Tatars, Jews, and so forth… some thoughts in northeastern Poland

I recently spent a quiet couple of days in Kruszyniany, a tiny town in northeastern Poland that is notable for having the country’s oldest functioning mosque… and thereby hangs a tale. Indeed, several tales.

This particular mosque apparently dates from the 18th century, but the community that built it has been in the region since the mid-17th century. They are Tatars, descendants of the Golden Horde that reached Eastern Europe shortly after the death of Genghis Khan. Since I’m traveling here as part of a project on borders and migration, and in particular looking into my own family’s history, when I read about the Tatars I immediately wondered what happened to them during the Nazi occupation.

The short answer is not much – but the longer answer is complicated and interesting, because there was a lot of overlap between the Tatar and Jewish communities. In part that was simply because they lived in the same region, so necessarily overlapped with each other as they overlapped with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Poles, Lithuanians, and everyone else who happened to be around. But because there weren’t many Tatars – at most around six thousand and by the 1930s more like half that – and Jewish and Muslim traditions share some important characteristics, Tatars turned to the much larger Jewish communities for some functions that in other parts of the world would have been managed by Muslims.

For example, Tatars tended to buy their meat from Jewish ritual butchers, whose methods of animal slaughter are similar to halal rules, and in some communities also had their sons circumcised by Jewish mohels operating under the supervision of an imam.

The shared practice of circumcision took on a new significance during the Nazi period, because the Nazis could expose Jewish men who were attempting to pass as Gentiles by examining their penises and some Jews in northeastern Poland attempted to pass this test by claiming to be Tatars. Holly Robertson Huffnagle, who has written a study of Tatar-Jewish relations, tells several stories of Jews who survived the Nazi period in this way, one making up a Tatar biography on the spur of the moment, others borrowing identity papers from Tatar friends or leaving their children with Tatar neighbors. 1

Of course, many more Jews survived by passing as Polish Christians or were hidden by Polish Christians – the Tatar community was limited to a small area of the northeast – and there were also some stories of personal clashes and of Tatars who worked with the Nazis. On the whole, though both Jews and Tatars recall regular, close, and friendly interactions before that period and Jewish refugees and survivors seem in general to recall the Tatars with particular affection.

Robertson also writes that the Tatar Mufti of Poland, Jacob Szynkiewicz, helped protect the Karaite Jews by calling Goebbels to make the case that they were racially Turkic. I haven’t found corroboration of that particular story, but there is plenty of evidence that the Nazis considered the Karaim related to the Tatars both by ancestry and as communities that interacted on a regular basis – and therefore (except in a few notable instances) did not subject them to ghettoization or extermination. As a result, some Jews – meaning Ashkenazim – also managed to survive the holocaust by passing as Jews – meaning Karaim.

I hadn’t known about this quirk of the Nazi racial laws (though, once I started looking, there turns out to be a rich literature), and it underlines just how crazy those laws were. The Karaim were a clever bunch and had already gotten themselves exempted from Russian anti-Semitic laws and taxes by arguing that they were from a branch of Jews who had immigrated to the Crimea in the first century BC and hence had an alibi proving they were not around Jerusalem during the crucifixion. The Nazis didn’t much care about that, but crazy as it seems, many of them were extremely assiduous about establishing the details of their race theories.

That is something I’d never thought about, and it deserves some thought. I’ve just read a long paper by Kiril Feferman on the effort the Nazis put into determining whether or not the Karaim should be considered Jewish,2 and it was not just an arbitrary decision: they commissioned studies, consulted experts from several countries, debated the various opinions, and finally concluded that the Karaim, though practicing a Judaic faith based on the Torah, were practicing a different form of Judaic faith and were not racially Jewish – hence, were not Jews for purposes of extermination.

Feferman notes that this craziness included elements of realpolitik: the Nazis wanted to maintain good relations with the Turks and other Muslim powers, and the Tatars claimed the Karaim as allies, especially in the USSR, where both had a history of opposing the Bolsheviks. He notes that the Nazis also made exceptions for a few other “quasi-Jewish groups… such as the Georgian and Bukhara Jews in France and the Mountain Jews in the North Caucasus…” and by now my head is spinning.

So, getting back to the Tatars: the tour of the mosque in Kruszyniany was conducted entirely in Polish, so I understood virtually nothing, but I did catch the words, “Charles Bronson…Charles Buchinski.” I assumed the guide was claiming Bronson as a Tatar, so checked and found that yes, indeed, his father was apparently a Tatar from Lithuania, and this touch of Mongolian heritage presumably was what made him so easy to cast as a Native American…

…and while on that search I also learned that Rudolf Nureyev was a full Tatar and took pleasure in describing himself as a Mongol barbarian.

On a more serious note, the Tatars have recently been caught up in the anti-Muslim violence sweeping Europe. A mosque built by Tatars in Gdansk in the 1990s was firebombed in 2013, and in 2014 the historic mosque and cemetery I visited in Krusziniany were defaced with anti-Muslim slogans and a drawing of a pig. Which is ugly, and the ugliness is underlined by a story in the New York Times that quotes local Tatars blaming the violence on the influx of Muslim immigrants, which they see as raising justifiable concern among Poles that is causing friction where none existed before.

Of course that reminds me of the German and Austrian Jews in the interwar years who blamed rising antisemitism on the influx of Ostjuden – Jews from Eastern Europe – who were strange, poor, and whose arrival was regarded by many western European Jews as causing ill feeling towards proper Germans and Austrians who happened to be Jewish.

That story is usually told with the moral that the western Jews lacked solidarity with their eastern brethren and their punishment was to share a common fate. But I’m going with a different moral: racism and nationalism are sicknesses and discrimination doesn’t make anyone immune from them.  The Nazis viewed Poles as a lower species of humanity, fit only for menial labor – and why should German Jews have felt more solidarity with Polish Jews than German Christians felt with Polish Christians? One can argue that they were oppressed, so should feel sympathy with their co-religionists who were still more oppressed, and some did. But many felt that after centuries of discrimination they were finally becoming recognized as normal Germans and Austrians and the Ostjude were messing that up.

I’m not trying to provide answers, but I’m interested in the questions. Everything I’ve found about the relationship between Tatars and Jews frames that story around coexistence in a vanished past when people of different faiths were neighbors and got along with one another. That story is of course simplified, but the recollections seem honest and I’m sure they reflect real experiences in many communities and situations. I find it  appealing, both as a counterpart to the more familiar stories of Polish Christian antisemitism and as a reminder that Jews and Muslims throughout much of history have lived in overlapping communities and formed common alliances. But like all such stories, it is complicated. I’m on a long journey, and this is just one stop.


Traveling in Poland, Reading about Israel, Thinking about Nationalism

I wish the news didn’t feel so familiar…

I’ve recently been traveling through Poland, visiting the region two of my grandparents came from, and it is a complicated experience, because of the ways in which those places are and are not where my grandparents lived. Przemysl is still there, many of the houses are still there, the churches are still there, two of the five synagogues are even still there… but the synagogues are abandoned and boarded up, because the Jews who used to be almost a third of the population are not there anymore, nor are their descendants… and same in Lesko, where 70% of the town used to be Jewish, and now the only remaining synagogue is an art gallery, and much of the art is Christs and Madonnas and saints… and I recently posted a funny story about a recreater acting the part of a “Jew” in a historical park.

So I’m thinking a lot about nationalism and erasure, and the way I keep seeing monuments to Polish victories and Polish historical figures and Polish deaths and Polish resistance to the Nazis and the Soviets… and then separate monuments to Jewish figures and Jewish deaths and Jewish resistance, as if those Jews weren’t Polish… and I know identity is complicated and plenty of Jews didn’t identify as Polish, or as fully Polish, though plenty of others did identify as Polish, and some even identified more as Polish than as Jewish, and some even converted and considered themselves Polish Christians until the Nazis showed up. And it wasn’t not just the Nazis, of course — in the Warsaw Jewish museum I saw an exhibit on 1968, when the Polish government purged Jews, including very thoroughly Polish Jews, as covert or incipient Zionists…

…and then, right in the middle of my exploration of that history, the Israeli knesset passed the Nation-State Bill, which says “the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — which is another way of saying if you are an Arab Israeli, you may live there but it is not your country.

I was in Israel/Palestine a few months ago and nice people were still telling me it was a multicultural democracy, though not perfect and with plenty of problems, and that everyone had equal rights, and Arabic was even an official language, alongside Hebrew. Well, with that bill Arabic ceased to be an official language, though it still has something called “special status.”

The original version of the bill would have explicitly encouraged segregated communities in which only Jews could live — as opposed to the status quo, which is communities that refuse to sell or rent to Arabs, complete with protest marches to keep Arabs out — and that section didn’t pass in full, but a clause remains saying “the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” And it’s hard to read “consolidation” as meaning anything except encouraging Jewish-only areas, and “settlement” as anything except encouraging Jews to keep expanding those areas.

Am I trying to make a parallel, an analogy, a comparison? As I’ve written before, the simple answer is no. I’m not trying to make any comparison. I’ve been traveling through Poland, immersing myself in the history of nationalism, exclusion, and segregation directed at my family and people like them, and when I read about laws being passed that tell some citizens they can stay if they behave but they have to remember they don’t belong, and maybe they can’t stay in this particular village, even if their grandparents planted those trees… it feels miserably familiar. Familiar, as in this happened to my family. They lived in Galicia for centuries, it was where they belonged, where they farmed, where they built homes and formed their culture, the place they still in exile referred to as “the old country.”

Przemysl is a lovely city on a river, surrounded by forests and rolling hills, and my ancestors were in that region for generations, and it seems to me it was their country as much as anybody’s. Their country, in the sense of the place where they lived — not of the glories of the ancient Polish nation, the ancient Hebrew nation, the ancient German nation, or any of those mythical military fantasies that quicken the blood of adolescent boys of all ages.

Those myths are what killed my cousins and left me with nothing to visit but graveyards.

Aaron the Polish Jew

A short story: make of it what you will.

I was recently in Sanok, Poland, where they have the country’s largest skansen, an open-air museum of past lifestyles and architecture, like Plymouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg in the US… except that their romantic past is the turn of the twentieth century, when my grandparents were leaving this region for Vienna and New York.

The    skansen reflects the multi-cultural nature of rural Galicia in 1900, with sections showing the lifestyles of the Eastern Orthodox Boyks and Lemks, the Catholic (now often called “ethnic”) Poles… and a large wooden synagogue and two “Jewish” houses on the main square.

Unlike Plymouth or Williamsburg, these buildings are not staffed by people in period costume or demonstrating period crafts. At least on the day I visited, the guides were dressed normally in modern dress, with one exception…

The guide for the Jewish house had a long beard, wore a long black coat and hat, and had a character name-tag: Aaron.

He spoke some English, and enthusiastically showed us around: the bedroom, for example, where he pointed out the curling iron for shaping the men’s peyos and the peculiarity of the marital bed, which could be separated when the Jewish woman had her period or had given birth, hence was “unclean,” and pushed together again after she had bathed in the mikveh. He showed us the special dishes for meat and dairy, and the sabbath dishes. All very strange and exotic…

He was funny and charming, with a gleam in his eye and a spring in his step. And, finally, as we were leaving, I had to ask: “So, are you Jewish?”

He grinned, pointed at his watch, and said: “Till six o’clock!”


The German Colony of Haifa: A Parable

This is a parable about history, which is constantly reimagined to fit an evolving present.

In Palestinian memory, Haifa holds a central place as the beautiful coastal city from which thousands of families were exiled in 1948. The precise numbers vary depending on one’s source, but roughly 95 percent of the city’s 60-70,000 Muslim and Christian residents fled or were forced from their homes, expecting to return when the fighting ended. Instead, they were barred from reentering what was now the state of Israel, and the survivors and their descendants have been forced to make new lives as best they can in the West Bank, in Jordan, in refugee camps, and in a global diaspora. Some have famously kept the keys to the houses they or their grandparents left – the key has become a symbol of Palestinian return; some tell stories of visiting Haifa in later years, knocking on the doors of their houses and asking the Jewish owners if they could walk through the rooms, see if their family pictures were still on the walls, their rugs still on the floors; others have never set foot in Israel and talk longingly of visiting the places they heard of from their parents or grand-parents.

At the Jenin Freedom Theater, the set designer told me: “My family is from Haifa, but I have seen the ocean only in Australia.” Different people have different narratives, different hopes, different dreams and nightmares, but all Palestinians agree that the Haifans should have the right to return to Haifa, even if not to a particular house; that the Israelis should acknowledge the theft of their homes and land; and that some form of reparation should be paid for the properties that were expropriated, appropriated, stolen, settled…

This Palestinian narrative is familiar to anyone who knows anything about the birth of the Israeli state – including Israelis who tell it quite differently, as a narrative of liberation and homecoming, of Arab treachery and flight, and of empty homes justifiably used to settle survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Which is why I was startled by an informational sign on Ben Gurion Avenue in Haifa telling “Die Geschichte der deutschen Kolonie/The German Colony Story,” and in particular about the Templars, a German Protestant group that settled there in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The sign tells the Templars’ story in Hebrew, German, English, and Arabic, and I was struck by two details: First, it describes young members of the Haifa colony “being recruited into the German army” in World War II and others “expelled to Australia and Germany, some of them in exchange for Jews who were trapped in wartorn Europe.” Second, “through a reparations agreement between the State of Israel and the Federal Republic, the German colonists were compensated for their loss of property.”

That second detail caught me completely off-guard: of all the people who left Haifa in the 1940s – voluntarily and not – and had their property expropriated, the only ones compensated for their loss were Germans who in many case supported and fought for the Third Reich. It isn’t even a secret; it’s explained on a tourist marker in four languages, including Arabic – which remains a standard language for local signage.1

I had recently been traveling on the West Bank, so was particularly attuned to the issue of expropriation without compensation, and only later was struck by the weirdness of detail number one: the descriptions of the local Germans as “being recruited,” suggesting it was not their own idea to go home and fight for the Nazis; the lack of any reference to Nazis; and the mention of Jews who “were trapped” (in passive voice, with no one doing the trapping) in “wartorn Europe” – which could presumably mean anyplace from Leningrad to London, though these particular Jews were trapped in the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.2

A little research establishes that the Templars were closely connected to the National Socialists (Nazis) and their role was far from passive. In Nazis in the Holy Land 1933-1948, Heidemarie Wawrzyn writes that with only two exceptions “the entire NS leadership in Palestine was recruited from the Temple Society.” 3 Karl Ruff, an architect born to Templar parents in Haifa in 1904, made contact with the German Nazis in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power, and helped form a core of support that grew into a full-blown Palestinian branch by 1933. A year later, Ludwig Buchhalter, a teacher at the Templar school in Jerusalem, was active in getting the German consul removed from office for having a Jewish wife, arguing “a person who has relations with Jewish circles cannot be loyal to German interests…”4 There are numerous reports of joint Nazi-Templar events, including marches in uniform through Jerusalem carrying swastika flags. Some historians try to downplay this by noting that only 20-30 percent of Templars became members of the NS, but that is at least double the highest rate of Nazi party membership in Germany.

Exploring this story, I was increasingly puzzled by the euphemistic wording of that sign — in Israel, of all places — and  the idea that Israel compensated a substantially Nazi population for lost property in a city famous for the mass seizure of homes and refusal to even discuss compensation.

The official logic of the compensation was that it was a relatively minor detail in the agreement for much larger monetary reparations being paid by Germany to Israel. That larger project was ferociously opposed by many people – not only Germans hesitant to pay but also Israelis irate at the idea of taking money from Germany and non-Israeli Jews irate at the idea of Israel accepting money in the name of world Jewry. Nonetheless a reparations agreement was signed in 1952 and included a side deal to compensate the Templars, though that part remained a touchy subject and only in 1965 did Israel agree to pay them $14,400,000. The final agreement was signed in Sydney, the Australian government having labored assiduously on behalf of the Germans who had been resettled there.5

Obviously, the Arab exiles from Haifa were in a very different situation: they had no government making a major reparations deal to which they could be a footnote; there were far more of them, meaning any compensation agreement would put Israel on the hook for far more money; and they had no major Western power on the level of Australia or Germany backing their claim. (There is a report of one Palestinian-American, Khalil Totah, appealing to the US government to help him get compensation for his seized lands, but I have not been able to confirm the details and in any case it led nowhere.)6

More to the point, history is written in the present: the Arab exiles are still regarded by Israeli officialdom as the enemy, and remembering them as legitimate residents of Haifa would make problems both for a government that regards their claims as a continuing threat and for all the people now living in their houses. By contrast, it is easy to understand why many current residents would like to think of Haifa as a city that was always European.

There has always been a deep cultural affinity between Ashkenazi Jews and their fellow Europeans, and before the Nazi period a particular affinity for German culture. Ashkenazi was the medieval Hebrew word for “German,” and Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, famously proposed German as the national language of Israel. 7 The Templar colony of Sarona, established in 1871 just north of the Arab city of Jaffa, preceded the first Jewish settlement in what is now Tel Aviv and pioneered the export of Jaffa oranges. Now a thriving, upscale neighborhood, Sarona has a museum tracing the history of the German settlement, which includes a room devoted to the Nazi period, but also photos and memorabilia of the early German colonists, their lovely houses, and their fertile farms.

Searching for more information on the Haifa story, I found another historical marker in “The German Colony Story,” which – again in all four languages – presents “The Contribution of the Templar’s Generation of Founders” in terms that strikingly mimic the Zionist settler narrative:

In the middle of a sparsely populated and largely barren land, laboring under deficient rule, hundreds of German settlers characterized by great energy, resourcefulness, religious fervor and a variety of professional backgrounds, established a garden city unlike any that existed in the country until then. Outside the Haifa city walls, a boulevard sprang up stretching from the foot of the hills to the sea. It was lined with gardens and homes, remarkable for their beauty.

In 1869 Haifa still trailed Akko (Acre) as a regional port, and the Templars made key contributions to the city’s development, bringing modern machinery and agricultural techniques. Nonetheless, they were never more than a tiny fraction of the local population: by the mid-1880s Haifa was home to about 300 Germans and 6,000 Arabs – variously called “Syrians” or “natives” in contemporary reports – including a substantial class of “wealthy merchants or large landed proprietors,” notable for their fluency in French or Italian and their Parisian furniture and fashions (albeit wearing the fez rather than European hats).8 Which is to say the Germans helped establish Haifa as a large and beautiful “garden city,” but that city was overwhelmingly populated by Arab/Palestinians, who built and owned many of the lovely homes and maintained much of the commercial life.

By the turn of the twentieth century Haifa’s population had expanded to 20,000, now including about a thousand Jews, mostly from Morocco and Algeria. It became a major site of European Jewish immigration after World War I, and by the mid-1940s slightly over half the city’s 128,000 residents were Jews. The rest were still mostly Arab/Palestinians — and would shortly be gone. By the end of the fighting in 1948 the total population had shrunk by a quarter, and 96 percent were Jewish.9

Today, Haifa’s population is about 80 percent Jewish and 11 percent Arab/Palestinian,10 which, depending on one’s perspective, can be framed as pleasantly diverse or the enduring result of ethnic cleansing. And that brings me back to those German Colony historical markers.

Israel and Germany are now allies, Haifa is celebrated as a model of multicultural coexistence, and those markers in the heart of the old port provide a nice history to match its current image: once largely barren and sparsely populated, Haifa was settled by industrious Germans who founded a unique garden city, planted vineyards and olive groves, created new industries, and built a power station and a regional transport system. In 1902 Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland, envisioned this European outpost as the economic center of a future land of Israel, and it soon became a magnet for Jewish settlement. Eventually global politics forced the Germans to leave, but they were paid proper compensation and Haifa today is a lovely, cosmopolitan center, a perfect blend of European civilization and Middle Eastern charm. The Arab population remains relatively sparse numerically, but continues to thrive, a vibrant community with popular nightclubs, restaurants, and a rich arts scene.

It is a pleasant history and reasonably accurate, as long as one sticks to a particular perspective, is careful about one’s language, and ignores unpleasant details.



Report from Paris: The National Center for the History of Immigration

In a conscious display of historical irony, France has established its Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an astonishing building constructed for the International Colonial Exhibition of 1931. The facade of this building, which first housed the Musée des Colonies, is a huge cement bas-relief of scenes from “greater France” — elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, temples, sailing ships, and toiling or warlike natives of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, set off with mentions of what each area has contributed to the mother country: rice, rubber, cotton, tea…

Within, huge frescoes continue the theme, but the timeline leading up the stairs tells a different story: how France itself has been a center of immigration for centuries, and how its laws and narratives have shifted over the years, sometimes embracing outsiders, sometimes trying to shut them out, and sometimes changing the notion of who is or isn’t an outsider.

This is particularly significant because France — la belle France, cradle of liberty and wonderful cheeses — is so often mentioned by xenophobes as an example of the nation-state ideal, a place with a homogeneous population that lived happily together until the recent onslaught of brown-skinned foreigners, who now threaten the brave traditions of secularism, feminism, enlightenment ideals, and cheese-making.

The museum’s timeline starts in 1789, when the French revolutionaries declared the equality of all citizens — and simultaneously established the differentiation of French citizens from foreigners. Previously, such a differentiation had not mattered, since peasants were peasants, whatever their place of birth. Now, rather than lords and peasants, we had citizens and non-citizens… and the first foreigner highlighted on the timeline is Frédéric Chopin, arriving in 1831 “like numerous intellectual, military, political, and artistic Polish insurgents after the failed revolt against the power of the Czar.”

Before the 20th century there was no attempt to control entry to France, but through the 19th century there was increased interest in tabulating and identifying foreign residents. The first census to count foreigners, in 1851, found a third of a million, which by 1881 had grown to a million, making up 3% of the population. The country had to address a new question: when does a foreigner cease to be foreign? In 1889 France came up with one answer, establishing automatic citizenship for third-generation immigrants — people born in France to parents who were also born in France.

At that point most of the country’s foreign residents were European, but that didn’t mean they were easily assimilated. There were deadly clashes between French workers and Italian immigrants, sometimes mounting to chasses aux Italiens (Italian hunts) in which immigrants were beaten and killed. There was also the Dreyfus affair, in which an army captain from a French Jewish family was convicted of treason on the basis of forged evidence and sent to Devil’s Island, in French Guiana. This affair notably split French intellectuals and artists, with Degas (a particularly vicious anti-Semite), Renoir, and Cézanne expressing their distaste for the “foreigners” — so denominated though some Jewish families had been in France for many generations — while Monet and Mary Cassatt lined up on the other side, along with Pissarro, who was Jewish, born in the Danish West Indies, and sometimes bore the brunt of his colleagues’ prejudice.1 (The museum timeline doesn’t go into the Impressionists’ opinions, but does include later letters requesting French citizenship from Picasso and Apollinaire — I had not known that the latter was originally an Italian-born Pole named Wilhelm Kostrowicki.)

The timeline moves on through World War I, when France recruited hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from allied countries and its various colonies, and established the first national identity cards to keep track of them. By 1931 France had overtaken the United States as the country with the most foreign residents: 2.7 million, representing about 7% of the population. Then came the Depression, and with it a flood of new laws limiting the rights of non-native workers, as well as attempts to send them back to their countries of origin. In World War II foreigners came briefly back in fashion — 178,000 African-French subjects (not to be confused with citizens) were recruited to fight for the motherland — and 15,000 French citizens were stripped of their citizenship. (Many were Communists or people who had left the country, but 40% were Jews, including Marc Chagall, characterized as “a painter of no national interest,” and the young Serge Gainsbourg — and that doesn’t include the 110,000 French-Algerian Jews who likewise ceased to be officially French, among them Jacques Derrida.)

In the upstairs galleries, a poster known as l’affiche rouge gives a sense of how the Vichy government used the fantasy of a pure French heritage to discredit its opponents. The poster sneers at fighters remembered in hindsight as members the valiant French resistance, setting off the foreign names of recently executed fighters with the notations “Polish Jew,” “Italian Communist,” and “Spanish Red.” It warns:

If the French pillage, steal, commit sabotage, and kill… It is always foreigners who command them. It is always the unemployed and professional criminals who carry out the orders. It is always the Jews who inspire them…. This gangsterism is not an expression of wounded Patriotism, it is a foreign plot against the lives of the French and against the sovereignty of France.

One question the museum tackles less thoroughly is the overlap between colonization and immigration. It tends to characterize these as separate, though overlapping, issues, but throughout treats France as a European territory in which non-Europeans are by definition immigrants — which ignores the French citizens of Algeria, when it was part of France, and of the current French departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane, La Réunion, and Mayotte. For example, when noting that in 1975 France had 3.4 million foreign residents, the largest groups being Portuguese and Algerians, it does not mention that some of the Algerian foreigners may have previously been French — though it does note that in 1993 the loi Mehaignerie modified the automatic assumption of French citizenship for French-born children of people born in France in cases where the parents were born in regions that were no longer part of France… presumably to deal with a potential surplus of  dark-skinned heirs to nos ancêtres les Gaulois.2

I’m not trying to recap the whole museum — a five-hour visit was not sufficient to explore its range and depth — but a couple more details are worth mentioning. One is the charming irony that the most familiar evocation of an indigenous French heritage, the comic book adventures of Asterix, Obelix, and their fellow Gauls holding out against the Roman Empire, was created by a pair of second-generation immigrants: Alberto Uderzo, whose parents immigrated from Italy shortly before his birth, and René Goscinny, the son of Polish Jews.

The other detail requires a little background: In October 2010, a group of roughly 500 undocumented workers, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, occupied the museum demanding regularization of their residence in France, and remained through January 2011. I have not sorted out the details of that story, but noted a nice footnote in the section of the museum dedicated to donations. The idea of this section is that visitors should be inspired to donate material about their own immigrant families and history in France, among the donations is a baby-foot table (what Americans call foosball and other Anglophones table football) made by the Bonzini family, descendants of Italian immigrants who are one of the main French manufacturers. The Bonzinis originally donated the table for an exhibition called Allez la France! Football et immigration, histoires croisées (Go France! Soccer and immigration, intertwining histories), which was to be followed by an exhibit at Le Musée National du Sport called Allez la France! Les footballeurs africains sont là! (Go France! The African footballers have arrived!). Since the point of these exhibits was the French team’s African-born or African-descended stars, the Bronzinis took the high road and reacted to the occupation of the museum by donating another ten tables to help the occupiers occupy their time.

So… altogether an interesting visit, and much to think about.

Ethnic marionettes: Chinese, Arab, Jew


A Tale of Two Signs

In the Jewish settler area of Hebron, an apparent ghost town of closed shops, houses populated by Palestinians who are forbidden to use their front doors or drive on the streets, and Israelis who seem to live almost entirely indoors or in walled courtyards, a series of informative signs trace the history and current situation of “Jews” in Hebron.

I put the word “Jews” in quotation marks because in this instance I’m quoting a particular sign I photographed, which describes the city’s “large, thriving commercial and shopping centers, off-limits to Jews…” The stress on “large” and “thriving” underlines the point that, although 3% of Hebron’s physical area — the urban center of the southern West Bank — is off-limits to the city’s 200,000 Palestinian residents (both Muslim and Christian), with checkpoints manned by soldiers to enforce that prohibition, the remaining 97% of the city is open to Palestinians and off-limits to Jews…

…except, in fact, it isn’t off-limits to Jews. Like all the other Palestinian cities, which are classified as “Area A,”1 most of Hebron is off-limits to Israelis, but open to Jews of all other nationalities — along with Muslims, Christians, Samaritans, atheists, and people of any other faith, or lack of faith. I was staying in a hotel in the thriving city center, eating in crowded restaurants, wandering the bustling streets, being importuned by eager merchants — and no one ever suggested that my being Jewish was an issue.

Even when a pair of Israeli soldiers stopped me at a checkpoint, asked my religion, and refused to let me pass because I was Jewish, they were preventing me from walking down the one-block, non-commercial street in front of the Ibrahimi mosque and directing me to go around by side streets to the city center.

The misleading wordplay is not the only problem with this sign — the elision of the city’s most famous terrorist attack, by a Jewish gunman at the mosque, might take precedence there2 — but I found it particularly striking because it so clearly conflicted with my own experience. By the time I reached Hebron I’d been on the West Bank for a week, talking with lots of people, including ardent Palestinian nationalists, and routinely identifying myself as Jewish (because I didn’t want anyone to think I was hiding that detail). Without exception, everyone responded that their problem was with Israelis or with Zionists, but not with Jews – as always in Muslim countries, I was treated to explanations of how Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all “people of the book,” and since this region has a particularly strong consciousness of the three religions’ historical coexistence, I was regaled with stories of Jewish friends and neighbors and in a couple of cases of Jewish relatives. So I was intensely aware that simply being Jewish does not get anyone barred from Palestinian cities.

There’s plenty more to be said about all of that, but for a start it got me thinking about the ubiquitous signs marking entrances to “Area A.” For people unfamiliar with the region’s odd divisions: the West Bank is often described as Palestinian territory, but only the urban areas, comprising a bit less than 20% of the total land, are under direct Palestinian control. Those are the scattered pockets classified as Area A, which Israelis are forbidden to enter (except soldiers, who enter them daily to conduct raids and arrests). Area B, accounting for another 20% of the West Bank, includes smaller Palestinian towns and villages, and is under Palestinian civil control with joint Palestinian/Israeli police/military control, and likewise barred to Israelis. The remaining 60% (actually, a bit more) is under full Israeli civil and military control; this includes the settlements, virtually all the unsettled countryside, and most of the main roads, all of which are open to Israelis – hence the signs at highway exits leading to any Palestinian city, town, or village warning Israeli drivers it is dangerous and illegal to go there.

Or maybe that should be “Israeli” drivers…

As I rode buses around the West Bank, I noticed that highway exits routinely have these signs warning Israelis that entering Area A is “dangerous to your lives” and “against the Israeli law” and many exits have checkpoints manned by soldiers controlling who can pass – but they are rarely if ever the same exits. The military checkpoints are at exits leading to Jewish settlements, to prevent Palestinians from taking those roads, while nothing but the signs prevents Israelis from entering areas A and B.

Since anyone could simply drive past the signs and no one ever checked my identification papers while traveling in the West Bank, I began asking Israelis if they bothered to follow the rules. At first I was asking Jewish Israelis, and overwhelmingly they said they did. Even the activists of Machsom [Checkpoint] Watch said they tended to stay in the areas allowed to them, and I was given to understand that only the most radical leftists traverse the boundaries…

…but then I was in Nazareth, a city of non-Jewish Israelis (variously identifying as Arab Israelis or Palestinian Israelis), and got to talking with a young woman who mentioned that everyone goes shopping in Jenin, the northernmost West Bank city, which is less than thirty kilometers away, because prices are much lower than in Israel.

Now, Israel prides itself on being  a democracy with the same laws for all citizens, whatever their religion. And yes, I’d always taken that with several grains of salt, but I still assumed the official signs saying it was illegal for Israelis to go into Area A meant it was illegal for Israelis to go there – not just Israeli Jews. So I asked, “Isn’t it illegal for Israelis to go to the West Bank?”

“Oh, they don’t care if we go there,” the young woman replied.  Then she laughed, and added: “They’d prefer if we’d all go there and stay.”

I took this to mean the laws were enforced selectively or capriciously – a familiar concept, by no means only in Israel – and the signs saying it is illegal for Israelis to enter Area A were routinely flouted by Arab/Palestinian Israelis… until I was doing some background research for this post and stumbled on B’Tselem’s checkpoint page, which includes the regulations for Jalameh checkpoint between Nazareth and Jenin – and read that crossing at Jalameh is forbidden “to Israelis, with the exception of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.”

So… that suggests Israeli Arabs/Palestinians are in fact allowed into the areas where Israeli Jews are barred. And indeed, that’s the de facto situation… which shouldn’t be confused with de jure. A recent article in Haaretz says Israeli Arabs make up more than half the enrollment at the Arab American University of Jenin (among some 8,000 studying in West Bank universities) and there is a regular bus system between the campus and their homes in northern Israel. Which seems pretty official, until a note confirms what the young woman told me in Nazareth:  “Officially, Israelis are prohibited from entering Area A, but the Israel Defense Forces does not enforce the ban when it comes to Arab citizens.”

Hence, the tale of two signs in the looking-glass world of the West Bank: one saying “Jews,” though in practice it only means Israelis; the other saying “Israelis,” though in practice it only means Jews.


Welcome to Normalization

In February, I spent ten days in the West Bank, the region of Israel/Palestine that is officially off-limits to Israelis and — theoretically, maybe, roughly — intended to become an independent Palestinian state if some version of the “two-state solution” becomes a reality.

When I mentioned to friends in the United States that I was headed there, many warned me to be careful — the West Bank is only mentioned in the US media when there is violence, so we associate it with violence. When I mentioned my plans to Jewish Israelis, the reactions were more varied: some were concerned about my safety, some puzzled why I wanted to go, some curious to hear what it is like, some irritated that I would expect to learn something about the region on a short visit — with the assumption I would come away more critical of Israeli policies — some encouraging me and saying they wished they could go there as well.

As it turned out, the West Bank matched neither the warnings nor my expectations. First of all, I had not realized how many young tourists are traveling there, and was startled to find the words they frequently used to describe the occupied territories, as compared with official Israel, were “relaxed” and “laid back.”

I was staying in hostels full of young backpackers from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Latin America, Japan, and China. Some were there specifically to explore the political/military situation and experience the occupation: some expected to write about it, to bring back pictures, to make films. But many were just traveling between Jordan and Israel, seeing someplace new, having a vacation. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Israel and the Palestinian Territories begins the relevant section on cheerful note:

“Welcome” is a word you hear a lot in the West Bank. Whether it is shouted by a street trader in a bustling souk, expressed with a smile over a plate of falafel, or roared from a taxi over booming Arabic music, Palestinians are forever wanting to make tourists feel appreciated.

I heard that word constantly, from children, young adults, and elders, along with “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?” When I answered, “America,” I got a range of responses, from “Good!” to “You like Trump?” But always accompanied by smiles and “Welcome.”

I recommend any traveler visiting Israel spend some time on the West Bank — not just a day-trip to Bethlehem, but staying a while, going to nightclubs in Ramallah, exploring the old city of Nablus, visiting the Freedom Theater in Jenin, or hiking around the Jordan Valley — and be assured, there are plenty of other travelers making those trips (women as well as men, often on their own), and having a wonderful time.

None of which belies the realities of the political situation. The Lonely Planet guide continues: “it is true that dirt-poor refugee camps, barbed-wire checkpoints and the towering separation wall are rarely far from the eye…” Indeed, that wall has itself become a tourist attraction, thanks to the British artist Banksy and an international horde of graffiti taggers. I was there during a relatively quiet time, but there were daily stories in the media about military raids and arrests, and the friendly conversations with locals never went for long without touching on the occupation.

My first night in Ramallah, I got in a long discussion with Nidal Abu Maria, who owns the Habibi Hostel, where I was staying. Nidal speaks perfect English and is active in organizing tours, informational programs, and other forms of cultural exchange between Palestinians and foreign visitors. In the past he was also involved in dialogs with Israeli groups, but says he stopped taking part in those interchanges because, “I like connections between people, but I don’t want to normalize occupation.”

That word, “normalization,” has become increasingly common due to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, but it has a long history in Israel. Since the dream of an Israeli state began to seem a possibility in the early twentieth century, Zionist leaders have regularly expressed the wish that this state could simply be considered a “normal” nation like France — almost always France;1 sometimes Britain; never like Egypt, Lebanon, Nigeria, Mexico, or Japan. That choice is notable because France is not “normal” in the sense of being typical; on the contrary, it has long been held up as an ideal, particularly for German-speaking Central Europeans who dreamed of living wie Gott in Frankreich (like God in France), and more particularly for Central European Jews: Joseph Roth, arriving in France via Vienna and Berlin in the interwar years, wrote, “Paris is where the Eastern Jew begins to become a Western European.”

The tricky thing about Israel becoming “normal” in this sense is that it is not in Europe and most of its population is not European — or at least no more European than the population of neighboring Lebanon, which has a prior claim: Beirut was already hailed in the mid-nineteenth century as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Which could be my cue to digress and note that what is commonly traced as “European” culture is more accurately Mediterranean, that Judeo-Christian culture is specifically from this part of the Mediterranean, and that the Islamic Mediterranean preserved classical “European” culture while Europe was enduring its “Dark Ages…”

…but for now I want to get back to the West Bank and “normalization.” Because the Israeli dream of normalcy is very much alive, and these days is very much dependent on not thinking about what is happening on the West Bank and Gaza, much less in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

That was another thing I didn’t understand before visiting the region: Like the West Bank, Israel tends to make international news when there is violence, or the threat of violence, or at least the ominous specter of violence. So we tend to think of Israel as trapped in a conflict that needs to get resolved, whether through a two-state solution, a one-state solution, or even a nasty war — but, in any case, resolved. A lot of conversations in Israel reinforce that impression, but after a while I realized that if I didn’t steer the talk in that direction it needn’t go there and most Israelis could probably go for days without mentioning the Occupied Territories or any Palestinian conflict. Because, quite simply, it doesn’t affect their day-to-day life. Yes, they see soldiers all around, often carrying automatic rifles, but being in the army is a basic part of growing up for most Israelis, so they’re used to that. And it is easy to live within a few minutes walk of the wall that blocks off the West Bank and never see it, or ever talk to a Palestinian — or to talk to Palestinians, but not about that.

I was in the region to learn about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, so I kept asking people where they thought things were headed, and most of the conversations went more or less as expected–a range of responses, some guarded optimism, a lot of pessimism — but one evening during the first week I was talking with a young man in a bookstore in Jerusalem and he said, “I don’t see why things can’t just stay the way they are.”

That was a new idea to me. I had never considered the possibility that anyone could be comfortable with the current situation. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Indeed, when I mentioned that response to Palestinians, their standard reaction was, “Of course that’s what they think — this has been working for them for fifty years. Why would they want to change?”

Once I absorbed that point of view, other discussions began to feel completely different. For example, when Israelis talked optimistically about projects that bring together Jews and Arabs or young people from Israel and the West Bank, or that bus groups of children from the West Bank to Israeli beaches in the summer. Because if you frame those projects as steps toward a solution they seem positive, but if you frame them as ways to reduce tension and let off steam while extending the wall, maintaining the checkpoints, expanding the settlements, ensuring the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan do not return, and carrying out daily raids, arrests, and frequently killings on the West Bank — that is, while keeping things the way they are — they feel not like progress but like ways of normalizing the status quo.

Though the details are unique to Israel/Palestine, the process is increasingly familiar around the world. It is the process by which the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were framed as emergency actions, in the interests of national security, and because the situation was temporary the US could not be held responsible for creating longterm solutions, and yet we must maintain security… so, after a while, we’re just there, because we have to be there… and we are tightening our immigration laws and border controls to prevent people from those regions from entering the United States, because we live in an increasingly dangerous world, the proof being that we have to keep the troops over there, and those people over there.

Meanwhile we go on with our lives, and the rising paranoia is belied by the lowest domestic murder rate in the last half-century.2 And although “illegal” Mexican immigration is also lower than it has been in decades, we are building a wall on the border…

…and I’m not just making an analogy: Israeli companies are exporting their well-tested technology around the world, so, for example, Elbit Systems has provided Arizona with the same electronic detection fence system used to separate Israelis from Palestinians and now boasts on its website that “recent… activities in the homeland security area include initiation of the first phase of the Integrated Fixed Towers program for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and the award of contracts for homeland security solutions for Latin American customers.”3

All of which inevitably leads to the question: if this is a global situation, where do the tourists visiting the West Bank fit in, and why are we “welcome”? I asked various Palestinians, and the usual answer was they want to be open to the world, with fewer walls, fewer borders, and more communication. People said they want outsiders to come and meet them,  talk with them, see the situation, experience the occupation, learn that they are not terrorists, not the problem…

…and, for the moment, speaking for myself, I will argue that this not just another form of normalization, because despite the tourist tips in the Lonely Planet guide, visiting the West Bank is not viewed by most non-Palestinians as normal. The Separation Wall and security checkpoints are not there only — or maybe even primarily — to control and limit Palestinians, but also to make them invisible, seen only as nameless extras in news stories from a distant, foreign, frightening place. By going there we can do at least a little to counter that narrative. So although it is not fair that we can cross that wall and pass those checkpoints so much more easily than they can, for the moment we can, and as long as we remain welcome, we should.



Remembering Eqbal Ahmad

April 20, 2018:

As I watch tens of thousands of Palestinians mass along the militarized zone separating Gaza from Israel, I keep thinking of my friend Eqbal Ahmad. Edward Said described Eqbal as “a man of enormous personal charisma, incorruptible ideals, unfailing generosity and sympathy towards others” — to all of which I can testify — as well as “perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world.”1

Though Eqbal was Pakistani, he had been a leading fighter in the Algerian rebellion against France, and the story I’m thinking of took place in 1968. The PLO had just surfaced as a military force and Eqbal was asked to keynote a meeting in the US for an audience of Arab students and activists excited at the prospect of an armed confrontation with the state of Israel. Eqbal spoke as a hardened revolutionary fighter, but not in the way his listeners expected:

After seeing what I saw in Algeria, I couldn’t romanticize armed struggle. The costs to the people of Algeria were very high. OK, they agreed to pay the cost, but it was high. Also, I knew what many people would not recognize even today, which is that the Algerians lost the war militarily, but won it politically. They were successful in isolating France morally. So the primary task of revolutionary struggle is to achieve the moral isolation of the adversary in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world.

I argued that a successful armed struggle proceeds to out-administer the adversary and not out-fight him. And that the task of out-administration was a task of out-legitimizing the enemy. Finally, I argued that this out-administration occurs when you identify the primary contradiction of your adversary and expose that contradiction…. Israel’s fundamental contradiction was that it was founded as a symbol of the suffering of humanity… at the expense of another people who were innocent of guilt. It’s this contradiction that you have to bring out. And you don’t bring it out by armed struggle. In fact, you suppress this contradiction by armed struggle. The Israeli Zionist organizations continue to portray the Jews as victims of Arab violence….

I said, “This is a moment to fit ships in Cyprus, fit boats in Lebanon and say, ‘We’re not going to destroy Israel. That is not our intent. We just want to go home.’ Reverse the symbols of Exodus. See if the Israelis are in a mood to sink some ships. They probably will. Let them do so. Some of us will die. Let us die….” 2

Said, who met Eqbal at that event, was impressed, arranged for Eqbal to make this proposal to the leaders of the PLO and forever recalled it as a missed opportunity. Maybe now, fifty years later, some version of this plan is coming to fruition.

I encourage everyone to check out Eqbal’s writing and speeches on other sites, in books, and on video. Meanwhile, here are a few personal stories:

I’m pretty sure I first met Eqbal in Woods Hole, when he came to talk about his arrest and upcoming trial as a member of the Harrisburg 7, one of the famous conspiracy trials of the Vietnam War era. His fellow defendants were all Catholic clergy, including Phillip Berrigan, and Eqbal often told how his mother called him when she heard the news, saying: “I can understand you being against the Vietnam war. I can even understand you being arrested for this. But what are you doing  being arrested with a group of priests and nuns?!”

After that meeting, Eqbal and his wife Julie were fairly frequent visitors, along with their baby daughter Dora. But the evening I remember best he came alone, fresh off a plane from Europe. The in-flight movie had been The Man Would Be King, and Eqbal was bubbling with enthusiasm: “It was wonderful, a great, old-fashioned action movie — fascist, of course, but wonderful!”

There was wine with dinner, and Eqbal had a few glasses and soon was telling stories of his youth — that was the only time I heard him talk about seeing his father killed when he was a small boy, hiding behind his father’s legs as the killers attacked, and about fighting in Kashmir. My parents eventually drifted off to bed, but I stayed up, sixteen years old and enthralled. He talked about his student days in Paris, meeting young revolutionaries from around the world.  He was particularly struck by the Algerian students who were going home to fight with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) against French colonialism. He decided he had to get involved, went to Tunis, where he had been given an address on a back street, knocked, and the door was answered by a slim black man who spoke French with a Caribbean accent — Frantz Fanon. The stories went on and on and I remember very little beyond the pleasure of sitting late into the night, listening…

…and then there was his food. Eqbal was an astonishing cook — my understanding is that he was arrested with the Catholic leftists because they had gathered for one of his famous meals — and he appreciated my appreciation of his talents. I remember one evening at his apartment on the edge of Harlem when he invited me to dinner and spent the whole evening whispering apologies because a dear friend had arrived in town unexpectedly and was an observant Hindu, so the planned feast had to be sidelined for a vegetarian substitute — still delicious, and I was mostly there for the company, but Eqbal was inconsolable.

There are other stories, but at the moment I keep coming back to that image of Exodus. Partly because I watched the movie in preparation for my trip to Israel/Palestine and recently wrote about the inescapable parallels between Jewish immigrants fighting to enter Palestine and current Palestinians facing Israeli troops at the Gaza fence. Partly because the proliferating images of blonde, blue-eyed Ahed Tamimi as an image of Palestinian resistance recall the choice of Paul Newman to represent the archetypal Israeli fighter. And partly because I remember Eqbal’s enthusiasm for The Man Who Would Be King, and now realize his delight in a good action film was not an apolitical quirk, but on the contrary was integral to his sense of how popular images could be harnessed and redirected to effect change.

I saw Eqbal more rarely in later years. He founded a university in Pakistan and was there much of the time, while I was touring as a musician and writing for the Boston Globe, so one way and another our paths didn’t cross. Our last meeting was at his retirement from Hampshire College, where he had taught for some years. Edward Said and Howard Zinn were there, among many others, and I spoke briefly about Eqbal’s cooking. At the party afterwards he asked me to come to Pakistan and work with him, and I’ll always wonder if he was serious about that, and how my life might have been different if he was and I’d gone.


Mary Antin: Idealist of Immigration

“What terms of entry may we impose on the immigrant without infringing on his inalienable rights, as defined in our national charter?” Mary Antin asked in 1914. Her answer:

Just such as we would impose on our own citizens if they proposed to move about the country in companies numbering thousands, with their families and portable belongings…. Whatever limits to our personal liberty we are ourselves willing to endure for the sake of the public welfare, we have a right to impose on the stranger from abroad; these, and no others.

Antin had become a best-selling author two years earlier with The Promised Land, a memoir of her migration to the United States from the Russian Pale of Settlement (the region to which Jews were restricted) in the 1890s. Written on the prompting of Josephine Lazarus — sister of Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty — it is a charming book, exploring the experience of immigration and the way her understanding of the world shifted as her circumstances changed:

When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely, Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. All the little girls I knew lived in Polotzk, with their fathers and mothers and friends. Russia was the place where one’s father went on business. It was so far off, and so many bad things happened there, that one’s mother and grandmother and grown-up aunts cried at the railroad station…

I learned, as I grew older, that much as Polotzk disliked to go to Russia, even more did Russia object to letting Polotzk come. People from Polotzk were sometimes turned back before they had finished their business, and often they were cruelly treated on the way…

Antin’s father often went away to Russia, and she writes that when he emigrated to the United States the word “America” meant little more to her than “Odessa.” She was ten years old when he left, and it was three more years before he could earn the money to bring his wife and daughters. Their journey through Russia and Germany gave Antin a sense of the bureaucratic traps and barriers faced by poor travelers, and her experience in the Boston public schools opened up a new world of possibilities. She had her first story published in English less than a year after arriving and her first book, From Plotzk to Boston,  in 1899, when she was eighteen.

Antin was an ardent believer in the ideals exemplified by Lazarus’s poem and The Declaration of Independence,  and as an activist for women’s education and immigrant rights she fought to make her fellow citizens live up to them. When her memoir became a best-seller, she followed with a book-length polemic: They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration.

Antin began this book by asking “a question of principle”: “Have we any right to regulate immigration?” Her response was that it was meaningful simply to ask that question, and that the answer should not be taken for granted. She then got down to particulars, concluding that some limits make sense for reasons of public health or safety, but only the sort that could equitably be placed on the movement of US citizens within the country:

Has, then, the newest arrival the same rights as the established citizen? According to the Declaration, yes; the same right to live, to move, to try his luck. More than this he does not claim at the gate of entrance; with less than this we are not authorized to put him off.

I have rarely heard that idea expressed in recent years, but in 1914 it was still relatively common. The concepts of rights and controls based on citizenship and solid nation-state borders were still in their infancy, and modern readers will find her next passage surprising:

We do not question the right of an individual foreigner to enter our country on any peaceable errand; why, then, question the rights of a shipload of foreigners? Lumping a thousand men together under the title of immigrants does not deprive them of their humanity and the rights inherent in humanity; or can it be demonstrated that the sum of the rights of a million men is less than the rights of one individual?

Before World War I, people routinely crossed national and imperial borders without identification documents — hence all the stories of family names that were changed in the process. The crossings could be fraught: Antin’s family was stopped at the Russian-German border by an official who insisted they would have to upgrade their transatlantic ship tickets or pay a heavy indemnity, and it took a long day’s finagling before they made it through. But the modern world of passports and national identities was still being formed, and Antin was fighting not only to prevent the imposition of new limitations but the normalization of new ideas we now take for granted.

She had some notable blind spots: while staunchly defending the rights and virtues of Jews, Italians, Hungarians, and Greeks, she seemed unaware that Asians had been barred from entering the US either en masse or individually since 1882. She wrote a few passages about race that still resonate:

Some people see no indication of the future in the fact that race-blending has been going on here from the beginning of our history, because the elements we now get are said to differ from us more radically than the elements we assimilated in the past. To allay our anxiety on this point, we have only to remind ourselves that none of the great nations of Europe that present such a homogeneous front to-day arose from a single stock…

But what Antin meant by “different races” was the varied European stocks, with perhaps some leavening from the Middle East — none of her books mentions African Americans, and a contemporary reviewer in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review described her memoir as “a paean of triumph not only of Mary Antin, but of the many other millions (provided they be not black) who have poured into the country from its foundation.”1

Antin did take note of the continent’s original inhabitants, writing that Anglo-American descendants of early settlers cannot “lay claim to the land on the ground of priority of occupation, as long as there is a red man left on the Indian reservations. If it comes to calling names, usurper is an uglier name than alien…” But that passage was directed at white nativists, and the Indians appeared only momentarily as a rhetorical flourish.

Antin was writing from a particular experience, in a particular time, and her limitations reinforce her central argument: Americans have never lived up to the ideals of universal equality or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but those phrases have nonetheless inspired generations of people around the world to try to make them a reality. Though they were written by a slaveholder who was not thinking of women when he wrote “men,” Antin was insisting they applied to her, and we can similarly assert the relevance of her arguments today. Her books are available on-line, as are tidbits like a newspaper article quoting her upbraiding immigrant bosses for forgetting their roots and mistreating striking garment workers.

And, sad to say, much of what Antin wrote over a hundred years ago remains very relevant. When I hear anti-immigrant politicians argue that newcomers will take jobs away from American workers, and pro-immigrant politicians counter that we need immigrants “to do jobs Americans won’t do,” I recall another passage from They Who Knock at Our Gates:

Those who, like the labor-union lobbyists, point to the empty dinner-pails of American workingmen as a reason for keeping out foreign labor, are no more at fault than the lobbyists of the opposite side, who offer in support of the open-door policy statistics showing the need of rough laborers in various branches of our current material development. All of them are wrong in that they would treat our foreign brothers as pawns on the chessboard of our selfish needs.

Antin was an idealist, and if her prose was sometimes stilted, I still find her writing a valuable tonic. When she called the United States  her “Promised Land,” she did not excuse its failings, but neither would she relinquish that promise:

Show me a million American workingmen out of work, and I fail to see a justification for the exclusion of a million men from other lands who are also looking for a job…. Those who are teaching the American workingman to demand the protection of his job against legitimate alien competition are trampling out the embers of popular idealism, instead of fanning it into a blaze that should transfigure the life of the nation.



Celebrating Illegal Immigration

“Every time you see a cop on the beat, ask yourself what he is protecting, and from who.”
— Malcolm X1

Traveling in Israel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Haifa’s tourist sites include a museum celebrating illegal immigration. It’s actually called the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, but they aren’t fussy about the nomenclature: the book they sell in the gift shop, published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, constantly uses the term “illegal immigration” and refers to the people who arrived that way as “illegals.” It describes how some paid sailors to land them surreptitiously, some snuck over the Lebanese border, some arranged fictitious marriages, some overstayed tourist visas… in sum, all the current methods by which people continue to make their way to new countries in defiance of various authorities.

In light of recent headlines I was particularly struck by the museum’s film of illegal immigrants throwing metal cans at British soldiers who were trying to keep them from landing in Palestine (from which I shot a photo sequence):

I’ve written about the similar exhibit and film at the Atlit Detention Center museum, and welcome the reminder that not long ago my relatives were not only sneaking across borders, but facing uniformed soldiers with nothing but what they could throw, and exulting in making at least that show of resistance. That reminder is particularly relevant today, when descendants of those brave “illegals” have elected a government that is increasingly notorious for building walls, policing borders, and violently repelling anguished refugees who want to come home to Palestine.

This sort of turnabout is often described as ironic… but the sad fact is it’s normal. When people get a taste of power or put on uniforms, they tend to behave like people with power and uniforms. When people have a nation-state, they tend to assume the right — and often the necessity — to guard its borders. And, by contrast, when people don’t and are desperate they throw whatever they can throw and damn the consequences.

So I’m not calling it ironic, but it is an obvious reminder that what seems heroic when you’re on one side can seem very different when you’re on the other, and vice-versa. And I’m glad all the museums  and historical sites use the word “illegal,” because although I understand why some people prefer euphemisms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized,” the reality is that governments make laws to protect some people from other people — and when you argue that the people you support are not criminals, you are arguing that other people can justifiably be labeled that way.

History and fiction are full of stories of brave outlaws and we all can think of actions, past and present, that have been both heroic and illegal – as well as arguably pointless, like throwing tin cans at a destroyer full of British soldiers or boxes of tea into Boston Harbor.  When it comes to border-crossers, the judgment of history and myth is identical and clear: there are no heroic narratives of repelling migrants – when anti-immigrant pundits  compare their country to a crowded lifeboat, the metaphor emphasizes at least a feigned  regret and no one pretends there is anything heroic about beating back drowning swimmers.

Myths of heroic outlawry often founder on close examination — the rebels and outlaws celebrated in song and story turn out to have killed, raped, abused, and behaved horrifically not only to oppressors but to innocent unfortunates who happened to cross their paths. But the same can be said of every army and most governments — no rebel band has ever racked up a toll of victims that matches the worst horrors of official troops and police –- and the fact that myths are idealizations does not make them meaningless.

The Israeli contrast –narratives of desperate Jewish refugees throwing cans at soldiers seventy years ago, told to rally support for Jewish soldiers shooting desperate refugees throwing stones today – is particularly striking because the time and space are so compressed. But the essential contrast is so familiar as to be almost universal: virtually all national narratives include brave struggles against oppressive governments, and few governments maintain their power for long with clean hands.

There are many possible morals here, and I’m not pretending the answers are easy or uncomplicated. But one cannot simultaneously stand up for the oppressed and defend the rule of law, because the oppressors are almost always lawmakers and all of us can come up with examples of unjust laws and people who have heroically resisted them.

There are also whole classes of laws that are inherently unjust, including the many laws that trap people in desperate situations because of accidents of birth or nationality. Regarding the Israel-Palestine situation, I have spoken with Israelis who think I am hopelessly naive, or accuse me of switching sides, or argue it is so complicated that the the sides are hard to define. I likewise know Americans and Europeans who feel they can’t choose sides, and don’t see a direct parallel to their own countries. But I keep coming back to those overlapping images from past and present, and thinking the people guarding borders against desperate immigrants are always on the same side, whoever and wherever they may be.



Thinking about borders, migration, and complicated choices