Unravelling the Words of an Unlikely Villain: In seeking purity, do we risk missing the bigger picture?

Author:Schwartz, Amy E.

As global movers and shakers go, she was a markedly unthreatening figure.

Reem Sahwil, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee in Germany, seized the global imagination in 2015 when she burst into tears on camera, midway through an encounter with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she begged Merkel to spare her family from deportation. Merkel, visibly startled, tried to comfort her. Analysts later called that moment the catalyst that led Merkel to open her nation's borders to an eventual 1.3 million refugees, and thus, depending on whom you ask, to social instability, new elections, Merkel's own political decline, the rise of far-right parties and who knows what else. In person, though, the "world's most famous refugee girl" was a shy, big-eyed child, with a protective family and a disability that had brought her to seek medical care in Germany. The contrast with the tough-minded chancellor was journalistically irresistible. German reporters sang Sahwil's praises, followed her, photographed her in her bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals.

Merkel's empathy for this child, it seemed, had moved mountains; and yet, in today's information hurricane, no one commands the world's empathy for long. Or so I discovered two years later, when, working on a long article on Merkel and refugees, I received a fact-checking note from my editor: "Should we say more about this Reem Sahwil? Apparently she called for the destruction of the State of Israel."

Sure enough, a story in The Times of Israel was headlined "I hope Israel disappears, says Palestinian teen Merkel brought to tears." It began, "The 14-year-old Palestinian refugee who hit the headlines... has said she hopes that one day Israel will cease to exist." I followed the trajectory of the short article as it ricocheted around the world. The Times of Israel quoted Sahwil as saying in a German interview that she hoped one day to live in her ancestral homeland and that "the country should not be called Israel, but Palestine." The Jerusalem Post said she had "called for Israel's abolishment."

Viewed one way, this story is a legitimate entry in one of the most vexing debates about the wave of Muslim immigration hitting Europe: Do such refugees bring entrenched anti-Semitic attitudes that could affect mainstream politics? And, if you want to go bigger: Can people with such attitudes, in Europe or elsewhere, be reached and changed? These serious questions should be pursued in all their complexity. But...

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