Why Many Jews Might Support Open Borders

Which groups of people are most receptive to the open borders message? The list of individuals who have signed on to the recently posted Open Borders Manifesto suggests that academics may be especially amenable to supporting open borders. Another group that would be likely to support largely unrestricted immigration comprises those who are seeking to migrate to a new country but are unable to do so because of immigration restrictions, as would their family members already residing in the intended destination countries. Nathan Smith has argued that devout Christians are potentially a good source of support for open borders. At the same time, many secularists, who have been polled as having “the most favorable views of immigrants” compared with Catholics and Protestants, may be open to open borders as well.  Here I argue that Jews, especially American Jews, also could be a potentially strong source of support for open borders.

Nathan provides one reason why many Jews might support open borders: the Old Testament. He states that “from my reading of the Old Testament, it’s quite clear that the Bible supports open borders, full stop.”  For example, Nathan points out verses such as “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)” In 2008, the president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society echoed Nathan by writing that Jews “are taught to internalize the lesson that… we must ‘welcome the stranger,’ ‘not oppress the stranger,’ ‘protect the stranger,’ ‘have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you,’ because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt…’ it is neither moral nor practical to carve out a system that admits Jews but restricts others, slamming the door to America behind us.”(Jewish Review (Portland, Oregon) April 15, 2008) Nathan concludes that “Old Testament law is favorable to immigrants to the point that it could well be embraced by the open borders movement as a template of the kind of immigration policy we would want to see.” While many Jews don’t consult the Bible for guidance for their positions on public policy, its message on immigration may subtly point Jews towards open borders, as the aid society president suggests.

In addition, Jewish history may have imprinted upon Jews a tendency to support open borders. For the last two thousand years, many Jews have migrated from place to place, either because of expulsions, a need to flee oppression, or the desire for improved economic circumstances.  For example, Spain forced hundreds of thousand of Jews out of the country in 1492.  Even in 2015, given the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, Jeffrey Goldberg asks, “Is it time for the Jews to leave?”  He also notes that “for millennia, Jews have been asking this question: Where, exactly, is it safe?”

The expulsions, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “left their impress on the entire nation and its history, both materially and spiritually. They maintained and constantly intensified the feeling of foreignness of the Jews in the Diaspora.”  This was illustrated recently in an online comment responding to a study that found that many Jewish students have experienced anti-Semitism on American college campuses: “I repeatedly told my adult sons as they were growing up that we Jews are guests here in America, that even as we love this country, our birth here is an incident of fate. Too bad that so many Jewish families forget that we’ve lived in many lands with different degrees of acceptance. Our German brothers and sisters thought they were German until they were taken away in box cars, our French brothers and sisters thought they were French until the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, etc. etc. We Jews really need to awake from our delusions and tell our kids the ugly truth. Keep your passports current and your bags packed.”  This perception by some Jews of a tenuous status in their countries of residence and the implied understanding of the importance of having available places to which they can emigrate may lead to empathy for non-Jews who wish to migrate; if one senses that migration may be necessary at some time in their own life, one comprehends on a visceral level the need of others to migrate.

Based on their history, many Jews might support open borders today as they supported the civil rights movement in the U.S. The companion website to the film “From Swastika to Jim Crow” suggests that the historical oppression of Jews has made them sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans.  It notes that “in the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews’ escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and calling anti-Black riots in the South ‘pogroms’.” It also describes how Jews helped form the NAACP and the Urban League, how Jewish organizations played an important part in the campaign against prejudice, and how Jews monetarily supported civil rights organizations. In addition, it states that “about 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.”

The history of Jewish immigration to the U.S. in particular may lead American Jews towards supporting open borders. Thomas Sowell writes in Ethnic America that “The great majority of Jews in America are descended from the millions who emigrated from Russia, Poland, and other eastern European countries in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century. In that period, one-third of all the Jews in eastern Europe migrated to America.” (p. 69) Why did they come? Maldwyn Jones, in American Immigration, explains that “the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 set off a wave of anti-Jewish riots and led to strict enforcement of the requirement that all Jews must reside within the Pale of Settlement, an area bordering on Germany, Austria, and Rumania. A year later came the notorious May Laws, which placed restrictions on Jewish worship, virtually debarred Jews from agriculture, industry, and the professions, excluded them from public office, and denied them educational opportunities. Persecution now became systematic, persistent, and ruthless; worst of all there were the frightful pogroms of 1881-82, 1891, and 1905-06 in which countless Jews were massacred. Largely in consequence, Russian arrivals in the United States rose from 5,000 in 1880 to 81,000 in 1892 and then bounded upward to a peak of 258,000 in 1907.” (pp. 201-202)

America turned out to be an excellent choice for these eastern European immigrants and their descendants. Mr. Sowell notes that “the overwhelming majority of these Jewish immigrants came to stay. The rate of return migration was lower among Jews than among any other large group of immigrants.” (p. 79) This apparently testifies to the appeal of being in America versus their homelands. While many of these Eastern European Jews came to America impoverished and experienced poverty and slum living in America (p. 83 and p. 85) “the upward movement of American Jews—across broad economic, intellectual, social, and political arenas—was unprecedented and unparalleled.” (p. 88) In addition, “American anti-Semitism has never reached the levels seen in Europe.” (p. 93) Furthermore, had the mass turn of the century Jewish immigration not occurred, those immigrants and their descendants would have perished in the Holocaust of the 1940s.

Many American Jews must understand that this immigration was able to occur largely because European immigration to the U.S. was generally unrestricted until the early 1920s. Notwithstanding his opposition to open borders, the economist Paul Krugman has noted that he is “instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration” and that “he is grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.”  Jeffrey Goldberg has written that “… I am an American Jew–which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.”

Many American Jews must also grasp the negative consequences of the 1920s immigration restrictions on European Jewry. As I noted in a previous post,  the restrictions, together with other bureaucratic maneuvering, kept many Jews from fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. A dramatic example of this was the refusal of the U.S. to accept hundreds of Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939, even as the ship reached the Florida coast. Many of these refugees later died in the Holocaust. Furthermore, after World War II many European Jews languished in concentration camps taken over by the Americans, according to  Eric Lichtblau in The Nazis Next Door.  He writes that “… with Britain blocking Jews from going to Palestine and the United States closing its own doors for the most part, Truman agonized over the situation in the DP camps.  ‘Everyone else who’s been dragged from his country has somewhere to go back to,’ Truman said, ‘but the Jews have no place to go.'” (p. 5) Former U.S. Representative Barney Frank understands the significance of immigration restrictions, suggesting that had immigration policies been more restrictive when his grandparents left Russia for the U.S., they wouldn’t have been allowed in and the family would have perished in the Holocaust. (Washington News Observer, 10/7/09)

When America had borders that were largely open to immigrants, it was a great refuge for Jews fleeing undesirable situations in other countries. Conversely, when this period of mostly open borders ended, restrictionist immigration policies had disastrous consequences for would-be Jewish immigrants. Many American Jews may recognize the value of open borders to their ancestors and may generalize this appreciation of open borders, applying it universally, just as their historical experience of oppression contributed to their support for the civil rights movement for African Americans.

One concern Jews around the world might have about open borders is that it would allow potentially greatly increased Muslim immigration to places where many Jews reside, such as the U.S., France, and the U.K.  In Mr. Goldberg’s article on rising anti-Semitism in Europe, he writes that “… the chief propagators of contemporary European anti-Semitism may be found in the Continent’s large and disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities–communities that are themselves harassed and assaulted by hooligans associated with Europe’s surging right…” He adds that “the failure of Europe to integrate Muslim immigrants has contributed to their exploitation by anti-Semetic propagandists and by recruiters for such radical projects as the Islamic State…” (The unemployment rate among Muslims in France is higher than the rest of the population, and in some French suburbs with large minority populations, the unemployment rate, particularly among the young, is very high.  (See here and here and here.))  He notes that “in 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish.  Sale Juif–‘dirty Jew’–rang in the streets, as did ‘Death to the Jews,’ and ‘Jews to the gas.'”

However, it should be remembered that Muslims, like any group, should not be stereotyped.  In a previous post, I quoted Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them: “We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Muslims are a uniform and separate community whose identity is wholly defined by their religion, still less an inevitably hostile or violent one.” (page 304)  In addition, it appears that a contributor to Muslim anti-Semitic acts in Europe may be Muslims’ disenfranchisement and lack of integration in their host countries, as Mr. Goldberg suggests.  Mr. Legrain emphasizes that creating harmonious, ethnically diverse societies depends greatly on how citizens receive immigrants: “It’s not rocket science. Societies need to make every effort to ensure that everyone feels included and has an opportunity to participate fully in economic and social life. But they also need to accept the diversity of all their members—not just those of foreign descent—while insisting that all adhere to the fundamental principles on which they are based. The watchwords are tolerance and respect for the law. Learning the local language and how institutions work, and promoting cultural understanding are also important, without seeking to impose a uniform culture or behavioural norms.” (p. 288)  He highlights Toronto, Canada as successfully integrating its ethnically diverse population but cites France and Holland for failing to integrate its immigrants. (p. 265, pp. 272-273)

Mr. Legrain appears confident in America’s ability to integrate immigrants into society:  “Immigrants have to pledge their allegiance to the United States and sign up to the values in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but they don’t have to adopt any particular cultural habits, Anglo-Protestant or otherwise. Over time, each influx of immigrants changes and enriches American culture, while they adapt freely to American ways, although they may retain some of their cultural heritage.” (p. 266) Clive Crook  argues in The Atlantic that America’s economic system is more effective at integrating immigrants compared to Europe.  He writes that  “America’s harsher insistence on work is not just economically advantageous (which is self-evident) but socially beneficial as well (which some may find surprising). Jobs alone are not enough to ensure successful assimilation of immigrants, but jobs are a necessary condition. By insisting that immigrants work, the host country attacks the incumbents’ intellectual and emotional resistance to immigration. The work requirement increases the dispersed economic benefits; it reduces or eliminates the net fiscal burden; and it lowers cultural barriers.”  He notes that higher unemployment among immigrants in Europe leads to native opposition, but it must also lead to frustration among immigrants, which in turn may lead to anti-Semitic acts.  I am not excusing these acts in any way, but the analysis by Mr. Legrain and Mr. Crook suggests ways to avoid the ethnic tumult that is occurring in Europe, even with high levels of immigration.  It will be difficult to reverse the situation in Europe, but the U.S. and city of Toronto appear to be structured to have mostly harmoniously societies with open borders. (See here and here for examples of Muslims who view the U.S. as an especially tolerant place to live.)

Dean Obeidallah, who is Muslim-American, wrote last year that at a Muslim-American event, Keith Ellison, who is a Muslim congressman, was heartily cheered when he said “‘There’s absolutely no place for anti-Semitism in discussing Israeli policy.'”  Mr. Obeidallah further noted that “that reaction is not atypical in my experience” at other Muslim-American events, although he acknowledges that there is some anti-Semitism in “my own community.”  Unfortunately, a study on Muslim anti-Semitism in North America did find higher levels among Muslims than Christians.  Overall, however, it is apparent that in the U.S., as a Vox article noted, “… Muslim and Jewish communities are on much better terms” than in Europe.  There is nothing in the U.S. like the volume of anti-Semitic acts committed by Muslims in Europe.

In summary, the historical memory of Jews, particularly American Jews, plus the pro-open borders message of the Old Testament, should make many Jews receptive to the open borders message. Open borders advocates are likely to convince many Jews to support open borders by reminding them of their history and the admonitions in their Bible.  They can also note that America in particular is structured to successfully integrate large numbers of Muslims into its society, thereby likely preventing widespread anti-Semitic acts by Muslims.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

5 thoughts on “Why Many Jews Might Support Open Borders”

  1. The Open Borders movement should demand that Open Borders should be tested in a prosperous smallish country close to the teeming hundreds of millions of Africa, such as, oh, say, Israel. Allowing impoverished Africans to travel into Israel by land would be much safer than their current trips to Europe by boat. All it would take is one bulldozer to tear a hole in that razor wire fence that Israel has erected in recent years to keep out economic immigrants and the world could quickly find out whether your theories work as well in practice as in pixels.

    So I expect you all will soon be demanding that Israel open its borders. I look forward to the reactions.

    1. Open borders for Israel,Jew Barbara spectre works day and night enriching Europe with mass immigration, she is doing a wonderful job,its only fair that Israel does not miss out on this wonderfull act of generosity from wonderfull Jewish people.

  2. Open borders to those who agree to truly convert to Judaism. The state needs to keep its religious identity intact.

Leave a Reply