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Immigration and the Jews

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Immigration.
 
Just the word is enough to recall the state of divisiveness and controversy that is the current political reality in today’s world. From the United States and Europe, all the way to Israel and Africa, immigration is at the center of many fierce debates that do not seem to be ending anytime soon.
 
And for good reason. Issues surrounding immigration touch on many of our fundamental views of how morality, politics, and history can and should function. The sad reality of our world is that there are, at some level, only a finite amount of resources to cure a nearly infinite amount of suffering - inevitably causing individuals and groups alike to often play in a type of zero-sum game for their own well-being.
 
As Jews we are no strangers to immigration. From the early pages of the Bible to the most recent chapters of the Jewish experience, immigration seems to be a consistent staple within Jewish history. The truth is that without immigration, whether legally or illegally, the demographics of modern day Judaism would be vastly different. For American Jews, chances are your grandparents (and in many cases parents) were not born here, rather they immigrated in hopes of a better life and - generally speaking - they were fortunate enough to find it.
 
But it is also true that Jews have recently been on the other side of immigration. As Israel continuously struggles to walk the fine line of being both a democratic and Jewish country, the government needs to be extremely cognizant of its demographics at all times. Last month Bibi Netanyahu announced plans for Israel to deport roughly 40,000 African refugees who illegally came into Israel in an attempt to escape the famine and war in their home countries. It is entirely possible that deporting these immigrants will result in death or starvation for a large percentage of them.
 
Whatever one thinks of this specific move by Israel, we can at least try to understand both sides. On the one hand, we do not want anyone to starve or suffer and we all have a moral obligation to alleviate as much of it as possible. On the other hand, if taken to its opposite extreme and Israel became a central safe haven for refugees from Africa and the Middle East, it would simply cease to exist as a Jewish state. Furthermore, many Israeli citizens are having their lives drastically changed for the worst in various economic and social manners due to this immigration. At what point do we inconvenience or decrease the quality of life for citizens to save or bolster the lives of non-citizens?
 
In thinking about this problem I have decided to lay out two basic premises, and then discuss what I believe to be the fundamental disagreement between the two sides. While my personal opinion lies somewhere in the middle, I am genuinely undecided in many of these questions.
 
The premises are as follows:
 
  1. All things being equal, a government has a primary duty to help its own citizens before outsiders. For instance, if the government has exactly one serving of bread and there is a citizen and someone living in a neighboring country that are both starving at an equal rate, the government should give the bread to the citizen.
  2. All human beings are intrinsically valuable and in a vacuum we would always rather another human being be safe than be in danger. If a government has enough bread to feed both its starving citizens and starving non-citizens it should feed both.
 
These two premises are relatively simple and I would venture to guess that a majority of people in the world would agree with them. Now the difficulty of immigration is that both of these premises become pitted against each other to the point where one of these premises must be limited. But if these premises are both true then how can we decide which to limit and which to expand?
 
If we decide to expand the first premise we are making a decision that citizen comfort and well-being overrides almost any universal moral imperative. Like Trump’s immigration views, this route means that we value the economic and social well-being of citizens more than we value the lives of non-citizens. Given that there will always be internal problems amongst the population of any country, if taken to its extreme this view suggests that we do almost nothing to focus on helping outsiders.
 
If we decide to limit the first premise and expand the second one, we are arguing that universalism should override a government’s duty to its citizens if, from a utilitarian point of view, we can help more people that way. Within this view we do not really care if the lives of citizens are uprooted or obstructed by immigration, given that the immigrants are the beneficiaries of more value than the citizens are losing. Some would argue that if this argument is taken to its extreme, this side would want to eradicate the majority of borders in the world.
 
Now it is completely understandable why reasonable people can produce almost opposite conclusions when confronted with the same facts. At the end of the day, this is a value judgment case and not one that can be firmly rooted in facts, arguments, or logic. While this does not mean that we should stop advocating for the opinion we think is correct, it does mean that we should recognize that our own values are coming into play and (like many other cases) just because someone disagrees does not automatically mean they are ignorant or immoral in any way.
 
Photo credit: 972mag.com
 
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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           What is the Jewish perspective on the illegal immigration crisis in Israel? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
 
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