Brexit’s lesson for the Left: There really is such a thing as too many immigrants

brexit

As disastrous as the Brexit vote was (so disastrous that I can’t believe Britain will go ahead and actually leave the EU), there was one message sent by the “Leave” camp that I think progressives in Europe and the U.S. should heed: There is a limit to how many immigrants a country should try to absorb.

For all the xenophobia in the “Leave” campaign, the average, working-class, white Britons outside the big cities, who made up the bulk of the “Leave” vote, cannot be blamed for feeling that their country is being swamped by immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They can’t be blamed for fearing the future in an EU where everybody living in it has “freedom of movement” from one country to another, and to which masses in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East are desperate to arrive. Some 630,000 immigrants settled in Britain last year – 1% of the population – after the same number moved there the year before. In the U.S. last year, 1.7 million newcomers arrived, about 0.5% of the population.

It’s the “common people” – the whites who tend not to have college degrees, whose income puts them in the precarious middle class or lower, and who tend to live away from the big cities or certainly from the more prosperous urban neighborhoods – who believe that their jobs and wage levels are threatened by the new arrivals. Whether or not that threat is real – different economists say different things – the cosmopolitan achievers don’t have to worry about it.

Also, it’s the whites of the heartland, who’ve grown up in fairly homogeneous, conservative communities, who tend to care most about such things as national character – language, culture, patriotism – and who feel alienated when they see the immigrant population growing up around them. For liberal college students and professionals in the big cities, white and non-white, their idea of the national character is diversity, or multiculturalism; more immigration doesn’t change the country for them.

Incidentally, it’s not just struggling whites who have a problem with mass immigration; in America, poor and lower-middle-class blacks have been known to bridle at Mexican immigrants moving into their neighborhoods. Also at Korean immigrants opening up shops in their communities. (The enmity between poorer blacks and the new immigrants in their midst is known to run both ways.)

It’s not racism

You don’t have to be a racist in Britain or America to think there are too many immigrants coming in. Over the years I’ve been surprised to hear some of my ultra-liberal Jewish friends in L.A., two of whom have had close personal relations with Mexicans their whole adult lives, say with a lack of enthusiasm that around the city they seem to hear as much Spanish as English.

Any one of them would rather cut off their arm than vote for Trump. But not so the whites of Middle America. They feel inundated by foreign arrivals,   especially Latinos, and the Obama administration offers them no relief, so along comes Trump who speaks to the worst in them and promises to wall off Mexico and kick out 11 million illegal immigrants. Finally, they figure, somebody’s listening to them.

Maybe the cosmopolitan liberals in the U.S., Britain and Europe should recognize that the Brexiters, Trump voters, Le Pen supporters and the like, even though they’ve chosen radical, destructive, xenophobic solutions, do have a real problem: There are too many immigrants around for their comfort.  Racist appeals should not be listened to, but appeals of economic fear and bruised national identity should be, especially when they’re coming from such a huge number of people in the West, from tens upon tens of millions of citizens who evidently feel very insecure at home.

So Western liberals should listen to the white people who mistakenly voted for Brexit, who voted Trump and will again, who support Le Pen in France, Wilders in Holland, Pegida in Germany and the other European anti-immigration  movements – and show a little solidarity. Stop being afraid of being called racists; it’s not racist to say there should be limits on immigration and that these limits have been passed. It’s not even “nationalistic” to say this, it’s just a matter of recognizing that nations are different and want to remain different, at least to some extent, which is something progressives need to learn.

Western left-liberals should come out for reasonable curbs on new immigration – and stop handing the field to demagogues who turn vulnerable people’s frustrations into fascism, and who offer not limits but expulsion, walls and disastrous retreat from the world.

 

Neo-fascists threaten the West; in Israel they’ve already arrived

From America to Austria, belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism is rising. But its hold on power in Israel is far more secure — and uncontested.

Israeli neofascists
Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014. Photo: Ofer Vaknin

I hear a lot of Israeli liberals saying that yes, things are bad here, but they’re bad everywhere. On the one hand, Avigdor Lieberman is running the army, a majority of Israelis believe the soldier who executed a prone Palestinian in Hebron behaved “responsibly,” and it’s gotten so that even Roni Daniel, Channel 2 news’ superhawk, is wondering whether his children should leave the country.

But on the other hand, they point out, America has Donald Trump. In Austria, the party of Jorg Haider just came within an inch of taking over. In France, Marine Le Pen is the rising power. All over Western Europe, even in Scandinavia, the neo-fascists are gaining strength.

So Israel isn’t alone in its slide into the swamp of belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism — it’s happening in the most “enlightened” countries of the West. We’re in no worse a political predicament than they’re in, according to this view.

But this view is mistaken; our political predicament is worse. In the 21st century, the forces of belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism have a much stronger, more secure hold on power in Israel than they do in any Western country (not counting Eastern Europe).

Israeli right getting more radical, powerful

Netanyahu has been elected prime minister four times, and each of his governments is more right-wing than the last. Meanwhile, the so-called center and center-left parties grow increasingly antagonistic toward the Palestinians and the Israeli Arab parties, until it’s become a bad joke to refer to them (except Meretz, the lone party of the Zionist left) as a liberal opposition. And now their leader, Isaac Herzog, has left them more divided and weaker than ever.

In Israel today, the right-wing powers-that-be are only getting more right-wing and more powerful; except for the Supreme Court (to a limited degree), there’s nothing and nobody to hold them back.

In America today, the situation is quite different. The president, now in his eighth and last year, is Barack Obama, the sort of liberal politician who has become extinct in 21st-century Israel. And even if the grotesque Donald Trump does win the November election, the Democrats, with their larger share of the electorate, will have a good chance of beating him the next time. The Republicans have no hope of ruling American politics without challenge for nearly a generation like the Likud and its allies have done here. Over there it’s the Democrats, davka, who have such a hope.

In Austria, the Freedom Party, running on the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform common to all European far-right parties, came within 0.7% of the vote to winning the presidency. But not only did it lose, the winner was a member of the liberal Green Party. And even if that result gets turned around in the coming years, the liberals will almost certainly remain contenders for power in Austria, unlike what’s happened in contemporary Israel.

In other Western European countries, even France with its National Front, the demagogic, nativist parties and movements are growing — but they are all still at a far remove from having national power such as that enjoyed here by Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and current-day Likud.

European consensus still liberal 

Since World War II, Western Europe has developed a strong liberal, tolerant consensus; this is fraying due to the large influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees and the influence of radical Islam in their ranks, but it remains the norm. By contrast, liberalism and tolerance for Arabs, while always a stream in Israeli politics, only came to the fore during the Oslo years — and even they were interrupted by Netanyahu’s first term. Since Oslo imploded in 2000, this stream has been steadily drying up — except during the anomaly of Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza – while the racism and militarism of the right keeps running stronger.

Western Europeans have problems with immigration, refugees and jihadism, and often with economics; these problems may grow to the point where they derange the public and the neo-fascists start taking power. But this hasn’t happened yet, and there’s a very good chance it won’t.

Israel, on the other hand, is a tiny ethnic-religious minority in a hostile region on a permanent war footing with its neighbors. Israel believes (wrongly) that it has done everything it can to make peace and been turned down, and so it trusts its security to the subjugation of the Palestinians and the periodic bombing of Syria and Hezbollah, with no expectation or even reasonable hope that things will change.

This is a much more deeply entrenched and volatile problem than the Western Europeans, or, certainly, the Americans have been dealing with.  What ails Israel is the sort of condition that’s just made for a long-term takeover by belligerent, xenophobic ultranationalists, which is what’s happened here and hasn’t happened there. No, unfortunately, this is not a Western country we’re living in.

Originally published in Haaretz.com, May 31, 2016.