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How an Anti-Semitic American Law Helped to Create the State of Israel and a Whole Lot of Trouble

Photo by Emmanuel DYAN | CC BY 2.0

Shlomo Sand, a remarkable scholar who studies how “peoples,” including the Jewish people, have been invented through myths propagated by court historians and politicians, makes a startling yet obvious connection in his book The Invention of the Land of Israel (2014):

In fact, it was the United States’ refusal, between the anti-immigration legislation of 1924 and the year 1948, to accept the victims of European Judeophobic persecution that enabled decision makers to channel somewhat more significant numbers of Jews toward the Middle East. Absent this stern anti-immigration policy, it is doubtful whether the State of Israel could have been established. [Emphasis added.]

In the same book, Sand writes:

It is fair to say that the [British] Balfourian legislation of 1905 regarding foreigners, along with a similar law enacted two decades later in the United States that further toughened the terms of immigration (the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act), contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel no less than the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and perhaps even more. These two anti-immigrant laws — along with Balfour’s letter to Rothschild regarding the United Kingdom’s willingness to view favorably “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” … — lay down the historical conditions under which Jews would be channeled to the Middle East. [Emphasis added.]

According to the US Office of the Historian, “The Immigration Act of 1924 [Johnson-Reed] limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia…. In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” (The act was revised in 1952.)

In its intention and effect, the law, which passed the houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities, blocked people from Southern and Eastern Europe, Catholics, Arabs, and Jews. A. James Rudin writes:

The bill’s co-sponsor, U.S. Rep. Albert Johnson, R-Wash., said the law would block “a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions…” from entering America. Sen. David Reed, R-Pa., the other co-sponsor, represented “those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard — that is, the people who were born here.” Southern and Eastern Europeans (many of them Catholics and Jews), he believed, “arrive sick and starving and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy, and unable to adapt to American culture.”

Unsurprisingly, Hitler praised the act as model legislation for keeping a population racially pure.

For supporting material, see “Foundations of Holocaust: 1924, Congress Decides No More Jews” and “Trump’s Move to End DACA and Echoes of the Immigration Act of 1924.” From the latter: “The policy was so defiantly and arrogantly racist that, as James Q. Whitman, a professor at Yale Law School, writes in “Hitler’s American Model,” it earned praise from Adolf Hitler. ‘The American Union categorically refuses immigration of unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races,’ Hitler wrote in ‘Mein Kampf [1925].’ This, he said, made the country a leader in preserving racial purity through immigration policy.”

All very well and good, you say, but how did the 1924 law — which is so relevant today — create, or help to create, the State of Israel? To answer this question, it must be recalled (if not learned) that in 1924 very few Jews had any interest in Palestine. The orthodox Jews, believing that God had expelled the Jews from the Holy Land (the Babylonian exile), thought it the height of impertinence for any mere mortal to decide when the Jews should return. That was up to God. They certainly were not going to take their lead from atheist so-called Jews from Eastern Europe, such as David Ben-Gurion. True, some old orthodox men went to the Holy Land to die (planning on resurrection later) or to await mashiach (messiah). But they did not seek the creation of a political entity — a Jewish State. That was the furthest thing from their minds. In Sand’s words, it was a Holy Land, not a Homeland. “Next year in Jerusalem” was not a statement from a political program. It was a messianic hope.

On the other hand, Reform Judaism was organized in opposition to the then-small Zionist movement, which in the Reform view was counterfeit, idolatrous “Judaism” in which (purported) blood and soil replaced God, Torah, and the universalism of the great prophets. Reform Jews explicitly rejected that they were part of a Diaspora. They believed that Judaism in fact represented a worldwide religious community comprising many different citizens of many different countries of many different cultures — not a distinct racial or ethnic entity. (“Jewish blood” was of interest only to anti-Semites.) Indeed, earlier Reform Jews would have opposed the formation of the State of Israel even had Palestine been a “land without a people” — which of course it was not.

As the Reform founders put in the Pittsburgh Platform (1885):

We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.

Despite this deep opposition, the Zionist movement picked up steam, after World War II, ostensibly as a humanitarian project to resettle the displaced Jews of Europe. But this was merely a public-relations move, albeit a most effective one even for many Reform Jews. One must realize that Zionism was never a refugee project. Its intention was to “ingather” the whole of the Diaspora, especially those “Jews [in other lands who] are absorbed in sinful self-satisfaction,” to Palestine, the only place (so the Zionists preached) where Jews could be a “normal people.” (In portraying the Jew as an alien anywhere else — as an authentic Jew only in Israel — Zionism parroted the vilest views of the anti-Semites. Indeed, its leaders feared — ironically? — that without anti-Semitism and anti-assimilationism, there would be no Jews after a short while.)

Sand’s point is that Jews from Eastern Europe and other parts of Christendom — unlike most of their more-fortunate coreligionists in Islamic countries like Iraq — longed to move to America or, if not America, elsewhere in the West. Like his creator, the writer Sholom Aleichem, Tevye the dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, takes his family not to Palestine but to “New York, America,” when the awful tsar expels the Jews from Anatevka, their shtetl in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian empire. (Tevye’s brother had previously moved to America.) His neighbor and almost-son-in-law, the butcher Lazar Wolf, is excited that they will be neighbors, for he is going to “Chicago, America.”

This attitude was and remained typical. For most Jews who left their homes (for whatever reason), Israel was the last “choice” and only when all other routes were blocked (including, for example, with the Soviet Jews, by Israel itself) or tax subsidies were offered to the poor. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, most Jews who left Egypt moved to the United States, Argentina, France, or Switzerland. Why is that? We know why.

If between the world wars, Sand is saying, the Jews of Christendom had been free to go to America, the Zionist movement would have had far too few people with which to fulfill its dubious dream.

But we can push this further. Could the Holocaust have occurred if Jews had been free to move to America in the interwar period? Remember that the Roosevelt administration turned away the German ship St. Louis, filled with nearly a thousand German Jews fleeing the Nazis, from Miami in 1939 under the strict immigration quotas signed into law 15 years earlier by Republican President Calvin Coolidge, beloved by a few libertarians for his putative devotion to limited government. “America must remain American,” Coolidge saidwhen signing the bill.

Had the surviving Jews of Central and Eastern Europe not become displaced by the Nazis because they had been living safely in America since the 1920s, the campaign for a Jewish State in Palestine would have certainly flopped. Think about it: No UN General Assembly recommendation for partition. No Nakba. No Palestinian refugees. No policy- and politics-distorting “Israel lobby.” Perhaps no 9/11. It’s mind-blowing!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we could blame someone else besides Coolidge: Woodrow Wilson. It was he who took the United States into World War I, setting the stage for the punitive “peace” treaty declaring Germany uniquely guilty for the war, the emergence of Hitler and his regime bent on vengeance for the indignity visited on the proud German nation, World War II, and the Holocaust.

Not a bad day’s work in the Oval Office. Let it sink in: without Wilson’s war, no Versailles Treaty; without the Versailles Treaty, no Hitler; without Hitler, no Holocaust; without the Holocaust, no State of Israel; without the State of Israel, well, you get the idea. I’m not saying everything today would be sweetness and light in the Middle East, of course. The Great Powers would have still wanted to control the oil, but the major source of strife and war in that region — not to mention immeasurable domestic political corruption — would not have materialized.

Blame aside, we may confidently say that the 20th century and beyond would have looked very different had America welcomed rather than scorned immigrants. What say you, Donald Trump?

More articles by:

Sheldon Richman, author of Coming to Palestine, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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