Israel a model for Europe on resettling migrants, says Swedish official

Russian Jewish immigration gave Israel the fuel for the Start-Up Nation – and Syrian immigration can do the same for Europe, according to Stockholm’s start-up chief

A large group of asylum seekers walk out of Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 4, 2015. (AP/Frank Augstein)
A large group of asylum seekers walk out of Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 4, 2015. (AP/Frank Augstein)

To some, the scenes of Syrian refugees breaching the walls of Europe portend monumental difficulties, like how to resettle that many people, how to acculturate people who never lived in a democracy, and how to integrate the conservative mores of Islam with those of liberal Europe.

But Olef Zetterberg, Business Region Manager for Stockholm, Sweden – whose job is to develop partnerships and attract companies to his area – sees them more as an asset in the making.

“Those who are shouting to close the border are shortsighted,” said Zetterberg. “By doing so, they are demanding that we keep out talent that can innovate and strengthen our economy and society.”

And the role model for Sweden, and all of Europe, is right here in Israel, said Zetterberg. “Absorbing the Russian Jews did wonders for your country, and I believe that we in Sweden, and in Europe in general, now have the opportunity to bring that kind of immigrant innovation success to our countries.”

Zetterberg was speaking on the sidelines of the Tel Aviv Cities Summit, an annual event where urban planners and government officials gather to discuss how technology can help urban dwellers live better, healthier, and safer lives.

Zetterberg’s is perhaps a bold – or at least unusual – position in an era that has firmly adopted the motto “good fences make for good neighbors.” Zetterberg agrees that absorbing large numbers of Arab, African, and Asian immigrants from developing or politically and economically troubled regions will pose a great challenge, but he believes that Europe really has no other choice.

Olef Zetterberg (Courtesy)
Olef Zetterberg (Courtesy)

“I am definitely cognizant of the challenges of absorbing tens or even hundreds of thousands of ‘different’ people in homogeneous societies,” said Zetterberg, who hails from Sweden, traditionally one of the most culturally homogeneous societies in Europe. Sweden has a population of only ten million people, meaning that a community of tens of thousands of immigrants would be noticeable. “Naturally it has to be done intelligently, but there are precedents for success in this kind of action.

Among the best examples – of both the process and the benefit – of a mass absorption is the story of Russian Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s.

“You Israelis more than many others should know the value of accepting immigrants,” said Zetterberg. “The Russian Jews who came, many believe, were the backbone of what became the Start-Up Nation, bringing with them skills and motivation. While the challenges there were different – you didn’t have the religious issue to deal with, as we do with the Syrian migrants – the fact is that even a small society can absorb large numbers of immigrants successfully.”

And while Zetterberg is as familiar as anyone with lurid tales of the downside of Muslim communities in Europe – from the communities in France and Britain where police allegedly fear to tread, to the internal justice system imposed by Muslim clerics on their flocks, without regard for individual rights that are the law of the land – he does not believe that those stories should discourage countries from accepting Muslim immigrants. “Every religion and culture has different strains, some more radical than others. That’s true for Jews and Christians, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be true for Muslims. You can’t paint any group with a single brush – and we know there are plenty of middle and upper middle class Muslims who have made it in Europe and the US, and who cringe at the idea of ISIS or Al Qaeda representing them.”

The current immigration, Zetterberg believes, could be Europe’s “Russian Jewish” moment. “These people are largely skilled and educated, as evidenced by the fact that they spent a great deal of money on smugglers in order to get into Europe. The unfortunate fact is that Europe, as is well known, is facing a demographic cliff, and without new blood we are going to wither away into irrelevance. The immigrants are young, ambitious, and skilled – just the ingredients we need to help boost them, and the rest of Europe, into future prosperity.”

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