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What the Bible Can Teach Us about Immigrants and Refugees

What the Bible Can Teach Us about Immigrants and Refugees

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By Dr. Ilan Fuchs, Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University, and Dr. Naor Coehn, Faculty Member, Business School, University of Calgary

The second decade of the 21st century is governed by crises of displacement and refugee resettlements. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that one in every 113 people on earth is an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. From 2015 to 2016, over 8,000 men, women and children died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. By the end of 2015, 65.3 million people worldwide were displaced, making the refugee crisis one of utmost political urgency.

The photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned when his family tried to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, captured the essence of the helpless refugee in need of protection.

This image played a significant role in the 2015 Canadian federal elections when the Liberal Party pledged to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada by the end of the year. The Liberal Party won the elections and delivered on its promise.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.” Trudeau’s statement embodies the sense of ethical solidarity and echoes the UN mandate to assist and protect refugees.

What Is the Proper Balance between Using Our Society’s Limited Resources to Benefit its Members and Helping Refugees Who Seek Asylum?

But what is the right thing to do? What is the proper balance between using our society’s limited resources to benefit its members and helping the stranger who seeks asylum from persecution and terror? Is there a philosophical framework that can extract from this dilemma a position that can become policy?

A good place to begin is French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea of hospitality. He explores the ethical and political dimensions of hospitality and concludes that all acts of hospitality eventually lead to a struggle between the need to sustain self-interest of both the hosts and the guests, and the deeper ethical obligation to accept the “other” in his or her complete “otherness.”

Humanitarian international law dealing with refugees is a natural place to examine the relationships between the outside traveler, the passerby or guest, and the insider, the resident or host, and how these relationships move on the continuum of hospitality. However, the difficulty of determining who is a refugee and the criteria for granting such status often results in decisions being made on the basis of biases and unequal treatment.

According to Derrida, the human condition is governed by our responsibilities to the others around us. Therefore, the “other” plays an important role in Derrida’s political thought. In 1996, Derrida led a seminar in Paris that examined the idea of political responsibility through the lens of guest–host relationships. He described that relationship, aptly named the “politics of hospitality,” as a dialectic system of tension and interdependence between hosts and guests. The result of this dialectic could be total rejection of the guest on the one hand, or turning the host into a hostage on the other hand.

The Question of Hospitality Emerges with the Arrival of a Stranger

The question of hospitality emerges with the arrival of a stranger, a potential guest, into one’s state, city, village or home. Hospitality, says Derrida, has two distinct aspects. The first is the ethical (unconditional) aspect of hospitality in which a state, village or householder maintains an open door for all visitors. In Derrida’s words, “Pure and unconditional hospitality, hospitality itself, opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whomever arrives as an absolutely foreign visitor, as a new arrival, non-identifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly ‘other.’”

For example, immigration to the United States involves exposing the prospective immigrant’s life to scrutiny. The immigrant is asked about his or her past, including military service, criminal history and many other questions that ascertain what, if any, legal status should be granted. We accept this regulatory process and its associated requirements.

The requirement to obtain a visa for immigration, a work or study permit, or even a travel visa represents a method by which a sovereign state puts the principle of hospitality “into practice…Whence the ‘conditions’ which transform the gift [of hospitality] into a contract, the opening into a policed pact…since immigration must, it is said, be controlled,” Derrida wrote in his book about hospitality.  Thus, the act of hospitality encapsulates the tension between the needs and rights of the self, and the needs and rights of, and responsibility for, the “other.”

The problem with the current international status of refugees has to do with the obscure boundaries of conditional hospitality. There is theory but very little discussion of the practical implications of this discourse. To turn this discussion to a more practical venue, we should ask, “What is the source of the duty to host?” Derrida hinted at one point that the source is the Hebrew Bible. Derrida finds his answer in biblical stories where hospitality governs the ethos of humanity and therefore “It is inscribed in a right, a custom, an ethos, and a Sittlichkeit [a German word meaning morality, morals, ethicality].”

Genesis, for example, provides a powerful and robust basis for the duty to host. Its narratives of hospitality explain vividly the essential duty to host is in our social interactions and, more importantly, is essential to our political experience. In fact, it is so central that violating it can bring about the demise of society.

The Duty to Host in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible presents two stories in the book of Genesis that focus on hospitality. Abraham, the first to proclaim the unity of God, leaves his place of birth and goes to the land of Canaan as a foreigner. He is not treated as a guest in his wanderings; in fact, quite the opposite. When he reaches Egypt, his wife Sarah is abducted and, perhaps to counter the treatment he received, Abraham makes it a point to welcome any guests.

As he sat outside his tent in the heat of the day, he saw three men approaching and he ran to greet them. He bowed and said: “My lords, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; for as much as ye are come to your servant.” And they said: “So do, as thou hast said….”

This episode introduces Abraham as an unconditional host. Abraham does not expect reciprocity but instead offers hospitality to his guests, complete strangers, with no knowledge of their origins or intentions. This is a prime example of the ethos Derrida analyzes that makes the experience of hosting one of the foundations of the human experience.

The rabbis of the Talmud note that the first verse mentioned that God appeared to Abraham, but the storyline is abruptly cut off and moves to the arrival of the three guests. This verse led the Talmudic scholars to deduce that Abraham cut short his dialogue with God, so he could greet his guests. This interpretation indicates that the ethos of hospitality is so central that even a prophet will interrupt his conversation with God for the sake of hospitality.

This reading of the Hebrew Bible suggests that hosting is a duty to all human beings. The Hebrew Bible also supplies us with an analysis of the consequences for those who betray their duty to host. The ethos of hospitality is challenged when the three guests, who turn out to be angels, continue their mission to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. There, they are welcomed by Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who invites them to be his guests. They initially refuse, but he insists and welcomes them to his home.

Lot’s act of hospitality is met with anger by the people of Sodom. They call out to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can know them.” Lot replies, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.” Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. ”Don’t do anything to these men,” Lott says, “because they are under the protection of my roof.”

The mob rejects his negotiations and moves forward to break down his door, arguing that Lot “came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge!”

Lot is accused of betraying the local customs. His act of hospitality is seen as tantamount to treason, an illegal action that must be punished. Since the community sees the strangers as a danger too, the host and the guests must all be punished. Because the people of Sodom violated the sacred ethos of hospitality, they are punished by annihilation instead. Lot flees in time to see the city destroyed for its sins. Lot’s story immortalizes the centrality of the ethos of hospitality. By juxtaposing Abraham’s act of hospitality with that of the people of Sodom, the Hebrew Bible underscores the importance of respecting this sacred ethos and the outcome of those who reject the duty to host.

These stories support Derrida’s claim that hospitality governs our social and political experiences. Like many other moral tales, these biblical stories, by emphasizing the price that is paid for overlooking the sacred duty to host, are meant to warn us against deviating from the basic moral duties of our social contract.

The Hebrew Bible gives us an account of the ethos of hospitality and defends the punishment that ensues should one fail to live up to it. This ethos of hospitality is much wider than international humanitarian law; it posits that hospitality is not a privilege to the refugee, but a duty of the host. This was the prevalent language when the U.N. treaty for the protection of refugees was created in 1951 after the horrors of World War II.

Today, Derrida’s vision of hospitality seems even more utopian and impossible to follow in the face of new global terrorism, refugee warriors, rising nationalistic leaders and the return to the politics of fear and separatism.

In his recent book, “The Cultural Defense of Nations: a Liberal Theory of Majority Rights,” Liav Orgad, a constitutional theorist and comparative immigration law expert, discusses the challenges a liberal model of hospitality has to overcome. He suggests that liberal countries facing new waves of immigration – whether refugees, transient or permanent migrants – adopt the American model of naturalization.

In this model, newcomers to the country are asked to accept the constitutional principles and core values that lie in the foundation of the hosting society. In other words, the refugees accept legal conditions, not moral statements, when they ask to join the political ethos of the host country. The duty to host, according to Orgad, is limited to a physical absorption of the refugees and can be countered with a demand for acceptance of core values vital to the cultural identity of the host state.

The 21st-century refugee crisis proves the difficulties of creating a political structure that will ease the suffering of millions of displaced people. Attempts in the form of international humanitarian law and other local policies of political powers have not changed the reality of war. Derrida’s text points to the importance of the ethos of hospitality in the social contract of Western society. This ethos places the duty to host as the basic moral foundation of human society. In our opinion, this duty can and should be read as part of the duty to prevent genocide.

About the Authors

Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D., is a legal historian and scholar of international law. He is a research fellow at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University and teaches at American Military University. 

Naor Coehn, Ph.D., studies political theory and literature at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 

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