Thursday, June 15, 2006

Is There A Jewish Position On Immigration?

A reader forwarded to me this letter by Dr. Marc Shapiro to The Jewish Week (link):

Is There A Jewish Position On Immigration?

Immigration, both legal and illegal, will continue to be an important issue in the political life of this country, and various interest groups have flexed their muscle on both sides of the debate. To no one's surprise, the liberal Jewish establishment has weighed in with strong opposition to any real cracking down on illegal immigration. This pro-immigration stance is not, in and of itself, a "liberal" position. For example, The Wall Street Journal has long advocated abolishing all immigration restrictions. What is significant with regard to many in the Jewish community, however, is that as with a number of other issues its leaders lobby for, they have sought to portray their stand as the "Jewish approach," the one in line with Jewish tradition and values.

Are these Jewish leaders correct? Are support for lower levels of immigration and attempts to halt all illegal immigration contrary to the values formulated over history by Jewish thinkers? The answer is clearly "No." This is not to say that Jewish tradition doesn't leave open the option of supporting liberal immigration policies, for indeed it does. But Jewish tradition also has a long history of granting citizens the right to adopt restrictive immigration policies, so much so that it is preposterous to argue that those who advocate more restrictive immigration legislation are adopting an un-Jewish position.

Click here to read moreIn medieval times, an era of real Jewish communal authority, Jewish communities were forced to deal with the issue of wanderers who wished to settle among them. It is understandable that many of the Jewish townspeople endeavored to ban entry to those of their co-religionists who could have provided economic competition. What is relevant today is not the economic wisdom of this step, but rather the response of the leading Jewish scholars who also served as the communal legal authorities.

Throughout virtually all of Europe, these scholars granted communities the right to control settlement. By doing so they established an important principle, namely, that local residents alone should determine who should live with them. This system became known as herem ha-yishuv ("ban on settlement"), and the standard practice in most Jewish communities was a closed-door policy. Strangers could usually stay for a short while, but were not permitted to settle permanently. Generally, the only people given settlement rights were rabbis, students, wealthy people and refugees, the latter two on the proviso that they not engage in business.

In medieval times, the major concerns regarding settlement were economic. Yet once the principle of herem ha-yishuv was established, the details and justification could change with time. Indeed, we find that economics was not the only concern. For example, Rabbi Judah the Pious, a famous 12th-century German scholar, discussed instituting a herem ha-yishuv because of doubts about the moral standing of prospective immigrants.

Extrapolating to contemporary times, one would certainly be within the realm of Jewish tradition if one instituted a herem ha-yishuv in order to ensure that a nation's language or culture not be diluted through indiscriminate immigration. (Whether this is smart economic or social policy is another matter irrelevant to this discussion.) What is relevant is that a modern herem ha-yishuv would fall squarely within the Jewish tradition that residents of a place have the right to determine their own self-interest, including who should be allowed in and who should be kept out.

It is true that in cases of persecution or where there is danger to another's life, there is a moral obligation to open one's borders, but barring such hardship most Jewish thinkers say there is no obligation.

There were, to be sure, some important medieval sages who believed in complete freedom of trade and travel and therefore opposed the herem ha-yishuv. Yet a simple reading of their statements shows that such arguments could not be used to support contemporary arguments for open-door immigration. Those rabbis who opposed the herem ha-yishuv left no doubt that they were only referring to individuals who could pay taxes and assume their rightful share in communal obligations. It is only these people who could not be refused entry into a city.

In the entire history of Jewish legal thought, it is nowhere stated that a community is obligated to allow entry to one who will not contribute his share in taxes or will become dependent on public assistance. Indeed, as noted, it is clear from the sources that such people were, as a rule, not permitted to settle in new communities. As the Talmud puts it, the local poor take precedence over others since it is simply impossible to help everyone. The implications of this with regard to immigrants who come to the U. S. in order to benefit from free public services (schools, hospitals, etc.) are obvious.

As is often the case, Jewish tradition offers a variety of options to deal with difficult social problems, but it does not offer a conclusive solution. Both opponents and advocates of liberal immigration policies will be able to find support for their positions in Jewish tradition, but neither side has the luxury of believing that it alone advocates "the Jewish position."

Marc Shapiro holds the Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton.

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