Opinion

Why the World Needs Open Borders More Than Ever

And why Israelis especially should be fighting for them

In this June 15, 2015 photo, Syrian refugees gather at the Turkish border as they flee intense fighting in northern Syria.
Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

“The lesson is clear, and it is that we must be capable of defending ourselves, by ourselves, against every threat, against every enemy,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week. He repeats the words every year, drawing a connection between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day that underlies Israeli ideology. Time and again he promises: There will not be another Holocaust. We will not allow another Holocaust. We will not permit another Holocaust. As though the next Holocaust would ask us for permission; as if it were a corporation, or some economic reform proposed by the finance minister.

Could the State of Israel have prevented the annihilation of the Jews, if it had been established earlier? Not really. It could have offered the Jews shelter, but only a rickety one. The German army was at the gates of Palestine in 1942, and it would have conquered the country had it not been stopped by the Allies.

Even Netanyahu knows that – as he noted, for example, in a speech five years ago on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “If Rommel had won the Battle of El Alamein and had arrived here, the remaining Jews here would have disappeared. If Rommel had come here, we would not be here,” he stated.

It’s absurd to think that the Israel Defense Forces could have contained an army the size of the Wehrmacht. By the same token, it’s absurd to think that the IDF would be able to repulse the Russian army, if Russia were to decide one day to invade Israel. In the meantime, the IDF is barely able to defeat Hamas.

It follows that the commonly heard claim in Israel – that the lesson to be gleaned from the Holocaust is that “we need a strong IDF” – is false. It is, in fact, a childish notion. Factually, what saved Jews from the Nazis’ talons was the possibility of escaping to other countries that provided them with a haven in different ways, whether it was the Soviet Union, China, the United States or Mandatory Palestine. At the more fundamental level, then, what could have saved more Jews during the Holocaust was not the IDF but more open borders.

This is the key point: If there is a simple practical lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it’s the need for open borders. It’s a lesson that is acutely relevant today, as the world once more fills up with millions of refugees who had the bad luck to be born in countries that fell into the hands of murderous regimes or that suffer from repeated political upheavals. And even more so, during a period in which the world’s borders are being closed again, and political parties hostile to migrants threaten to take power in country after country.

In such a world, it’s difficult to prevent a “second Holocaust,” but it’s possible to assure people a sanctuary. There’s no knowing how things will develop in any particular country. What’s certain is that the more freedom of movement there is worldwide, the greater the number of people who can be saved from catastrophe.

Clearly, it’s no simple matter to guarantee open borders. There’s a reason that people in Europe, the United States and elsewhere are demanding a halt to the refugee influx. The human landscape in Europe is indeed changing; many local folk feel like strangers in their own homeland. Nor is the cost of absorbing refugees equally divided among the whole population: Some bear the burden, whether financial or social, more than others. Corporate CEOs and university lecturers don’t live next to refugees. They don’t have to compete with them for jobs, either, but workers and service personnel do.

Still, in the name of fairness it must be said that the international conventions related to refugee rights are probably the most important consequence of the lessons that were drawn from the Holocaust. In an ideal world, that’s the lesson that Israeli high-school students who visit Auschwitz should be taught, ahead of the need for the establishment of Israel. Israelis are good at citing the lessons of the Holocaust whenever someone casts doubt on their country’s right to exist. But, regrettably, when someone talks about refugee rights – the immediate response is to say he’s a “bleeding heart,” or “Let’s be realistic.”

Zionists with a conscience like to say that the state’s establishment was the least of all possible bad choices, given the existing options. “It happened that the Arabs paid the price of our national revival,” Yuli Tamir, then a minister in the Labor government of Ehud Barak, said in an interview with Haaretz in 1999. “But I believe in the principle of the lesser of two wrongs. My assessment is that if Israel had not come into being, the wrong that would have been caused the Jews would have been greater than the wrong that was caused in practice to the Palestinians.”

Tamir may be right. But if we adopt that principle and place various present-day population groups on the scales of injustice, Israel should have absorbed something like a million refugees, if not far more. Israel should be in the forefront of those countries demanding that refugee rights around the world be upheld.

A penguin on a glacier.
Solent News/REX/Shutterstock

The north beckons

Large swaths of the world are going to become uninhabitable in the decades ahead. Among the reasons for this are climate change and dwindling natural resources, affecting primarily the global south. Ecological deterioration will engender political deterioration. In his 2015 book “Black Earth,” the historian Timothy Snyder suggests that a zero sum-game consciousness will reemerge in certain countries – a pitiless war for territory and resources. Accordingly, he foresees the reappearance of Darwinist ideologies, such as the Nazi doctrine that viewed the world as an arena for a life-and-death struggle for existence.

The northern countries will probably suffer less from changes in the climate. In some cases, they may even benefit from them: Already today, European winters are less severe, and certain regions of Siberia, Canada and Greenland are becoming more amenable to habitation and to the possibility of working the land. But the northern countries will have no choice: They will have to take in refugees, and plenty of them. In far greater numbers than they are now doing – possibly even hundreds of millions of people, who will migrate to the north. All other scenarios regarding the migrants are worse.

On a practical level, Israelis should have an interest in ensuring refugee rights. Even with the IDF and with the Dimona reactor, we too are in quite real danger of becoming refugees, not least because the Middle East is one of the regions that is most prone to calamitous climate change, although there are other reasons as well. Within a decade or two there will be far more people in our region, and they will be fighting over far less water.

As inhabitants of a region that is drying up rapidly, it behooves us to struggle for freedom of movement to Europe and the United States. In the future we might need it.