s is all too clear from reading today’s headlines about Central Americans arriving at the southern American border, or Africans braving the Mediterranean in open boats, the immigration policies of America and the West are beset by a fundamental tension.It can be posed as a question: who is a migrant, and who qualifies as a refugee?The distinction between those two categories has become crucial to the functioning of America’s and most of the Western world’s immigration systems.
Until that point, the “normal” immigration systems of Western countries addressed immigrants as migrants.
While not everyone applying for entry was moving for economic gain—many moved to be with family members, for instance—all were treated legally as though moving voluntarily. formally defined “refugee” in the context of immigration law.
The new understanding emerged in recognition of, and in reaction to, the widespread displacement and suffering in the wake of World War II and the bitter ethnic upheavals that accompanied decolonization. law, it was for a long time reflected primarily in pragmatic or ad-hoc accommodations. Migrants, by contrast, then became those who were refugees.
From about 1950 onward, this new understanding became codified in a series of treaties and agreements, and particularly in the creation of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This series of historical and contingent circumstances has, however, made the division between the two categories seem sharper than it may actually be.
In addition, as the Second Industrial Revolution took hold, the young country was hungry for immigrants to work in its booming factories. Should we think of them as fleeing Russian persecution, or as chasing opportunities far beyond the nearest border?
Then, as the good news spread via cheap newsprint, and the first newcomers sent back word via transatlantic telegraph of what lay beyond the Golden Door, millions and millions more—Jews and Gentiles alike—followed. As we’ve seen, the question is in a sense anachronistic—the modern legal framework distinguishing the two was created more than a half-century later.For complex and salutary historical reasons, America displayed an accepting attitude toward Jews, even a welcoming one.This alone made it markedly different from any part of the Old World.Chazan, a professor of Jewish history at New York University, presents a survey of Jewish population movements from late antiquity to the end of the 18th century.Although the Great Wave is thus technically outside his purview, it crops up in his book even more frequently than do the two other momentous events foreshadowed by his subject: the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel.Nor was this seeming bifurcation of circumstances a characteristic only of the Great Wave of East European Jews.To the contrary, as Robert Chazan sets out to show in a new book, , it is a pattern that has recurred throughout Jewish history.This was the start of the Great Wave, the largest migration in Jewish history and until recently in U. In other senses, though, it was vital: Americans debated how best to conceptualize the newcomers, and also how best to help those still left in the old country. On the one hand, some of the first major protests took place against Russian human-rights abuses, with ex-President Grover Cleveland leading a rally in Madison Square Garden, and with both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans raising money for relief funds.On the other hand, there was the emergence of the Jewish garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side, for the proprietors of which the new arrivals were not objects of charity but a source of labor.is a scholarly work—scholarly both in the sense that it offers a repository of knowledge and in the sense that a substantial section of it is devoted to categorizing and assessing the work of past thinkers on the subject. But such a reader will assuredly be interested in Chazan’s main argument, which is that as Jews have moved from place to place ever since their ancient scattering from the Promised Land, they have much more often been voluntarily seeking new opportunities than fleeing persecution.In advancing this argument, Chazan, following the late historian Salo Baron, questions the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history—in this case, the idea that all, or nearly all, Jewish population movements since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE have been forced wanderings in response to oppression and violence.