I think that the Brexit forces us to locate ourselves geographically. It compels a reflection on the question where and who ‘we’ are spatially. As a holder of a Dutch passport I have been living in Britain for eight years, but I cannot say that I necessary feel loyal to Britain or ‘feel’ British. Neither do I feel committed to the Netherlands. I pay my taxes, help others because I think it is the morally right thing to do, but I care for neither the category of nation nor state. I have lived in affluent bourgeois areas in Britain, where most people voted to remain in the EU, but I found myself more often living in socially marginalised places where many have opted out. The outcome of the vote potentially means that I will have to move away entirely, because I am suddenly said to be out of place. The borders of geography have shifted and I am now officially an outsider. Unfortunately I am not a fan of Europe either and I don’t think it has histrionically been very fond of me. Europe is not the answer I was looking for, not before Brexit and certainly not after it.
A couple of years ago I spent a few weeks obsessively going through the genealogical records of my mother’s family. My objective was to assemble an archive of where she came from. My father had never been very interested in personal histories. His history, he silently accepted, was firmly rooted in the traditions of Western Europe, which meant that questions of identity were fixed and already answered. But for my mother the question of history and belonging was rather different. Her hunger for more history seemed to rest on a yet to be resolved open-endedness of her identity. I wanted to give her something that could help construct meaning by finding traces of the geography of her ancestors.
My mother considers herself to be Jewish and, therefore, different from those who are said to be Dutch or even European. I grew up understanding the relevance of the holocaust for our family. Neither Warsaw nor Kraków but Auschwitz, I learned as a child, was the first place of importance in Poland. The geography of European history taught in my school was different from the geography of Europe I learned at home. Even now I still prefer brown over blond hair and dark over lighter eyes. Half of our family died in Europe for not looking European enough.
I found out that my mother’s ancestors came from Poland and the Ukraine. They had moved from Eastern to Western Europe because of their prosecution in the pogroms. Yes, those places, too, are a part of Europe’s geography. Upon arrival in the ‘real Europe’, they assimilated as best they could: Latinising their names, adopting urbanised culture, secularising their beliefs and even taking on European cultural identities. Europe has always defined itself by what it is not. Becoming European demands a total sacrifice of places past and future. Being European is a standard to aspire to, a standard which many Eastern Europeans know today is difficult to ever achieve. My Polish and Bulgarian friends often remind me how hard it is to become European. No matter how hard they try ‘Eastern’ always comes before ‘European’. Not attainable for the Poles and certainly not for the Nigerian family that lives next door to me or the lady with a headscarf that lives opposite. One of my students wrote her dissertation with the unapologetic hypothesis that Europe has a colour which always sharply contrasts with anything that is black.
Britain’s exit is similarly a practise of bordering. It is not the British passport that constitutes the line that is drawn between the insider and outsider but its location is situated on the outsider’s very face. I am considered by many people as British, or at least close enough to fit that ideal, regardless that my passport says that I am not. I am an unintentional and an ‘unfortunate’ casualty of the attempt to limit the inflow of less British-looking faces than that of my own. I am European but also not really.
In secondary school, I learnt to love the idea of Europe. I lived in at least 5 of its countries and grew up loving its authors, painters, intellectuals and poets. My European passport allowed me to travel widely both inside the EU and outside of it. I speak 4 to 5 different European languages, or at least I like to think I do, and I even look European, white, dark blond with blue eyes, well almost perhaps. I am educated into liking Europe for what it says and promises it is, and, looking at my face you will probably find in me what a European is supposedly to look like.
Staring at my screen and looking at the images of my ancestors, I can say that I reassemble the European aesthetic much closer than they did. But going through my mother’s genealogy, which is also mine, I know full well that Europe is not a place of inclusion. It excludes and does so violently and murderously. I am constantly reminded that the so-called ‘Union’ was built on hundreds of promises of ‘never again’ but its borders break that promise every day and continue to harm and kill in the thousands, no tens of thousands. The Jew of the past is the Muslim and the refugee of today. No matter how hard they try to assimilate, they remain guests, and are forced to accept a liberalism that is not theirs. Guests of the soil they inhabit, their past taken from them, they have to accept the right of others to insult them, to be marginalised economically and feel isolated socially and geographically.
My liberal friends on Facebook seem surprised by the exit that never should have happened. The EU’s hijacking of Greek democracy, its racist decade-long refusal to expand Europe’s borders into Turkey and now the Ukraine, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, which the Union helped create, all is momentarily forgotten and forgiven, because the middle classes have suddenly come to realise that racism does exist on this (other) small island. Even now, they try to whitewash their hands in liberal innocence, forgetting that it is this distance from the dirt of their own making that has helped to feed the racism they now so utterly condemn and despise. Sheltered in their districts of bourgeois affluence and white privilege they complain about the geographical divide that now separates London from Frankfurt. “I voted remain, I am innocent.” Their children robbed from their futures. It is this social disconnect, feeding into a gaping abyss of racism and xenophobia for anyone that does not feel, speak or look British, which now says that so many are no longer welcome. UKIP, the EDL, Britain First, none would have been possible without the social disconnect that liberal capital creates, maintains and is. Smash capital, and smash racism.
“Back to Europe, you go.” While my mother has chosen to assimilate her Jewishness in Europe’s even more violent alter image that is Israel, I increasingly have come to embrace my Jewishness on the basis of what is not European. I prefer the desert’s dusty winds over the static soil of state territory, the dirt of the diverse working classes over the gentrified green lawns of the bourgeoisie, communist chutzpah over liberal moderate mediocrity. It seems time for labour politicians, intellectuals, universities and all institutions historically belonging and associated to the middle classes to close the gap that has led us to this point, and to re-establish a responsibility of proximity and care. Not to escape in the self-indulging innocence that fortress European Union is, but to organise and go out on to the streets to talk, listen, feel and engage with those we have for so long neglected and today condemn. Political solutions neither can be found in Brussels nor Westminster but should be confronted and countered on the very streets the middle classes historically loathe and avoid.