Is Citizen-Refugee the new Anti-Semite and Jew?

After World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre published Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate wherein he writes,

“To understand my classmate’s indignation [at a Jew passing a test he failed] we must recognize that he adopted in advance a certain idea of the Jew, of his nature and of his role in society […] If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”

One can’t help but wonder if we are faced with a similar structure when it comes to the refugee crisis, and the response that some citizens have in nations where people have had to seek refuge from political and civil struggles. Is the “refugee” put in the same situation as the Jew with respect to the citizen? That is, does the citizen create the refugee in order to disguise some deep misgiving? Is this racism by another name?

It seems somewhat strange to use “citizen” as a term in opposition to “refugee” since there is

plenty of discourse that uses the term citizen where it is not seen to indicate an ethical problem. I will then use italics (i.e., citizen) then to indicate the person who believes that the refugee should be something other than what they’ve become.

The citizen is the sort of person who thinks of the refugee as an opportunist, an “unwanted invader”, to use a term Samuel Parker (2015) investigates. The citizen fears the refugee, but, as we shall see, the citizen depends on the refugee to assure themselves of possessing what the refugee no longer does. It is also worth noting, that the citizen is a kind of amalgam of opinion from politicians, media, and citizens.

And just to be very clear, it is not the experience of refugee and Jew that is similar, but the structure of the opposing relations.

“He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone.” -Sartre

Can one be a citizen without needing refugees? Undoubtedly. But the citizen requires them. It is possible, too, that the citizen is alone; alone in the sense that they feel themselves “fending for themselves”, but the citizen cannot be alone if he sees himself in relation to the refugee.

But it is possible, and more likely perhaps, that anti-refugee rhetoric merely infuses some ordinary citizens with patriotism that they didn’t know they possessed…until the refugee crisis suddenly made it necessary that they take on the role of citizens.

Refugees “take” something, from the citizen in this sense, or they are poised to take something. “They ‘want’ what we have”, goes one line of damaging rhetoric. In this way, racism is made palatable for some who would like to otherwise portray themselves to the world as tolerant, reasonable people. But who thinks a refugee “wants” what we have?

In a sense, it may be true: they want a life; they want to stop running; they want to not have to worry about being exiled if they don’t agree with the political structures of their home country. So, yes, they want what we want, but they want it in their home country, their home world where everything they’ve always known is. They want, or wanted a country without senseless violence, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sartre writes further,

It is in opposing themselves to the Jew that they [the anti-Semites] suddenly become conscious of being proprietors: in representing the Jew as a robber, they have put themselves in the enviable position of people who could be robbed.”

Has the citizen not put themselves in the identical position? They have their home intact. They have precisely something that the refugee needs/wants. They have a country that doesn’t persecute them. This is not true of the refugee. Their homes are broken, and in the midst of this misfortune, the citizen is indignant that they are to be given things. Given! when others, citizens in point of fact, have worked so hard to fail to gain those same things.

There must be something preternaturally wrong with the refugee that they could not hold on to the things that they now wish for. So the citizen characterizes the refugee as being unreasonable, too, in the sense in which Sartre writes,

“But everything is made clear if we renounce any expectation from the Jew of a course of conduct that is reasonable and in conformity with his interests, if, instead, we discern in him a metaphysical principle that drives him to do evil under all circumstances, even though he thereby destroy himself. This principle, one may suspect, is magical…”

Renouncing reasonability

This logic is absurd on the face of it, but what if we make a similar case for refugees? The citizen then thinks that “magically” these people, infringing as they are on the sanctity of soil that isn’t theirs, must have self-destructed; only because they failed to keep their country intact, because they failed to accept draconian policies and dictatorial governance, because they failed to be partisan enough to go kill other people in their country…they must have designs on the asylum country; they must be parasitic, else they wouldn’t need the same things we need…

Thus, not only are they responsible for the collapse of the world that holds everything they’ve understood, but they are not even able to honestly come to the country where they seek safety. They are thus thieves, stealing from themselves, because they were not capable of staying in their homes, but also stealing from hard-working citizens who suddenly don’t have enough.

Stop me when this starts to make sense…

What reason could possibly be given for such a mess of the “reasonable”? Who could present this to themselves and honestly believe it could be true?

But, if the citizen depends on the refugee for their character to have life breathed into them, as the anti-Semite needs the Jew, then we have at least motive why they might think the way they do, even if the citizen holds on to a logic that defies belief.

The situation of the refugee

It seems bizarre to me to represent the refugee as a consistent character type, since there is no one particular nation or continent that supplies the world with all its refugees. Yes, it seems vastly unfortunate to me to be chased out of your home. I can’t imagine. But there must be, then, something that makes the refugee.

Sartre writes,

“Thus the Jew is in the situation of a Jew because he lives in the midst of a society that takes him for a Jew.”

We could use a similar formula for defining a refugee, since a refugee is not, actually, of any particular nation, gender, etc. Thus, a refugee is in the situation of a refugee, taken by others to be a refugee.

So, in point of fact, this makes the refugee a person like any other; they are relational, political, social beings who have had to deal with a total uprooting. Like the rest of us, they depend on others for sustenance and care; they want to cooperate to make a living for themselves and their families.

They are not, then, the “unwanted invaders”, not in any essential sense. That title can only be applied by someone outside the situation of refugee; the citizen who, perhaps, deems himself by all other accounts a humanist or, perhaps, a good Christian (or whatever religion), not by all the gods a racist; they are just trying to protect the interest in their sovereign soil.

Possibly, if the tables were turned and the persons I’ve denoted as “citizens” here could just as easily be the ones facing persecution in their own countries, forced 0to find shelter and safety on other shores, in other countries. Which means that the refugee, then, had to first have been a citizen before becoming a refugee, and as such they might have had a similar view. Or not.

But this does mean that the citizen should be considerably more empathetic towards the plight of persons forced out of their home countries. They were not always refugees.

The dialectic plays out then…

It would seem that the situation described by Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew is paralleled somewhat by the relationship between citizen and refugee. Both define themselves by virtue of what the other is not. That is, the dialectic that plays out between these terms, these people, depend on the other for their identity. The refugee can only be a refugee if there are citizens, whether these are citizens (as I have referred to the graceless racists), or not.

There is nothing, again, fundamental to the refugee as a type other than the fact that they are/were citizens elsewhere. But the refugee is in a particular situation. The citizen, however, needs the misfortune of others to realize what it is they have; with the coming of the refugee, the citizen is a person of the world with something to steal, something to give up if, that is, if they are feeling charitable.

And feeling comes into this too, for it is not logical to think of the refugee as a criminal for not having the things the citizen does; the refugee is not to blame for the authoritarian or totalitarian regimes they flee from; the refugee is trying to stay alive. What they want is to stay alive, and have their families live too. So the citizen feels this way about the refugee, and feels, suddenly, that their homes have been put at risk while at the same time needing that home to be who they are.

As Sandra M. Riano writes on her research on the representation of refugees in the media,

“Coverage didn’t highlight the contributions of past migrants nor the potential of incoming refugees which created a perception that migrants are liabilities. Consequently, being anti-migrant could be viewed as a matter of national protectiveness. That put refugees at risk of being victimized and blame for future societal issues.”

But this should give us pause. We should see clearly that the refugee is in trouble and is, and always was, a person like any other. Sure, there might be the odd opportunist, someone who believes that being a refugee is the way to achieve something (though that doesn’t seem intuitive to me either), the odd criminal. But the person on our doorstep needs our help. Let us treat them as such, as people who just happen to be in the situation of refugee, and do what we can.



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