How the World Gave Up on the Stateless (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: Jewish history, human rights, refugees, World War 2, 20th Century history, stateless persons

Statelessness: A Modern History

by Mira L. Siegelberg


For almost a decade, Josef Ben-David was stateless. The son of a Jewish elementary school teacher in Czarist Russia, he hated his native country, where prevalent antisemitism made his life impossible. After World War I, violent pogroms ransacked his town; he survived one of them by disguising himself as a Christian priest. The trauma led him to embrace Zionism, and in 1921 he embarked on a long and arduous trip to Palestine. To Josef’s misfortune, however, one of the towns where he stopped during the journey was suddenly occupied by Poland as part of the region’s border disputes. And there was no end to the legal misery inflicted by the Polish state: The town clerk’s office confiscated his Russian documents after deeming them to be fake, but it also refused to grant him residency or traveling rights in Poland due to xenophobic policies that were designed to exclude Jews, Ukrainians, and other minorities. Without these legal documents, he was trapped, lacking both permission to stay and permission to leave.

And so, for eight years, Josef joined the ranks of the stateless, the masses who lacked legal ties to any country. Like many others who had lost their citizenship, he could not work or travel legally and he lived in abject poverty. It was only in 1929 that his nightmare came to an end. His older brother, who had arrived in British-ruled Palestine a few years earlier, managed to procure him new documents, and within a few months, Josef walked off a train in Jerusalem and found work as a carpenter. That the fulfillment of his Zionist dream entailed calamity for the country’s native population did not particularly bother Josef. In the 1930s, he joined the Irgun, a nationalist underground that sought to secure Jewish dominance through terrorist attacks on (among others) Palestinian civilians. The lesson that Josef drew from his own experience was not about solidarity with the dispossessed but about the overriding need to avoid the horror of exclusion. He thus shed no tears in 1948, when the creation of the state of Israel—during which he served in the military—granted him citizenship while rendering hundreds of thousands of Palestinians landless and stateless.

Josef, who was my great-uncle, does not appear in historian Mira Siegelberg’s illuminating and rich Statelessness: A History. But his story captures the book’s expansive sweep, drama, and dark ironies. Statelessness became ubiquitous during the first half of the twentieth century, when governments’ obsessions with controlling and crafting their populations often led them to strip certain groups of citizenship. Siegelberg powerfully traces an array of ambitious campaigns to eradicate statelessness, as diplomats, scholars, and activists across Europe and North America sought to empower international organizations over state governments or attempted to make citizenship a universal right for all humans. Yet these efforts, Siegelberg argues, ultimately failed. By the 1960s, jurists and politicians had given up on their quest to modify or restrict state power. They accepted governments’ total authority to bequeath or deny citizenship. Ever since, global elites have treated statelessness not as an urgent problem to be solved but as a sort of natural disaster: an uncomfortable fact of life that can’t be altered.

Statelessness, then, charts the creation of our own world. Over 10 million people are stateless today, and governments seem hell-bent on increasing their numbers: India is considering a plan to strip citizenship from millions of Muslims, the United States recently established a special office to denaturalize immigrants, and thousands of children of refugees from the Syrian civil war are born into statelessness in Europe. Siegelberg’s book is a chance to reflect on the nature of the struggle for equality, its past failures and future prospects. Is the binary between the stateless and the citizen the most stubborn barrier to an egalitarian future, as previous reformers believed? Or does a more equal future lie in dismantling the hierarchies within citizenship itself?  

Read entire article at The New Republic

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