"Anti-immigration, like pro-immigration, is a legitimate political position", Yuval Noah Harari

A book excerpt from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

An historian by training, Yuval Noah Harari rose to prominence with two best-selling books. Sapiens looked at humanity’s past and Homo Deus at its future. His latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, considers the here-and-now, spanning subjects from technology and terrorism to populism and religion.

In the excerpt that follows, he considers the underlying premise of immigration and what migrants and societies might “owe” each other, to conclude: “It would be wrong to tar all anti-immigrationists as ‘fascists’, just as it would be wrong to depict all pro-immigrationists as committed to ‘cultural suicide’. [...] It is a discussion between two legitimate political positions, which should be decided through standard democratic procedures.”

The European discussion about immigration often degenerates into a shouting match in which neither side hears the other. To clarify matters, it would perhaps be helpful to view immigration as a deal with three basic conditions or terms: 

Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in. 

Term 2: In return, the immigrants must embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country, even if that means giving up some of their traditional norms and values. 

Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate to a sufficient degree, over time they become equal and full members of the host country. ‘They’ become ‘us’. 

These three terms give rise to three distinct debates about the exact meaning of each term: 

Debate 1: The first clause of the immigration deal says simply that the host country allows immigrants in. But should this be understood as a duty or a favour? Is the host country obliged to open its gates to everybody, or does it have the right to pick and choose, and even to halt immigration altogether? Pro-immigrationists seem to think that countries have a moral duty to accept not just refugees, but also people from poverty-stricken lands who seek jobs and a better future. Especially in a globalised world, all humans have moral obligations towards all other humans, and those shirking these obligations are egoists or even racists. 

Anti-immigrationists reply that except perhaps in the case of refugees fleeing brutal persecution in a neighbouring country, you are never obliged to open your door. Turkey may have a moral duty to allow desperate Syrian refugees to cross its border. But if these refugees then try to move on to Sweden, the Swedes are not bound to accept them. As for migrants who seek jobs and welfare, it is totally up to the host country whether it wants them in or not, and under what conditions.   

Anti-immigrationists stress that one of the most basic rights of every human collective is to defend itself against invasion, whether in the form of armies or migrants. The Swedes have worked very hard and made numerous sacrifices in order to build a prosperous liberal democracy, and if the Syrians have failed to do the same, this is not the Swedes’ fault. If Swedish voters don’t want more Syrian immigrants in—for whatever reason—it is their right to refuse them entry. And if they do accept some immigrants, it should be absolutely clear that this is a favour Sweden extends rather than an obligation it fulfils. Which means that immigrants who are allowed into Sweden should feel extremely grateful for whatever they get, instead of coming with a list of demands as if they own the place.

Moreover, say the anti-immigrationists, a country can have whatever immigration policy it wants, screening immigrants not just for their criminal records or professional talents, but even for things like religion. If a country like Israel wants to allow in only Jews, and a country like Poland agrees to absorb Middle Eastern refugees on condition that they are Christians, this may seem distasteful, but it is perfectly within the rights of the Israeli or Polish voters. 

What complicates matters is that in many cases people want to have their cake and eat it. Numerous countries turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, or even accept foreign workers on a temporary basis, because they want to benefit from the foreigners’ energy, talents and cheap labour. However, the countries then refuse to legalise the status of these people, saying that they don’t want immigration. In the long run, this could create hierarchical societies in which an upper class of full citizens exploits an underclass of powerless foreigners, as happens today in Qatar and several other Gulf States.   

As long as this debate isn’t settled, it is extremely difficult to answer all subsequent questions about immigration. Since pro-immigrationists think that people have a right to immigrate to another land if they so wish, and host countries have a duty to absorb them, they react with moral outrage when people’s right to immigrate is violated, and when countries fail to perform their duty of absorption. Anti-immigrationists are astounded by such views. They see immigration as a privilege, and absorption as a favour. Why accuse people of being racists or fascists just because they refuse entry into their own country?   

Of course, even if allowing immigrants in constitutes a favour rather than a duty, once the immigrants settle down the host country gradually incurs numerous duties towards them and their descendants. Thus you cannot justify anti-Semitism in the USA today by arguing that ‘we did your great-grandmother a favour by letting her into this country in 1910, so we can now treat you any way we like’. 

Debate 2: The second clause of the immigration deal says that if they are allowed in, the immigrants have an obligation to assimilate into the local culture. But how far should assimilation go? If immigrants move from a patriarchal society to a liberal society, must they become feminist? If they come from a deeply religious society, need they adopt a secular world view? Should they abandon their traditional dress codes and food taboos? Anti-immigrationists tend to place the bar high, whereas pro-immigrationists place it much lower.   

Pro-immigrationists argue that Europe itself is extremely diverse, and its native populations have a wide spectrum of opinions, habits and values. This is exactly what makes Europe vibrant and strong. Why should immigrants be forced to adhere to some imaginary European identity that few Europeans actually live up to? Do you want to force Muslim immigrants to the UK to become Christian, when many British citizens hardly go to church? If Europe has any real core values, then these are the liberal values of tolerance and freedom, which imply that Europeans should show tolerance towards the immigrants too, and allow them as much freedom as possible to follow their own traditions, provided these do not harm the freedoms and rights of other people.   

Anti-immigrationists agree that tolerance and freedom are the most important European values, and accuse many immigrant groups—especially from Muslim countries—of intolerance, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Precisely because Europe cherishes tolerance, it cannot allow too many intolerant people in. While a tolerant society can manage small illiberal minorities, if the number of such extremists exceeds a certain threshold, the whole nature of society changes. If Europe allows in too many immigrants from the Middle East, it will end up looking like the Middle East.   

Other anti-immigrationists go much further. They point out that a national community is far more than a collection of people who tolerate each other. Hence it is not enough that immigrants adhere to European standards of tolerance. They must also adopt many of the unique characteristics of British, German or Swedish culture, whatever these may be. By allowing them in, the local culture is taking upon itself a big risk and a huge expense. There is no reason it should destroy itself as well. It offers eventual full equality so it demands full assimilation. If the immigrants have an issue with certain quirks of British, German or Swedish culture, they are welcome to go elsewhere.   

The two key issues of this debate are the disagreement about immigrant intolerance and the disagreement about European identity. If immigrants are indeed guilty of incurable intolerance, many liberal Europeans who currently favour immigration will sooner or later come round to oppose it bitterly. Conversely, if most immigrants prove to be liberal and broad-minded in their attitude to religion, gender and politics, this will disarm some of the most effective arguments against immigration.   

This will still leave open, however, the question of Europe’s unique national identities. Tolerance is a universal value. Are there any unique French norms and values that should be accepted by anyone immigrating to France, and are there unique Danish norms and values that immigrants to Denmark must embrace? As long as Europeans are bitterly divided about this question, they can hardly have a clear policy about immigration. Conversely, once Europeans know who they are, 500 million Europeans should have no difficulty absorbing a few million refugees—or turning them away. 

Debate 3: The third clause of the immigration deal says that if immigrants indeed make a sincere effort to assimilate—and in particular to adopt the value of tolerance—the host country is duty-bound to treat them as first-class citizens. But exactly how much time needs to pass before the immigrants become full members of society? Should first-generation immigrants from Algeria feel aggrieved if they are still not seen as fully French after twenty years in the country? How about third-generation immigrants whose grandparents came to France in the 1970s?   

Pro-immigrationists tend to demand a speedy acceptance, whereas anti-immigrationists want a much longer probation period. For pro-immigrationists, if third-generation immigrants are not seen and treated as equal citizens, this means that the host country is not fulfilling its obligations, and if this results in tensions, hostility and even violence—the host country has nobody to blame but its own bigotry. For anti-immigrationists, these inflated expectations are a large part of the problem. The immigrants should be patient. If your grandparents arrived here just forty years ago, and you now riot in the streets because you think you are not treated as a native, then you have failed the test.   

The root issue of this debate concerns the gap between personal timescale and collective timescale. From the viewpoint of human collectives, forty years is a short time. It is hard to expect society to fully absorb foreign groups within a few decades. Past civilisations that assimilated foreigners and made them equal citizens—such as Imperial Rome, the Muslim caliphate, the Chinese empires and the United States—all took centuries rather than decades to accomplish the transformation.   

From a personal viewpoint, however, forty years can be an eternity. For a teenager born in France twenty years after her grandparents immigrated there, the journey from Algiers to Marseilles is ancient history. She was born here, all her friends have been born here, she speaks French rather than Arabic, and she has never even been to Algeria. France is the only home she has ever known. And now people say to her it’s not her home, and that she should go ‘back’ to a place she never inhabited? 

As long as we don’t know whether absorption is a duty or a favour; what level of assimilation is required from immigrants; and how quickly host countries should treat them as equal citizens—we cannot judge whether the two sides are fulfilling their obligations.   

An additional problem concerns accounting. When evaluating the immigration deal, both sides give far more weight to violations than to compliance. If a million immigrants are law-abiding citizens, but one hundred join terrorist groups and attack the host country, does it mean that on the whole the immigrants are complying with the terms of the deal, or violating it? If a third-generation immigrant walks down the street a thousand times without being molested, but once in a while some racist shouts abuse at her, does it mean that the native population is accepting or rejecting the immigrants? 


Whatever your answers to these questions, it should at least be clear that the European debate about immigration is far from being a clear-cut battle between good and evil. It would be wrong to tar all anti-immigrationists as ‘fascists’, just as it would be wrong to depict all pro-immigrationists as committed to ‘cultural suicide’. Therefore, the debate about immigration should not be conducted as an uncompromising struggle about some non-negotiable moral imperative. It is a discussion between two legitimate political positions, which should be decided through standard democratic procedures. 


Excerpted from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. Copyright © 2018 by Yuval Noah Harari. Used with permission of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.