilization.
The novel attracted great attention and sold well. Some critics responded favorably, others quite the contrary. Jean Anouilh, a playwright not identified with the Left, described the novel as “a book of irresistible force and calm logic.” Linda Chavez, an American civil rights activist, called it “a sickening book—racist, xenophobic and paranoid.” For a long time the novel slipped from public attention. It was republished in 2011 and soon became a bestseller again. Perhaps the ships approaching the coasts of Europe were becoming visible on the horizon, if not yet on the radar screens of European navies.