Hannah Arendt on Jewishness, the Immigrant Plight for Identity, and the Meaning of “Refugee”

Art by Tomi Ungerer from Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear — his iconic children’s book about the Holocaust

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed.”

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” George Orwell wrote in his cautionary 1945 allegory Animal Farm, the pertinence and prescience of which has continued to ripple through every present since. A generation later, Dr. King cautioned in his piercing 1963 letter on justice and nonviolent resistance: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In times of institutionally condoned injustice and inequality, we ought to find in ourselves the moral courage to reweave that mesh of mutuality with any tools we have, and we hardly have a tool more powerful than the refusal to keep silent about injustice. “We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it,”Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) wrote the year of Dr. King’s assassination, “and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” But she herself had been incubating these ideas for decades in the cells of her soul and the sinews of her identity as a German Jew who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust to become an American citizen.

Arendt addresses the complexities of that identity in a powerful essay titled “We Refugees,” penned in the 1940s and included in the Arendt anthology The Jewish Writings (public library). Although its subject is Jewishness, the essay speaks stirringly to the broader tragedy of being thrust into refugee status on account of some fragment of one’s identity — be it religion or nationality or gender or ethnicity or any other variable of exclusion and discrimination. “I speak of unpopular facts,” she writes in the piece — a sobering phrase that illuminates why such disquieting truths may give rise to “alternative facts” that offer illusory comfort.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt, still in her thirties and already an intellectual titan, writes:

In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.”

[…]

A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical political opinion. With us the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed.

With an eye to the Stockholm syndrome of the psyche that leads such “refugees” to seek assimilation by the culture into which they’ve immigrated, she writes:

The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to pump up a front, to hide the facts, to play roles.

[…]

A man* who wants to lose his self discovers, indeed, the possibilities of human existence, which are infinite, as infinite as its creation. But the recovering of a new personality is as difficult — and as hopeless — as a new creation of the world.

Arendt considers the Jewish plight of identity:

If it is true that men seldom learn from history, it is also true that they may learn from personal experiences which, as in our case, are repeated again and again. But before you cast the first stone at us, remember that being a Jew does not give any legal status in this world. If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews, it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who, unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings. I can hardly imagine an attitude more dangerous, since we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while; since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction. It is true that most of us depend entirely upon social standards; we lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us; we are — and always were — ready to pay any price in order to be accepted by society. But it is equally true that the very few among us who have tried to get along without all these tricks and jokes of adjustment and assimilation have paid a much higher price than they could afford: they jeopardized the few chances even outlaws are given in a topsy-turvy world…

more…

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