Politics & Policy

Arguing Over Fictional Immigrants

Refugees and migrants block a highway as they protest demanding the opening of the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Polikastro, Greece, March 24, 2016. (Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters)
Can we talk about real people, instead of idealized symbols or sinister bogeymen?

On Friday the New York Times published a deeply disturbing story about the rise of anti-Semitism in France. It began like this:

The solemn boulevards and quiet side streets of the 17th Arrondissement in Paris suggest Jewish life in France is vibrant: There is a new profusion of kosher groceries and restaurants, and about 15 synagogues, up from only a handful two decades ago.

But for residents like Joanna Galilli, this area in northwestern Paris represents a tactical retreat. It has become a haven for many Jews who say they have faced harassment in areas with growing Muslim populations. Ms. Galilli, 28, moved to the neighborhood this year from a Parisian suburb where “anti-Semitism is pretty high,” she said, “and you feel it enormously.”

“They spit when I walked in the street,” she said, describing reactions when she wore a Star of David.

And why would French Jews need a haven? It’s because of shocking statistics like this:

Nearly 40 percent of violent acts classified as racially or religiously motivated were committed against Jews in 2017, though Jews make up less than 1 percent of France’s population. Anti-Semitic acts increased by 20 percent from 2016, a rise the Interior Ministry called “preoccupying.”

None of this is news to readers of National Review. Back in 2015, our own Charlie Cooke traveled to France and observed the stunning level of security at synagogues and Jewish schools. For example, he saw this at Sarcelles, a town just outside of Paris:

In the center of Sarcelles, we come across one of the town’s two synagogues and, to our considerable surprise, see three armed soldiers standing outside the gate. These, evidently, are no mall cops. Each one of them is decked out in camouflage-pattern battle fatigues, a flak helmet, and a suit of upper-body armor, and carries a FAMAS automatic rifle around his shoulder. They wouldn’t look out of place in Basra.

And while security had been stepped up because of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the default security procedures were extreme:

Looking around the town, however, one sees clearly that security was a grave concern in Sarcelles long before anybody heard the name “Kouachi.” The other synagogue — which also has a considerable military presence — is set back from the road, behind thick iron gates. To enter, visitors must first announce themselves to a remotely viewed camera and, if deemed acceptable, undergo a brief interview with a security guard. Similar rules are in force at the school, which is completely surrounded by a tall, spike-topped, steel fence and guarded by a patrolman in a wooden hut. The locals have seen this coming.

As a consequence, Jews are increasingly fleeing France. As the Times reports, more than 50,000 have moved to Israel since 2000, double the number who moved to Israel in the previous 18-year period.

The secondary effects of mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa aren’t confined to France, nor are they limited to anti-Semitism. Politico last week reported that Sweden was struggling to deal with child marriage in its immigrant population. Last year Cheryl Benard, writing in The National Interest, described a “mind-boggling” Afghan crime wave in Europe.

I share these stories not to print yet another conservative story about the problems of mass migration in Europe but rather to make a different point. Identity politics often works to block a full and fair debate about immigration and culture until after the facts on the ground have changed — until after the consequences of mass migration have presented themselves.

The process works something like this. The left side of the debate presents the staggering humanitarian challenges and deep economic needs of migrants and refugees. Those challenge are real, and the needs are profound. The right side of the debate raises questions about clashing cultures, violence, and misogyny. Rather than deal with the actual and very real cultural differences among the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, the Left not only shames right-wing cultural critics, it essentially creates a fictional people — the idealized immigrant population.

Leftist identity politics creates a false choice. Open the borders to the good people of the Middle East, or yield to the bigots. With the left largely in charge in Europe, the answer was clear. Open the borders.

While there are racists in this world, not all cultural criticism is racist. There is a need for the great Western democracies to be compassionate and humane, but not every material limitation on immigration is xenophobic. It’s just a fact that migrants were arriving from regions that are awash in anti-Semitism. A recent ADL global survey showed that a stunning 74 percent of North African and Middle Eastern residents registered anti-Semitic attitudes. In multiple Muslim nations, overwhelming majorities of Muslims citizens express support for the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy.

But in some quarters, it’s racist to call out racism and intolerant to call out intolerance.

This disease is now infecting the American body politic. On some days, it feels as if the entire immigration debate is conducted about fictional immigrant populations, with identity politics often afflicting both sides of the debate.

In part of the Right, immigration is all about MS-13, and the story of modern mass immigration is the story of Kate Steinle, the young woman shot dead by an illegal Mexican immigrant who’d been deported five times.

In part of the Left, immigration is nothing but a glorious blessing, and virtually any concern over economics, wages, or — yes — culture is nothing but a dog whistle for bigotry. To the extent that you can even acknowledge culture change, the change has to be positive, because everyone on the left knows that more diversity is better, all the time.

Last week lots of folks piled on GOP voters for embracing demographic change less than Democrats. They see racism as the only explanation for answers like this:

Make no mistake, there are racists in the GOP, but does racism fully explain why half of Republicans think that racial diversity has a negative impact? Yes, there are some members of the GOP who have fictional views of immigrants. But aren’t there Democrats in the grips of their own fictions? For them, immigration is perceived as a key to greater electoral success; after all, it’s an article of faith in much of the Left that greater diversity will guarantee Democratic dominance. Further, they see no possible cultural, economic, or political downside to greater diversity.

More anti-Semitism isn’t making France better. More child marriage isn’t good for Sweden. In immigration debates — here and in Europe — ideology should be tempered by reality. We’re debating the presence of real people with real problems (and real gifts).

Yet more anti-Semitism isn’t making France better. More child marriage isn’t good for Sweden. In immigration debates — here and in Europe — ideology should be tempered by reality. We’re debating the presence of real people with real problems (and real gifts). Identity politics all too often obscures that truth. We’ll never have a healthy debate about immigration until identity politics is defeated in the marketplace of ideas and confined to the margins of American political life.

In other words, idealized symbols don’t immigrate. Real people do. And it’s always worth debating and carefully considering which real people should join any nation’s family.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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