Eva Illouz

Eva Illouz
Photo: Cordula Flegel

What does the term refugee mean to you?

For a Jew, being a refugee is always around the corner, a potentiality of being, a possibility that looms over your existence, even if you live in the comfort of a western society. Exile is in fact inscribed in the very structure and constitution of the Jewish people, first with the Assyrian Exile in the 8th century BCE, then in the 6th century, with the  Babylonian Exile. So one of the paradoxical constitutive elements of the Jewish people are the acts of expulsion which force them to rethink religious ritual (since they do not have access anymore to the Temple) and to rethink the very notion of their own trans-territorial unity as a people. Being a refugee is almost an intrinsic component of Jewish existence. Think of the various waves of expulsion/immigration waves of Jews from Spain in the 15th century after the Inquisition, from Russia in the 19th century after violent pogroms, from Europe before, during and after the Shoa. For Jews, being a “refugee” is a virtuality of existence, it is deeply inscribed in the collective unconscious. A refugee is someone who is at the mercy of political powers for his survival. It is someone who has become stripped of any rights and counts on the generosity, hospitality of others to guarantee his right to live.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

A refugee is one who has no political community; one who has been deprived of any possibility to belong to a political community, one who has no state, no group, no army, no laws that can defend him or her. A refugee is one whose existence is entirely “naked,” “bare,” to use Agemben’s term, that is, a life on the side of "bios", reduced to pure physicality, in contrast to "zoe" which implies political representation and political recognition. Poor people – at least in principle—can still belong to a political community. They can, as is the case of the Dalit in India be politically represented (not all so called Intouchables are poor, but most live in abject poverty). I think you would have to make a distinction: from the standpoint of the person fleeing, it is as legitimate to flee poverty as it is to flee persecution. But from the standpoint of the countries who receive refugees a distinction between the two remains and perhaps must remain. Poverty is slow death, while war or persecutions represent danger of imminent and violent deaths. Including poor people in the status of refugees, would probably have the effect of diminishing the moral obligation which international conventions have expressed toward refugees. IIn poverty it is more difficult to allocate intention to kill, whereas that is the case with refugees. International Solidarity to poverty has been mediated mostly by voluntary philanthropy/compassion while there is a duty to help refugees who are protected by the article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, later elaborated as the 1951 Convention on Refugees. Those conventions ratify the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries and the obligation of countries not to expel or reconduct to the border the asylum seeker (what the 1951 Convention called „the principle of non-refoulement“). In the moral imagination of the countries supposed to help and host refugees, abolishing the difference between refugees out of poverty and refugees out of political persecution would a) make the number of potential refugees probably unmanageable and b) would blunt the moral categories and thus the urgency with which refugees are provided shelter and granted their human rights. We should keep a special status of political refugees. But we should also think about a world tax (of the rich world including China) to be transferred to the poor to help alleviate world poverty.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

To the extent that one can assign responsibility to environmental problems – they have been by and large created by the West, Japan, China-- these countries must be directly responsible for them, but I am not sure the form that help should take.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

The Palestinian Refugees which were taken care of by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian refugees) are proof that you can remain refugee for a few generations, since many of these refugees, numbered at 5 Million today, were never integrated in other countries and still live in refugee camps. They were close to 1 Million in 1948 and are now 5 Millions. I would say that one ceases to be a refugee when one feels at home in the world, . When one has a recognizable place as a member of a community. Not when one lives in a shelter in Tempelhof. I guess this is what the German notion of Heimat means exactly, when your language, or values, or life resonates with the social space in which you live.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

Asylum is an old notion, to be found in ancient civilizations like Greece; Christian Churches implemented in the fullest fashion, protecting even thieves or murderers, as if you needed to define simultaneously a penal system to punish crimes and a social space where one could escape and evade that system of punishment. The right to asylum is a political extension of hospitality, what the Greeks called Xenia, a code that regulates what someone in his own home owes someone who is a stranger. In fact, if you behaved poorly to a stranger, you took the risk of discovering that that stranger was a God in disguise. Hospitality is pre-political code and we may wonder if the right to asylum is not also pre-political, it concerns what human beings owe each other as members of the human species, since it is precisely directed to the stranger. Both hospitality and the right to asylum derive from the same fundamental impulse: they both deal with the question of how the one with a home and the one without a home meet each other. Giving asylum to one fleeing for his life humanizes not only the refugee but also the person giving asylum. To give refuge to a refugee affirms the humanity of both sides.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

This right is unconditional, unless the refugees are perpetrators of crimes, unless they intend to harm and hurt the host country. In fact I think the 1951 Convention on Refugees denies this right to war criminals.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

We face the greatest movements of populations since World War II. This movement once again has been brought about by war, but also the open-endness of European borders, by a new permeability of the world. So to go back to your question, Yes, it must be limited, but with two caveats. The first is that the mobility of goods and populations which the EU promotes so fiercely has not been accompanied by serious thinking on the borders of Europe. It has all been about removing borders, but not about how and where EU should draw its external borders and why. Globalization cannot be only driven by economics. It must rethink the porosity of culture and identities. Second: yes the number of refugees should be limited but we should not get bogged down by numbers because numbers contrary to principles can be easily manipulated. Economists love numbers; they love to reduce moral decisions and lives to costs, to GNP, to public expenditures. But we should not confuse a discussion of numbers and discussion of principles and politics. Politics cannot be highjacked by economists. Thilo Sarazzin calculates the cost of each refugees to 1 Million Euros for the State, which would mean a total cost of roughly 1 milliard Euros for the State. But these numbers cannot in fact be a response to the question whether immigration and influx of new populations is a good or bad thing for European societies, demographically, morally and culturally, whether and how we stretch the limits of our identity and our solidarity. A new influx of population can bring many blessings: youth, demographic renewal, adding workforce, bringing new values and perspectives on your own culture. At the same time, we should not make the mistake of ignoring or holding in contempt the deep need of European populations to safeguard their identity and life style. The civil religion of European countries -- its key codes and symbols— must be respected rather than treated with contempt by screams and calls to cultural pluralism. Groups are entitled to the preservation of what they perceive as their life style and values. If it is to be changed, it can only be changed by a slow and voluntary and mutual process of hybridization.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

The key word here is “gradual. It would be difficult to mix populations overnight. So any amount of refugees you would absorb would have to be done slowly and gradually, so as not to rock the identity boat too hard on both sides. But here we need to make a distinction. After the Orlando attacks, Donald Trump became the champion of gay and women’s rights against the extremist djihadists. Since when does Trump defend gays or women? Only since he can use them against Muslim immigrants. The xenophobia against refugees is different from the ”classic” xenophobia of the 1930s' because it invokes the gains made by LGBT and by women. So we have an odd xenophobia in the name of liberal values. This poses a problem because todays’ xenophobes are invoking real values, values for which we, left-leaning, progressives, liberals have fought. So both liberals and conservatives invoke very similar values and the threat to these values today shared by a large portion of citizens creates a climate of fear. The fear then exists across the political spectrum. But we should not become confused here. If there are some xenophobic aspects to the invocation of these liberal values, it does not mean these values are not important to uphold; nor does it mean that we should not reason with our own fears and deploy policies to make create a home for refugees and make our own institutions convincingly attractive. European societies should not be required to uphold sharia laws with the same respect they have for Human Rights. It would be hypocritical of me to claim that I respect the treatment of women by Jewish orthodox men or by devout Muslims in the same way that I respect their treatment by modern democratic laws. European societies are sexually open, secular, tolerant, and there is nothing dismissive about others in affirming that we subscribe to our values, values for which we have fought. We can and should remain very clear about these values and institutions which were acquired through our own long bloody history of battles for Human and women’s and LGBT rights. But we should not invoke these rights to fuel fear and hatred of the refugees. This neo-xenophobia in the name of liberal values should be debunked. We can affirm who we are with clarity and without confusion without using our liberal heritage as a pretext to dismiss the refugee’s right to be given shelter and the chance of a new life.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

Israel is a country of immigration and refugees, that is, a country made up of people who fled or survived lethal regimes. Much of the influx of population which arrived in Israel from the beginning of the 20th century till the 1950s’ (and later with Soviet immigrants and Ethiopians) were located somewhere on the continuum between immigration and refugees. But because Israel is a Jewish country and a country for Jews, in fact, the oddity of Israel is that Jewish refugee Jews cease to be refugees as soon as they enter Israel. So in fact the asylum seeker is not finding shelter but going back “home.” Jewish Refugees in Israel are not even perceived as refugees. The condition and meaning of refugee has been erased from Israeli consciousness. Jewish refugees are automatically turned into citizens and thus their refugees status is automatically obliterated. The real refugees are those that Israel itself has created since the creation of the state – 800.000 then, numbered today at 5 Million, scattered throughout the Middle-East, in Lebanon, in Jordan, Syria, Gaza, West Bank. You have also the refugees from Sudan or Erythrea who have seeked shelter in Israel by crossing the Sinai and the border with Egypt. But Israel has not welcomed them, precisely because of the ethnically marked dimension of the state and the law of Israel. Israel has now some 45.000 such refugees from Africa but has not settled them inside the land. Some or many of them live in detention centers. Today’s policy toward refugees is to reject them and redirect to other countries. Much like Europe has done, on a wider scale, with the current refugees with Turkey, asking it to be a shelter for them. So while many Jews have sternly condemned the moral failure of the United States to rescue and accept Jewish refugees during WWII, Israel has not behaved differently. Roosevelt opposed opening the doors to European Jews and the USA started rescuing the Jews only very late, well into 1944. I do not know if Israel has even reached Roosevelt late understanding.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

In Israel, taxes go to finance the education of ultra-orthodox children who will never work, never serve in the army, never pay taxes, never know basic math or English skills. I would be much happier if all that money went to help refugees get a new life here, in Israel.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?

The Greek Xenia stipulated duties of the host and of the guest. A guest must respect the host. The burden of accepting and respecting cultural difference exists on both sides.

- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

Not to treat refugees as illegitimate recipients of a help they do not deserve. The host country should view it as its moral obligation to help those fleeing for their lives.

Do you know any refugees personally?


Do you actively support any refugees?


Can you imagine a world without refugees?

No. A recent report by the UN puts the number to One refugee for every 113 people on the planet. 65, 3 Millions refugees today exist on this planet. An entire average size country. This number will probably grow because the world is global. You cannot have the free circulations of goods, people, images and yet keep people confined to their geography.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

We left Marocco in dramatic circumstances overnight. My parents fled a few years after the 6 Days War. After that war, a great deal of tension between Muslims and the Jews living in their midst started to be felt (the relations between the two communities had been by and large very peaceful till then). But the birth of Jewish nationalism and the defeat of the Arab nations shocked Arab consciousness and tensions existed. My father was warned that he may be imprisoned, so we fled Marocco overnight, helped by a family member who was a high ranking official in the national Marrocan airline. He got us on a private plane to Paris for the same day. In the morning I went to school as usual, in the evening I was in Paris. That was pretty dramatic for a child. But it was like being a refugee de luxe, since we travelled in private plane and did not risk our lives in the sea on a raft boat. My family was a hybrid category, between immigrants and refugees. But I am not even sure we saw ourselves as refugees. We just did what Jews took for granted: to flee when things seemed to become dangerous. As I said at the beginning, being a refugee, to go in Exile is almost a normal part of Jewish consicousness. France did not view us as refugees, it viewed us as immigrants.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

The political future of Israel is uncertain. If a group of messianic Jews take power, yes, I could become a refugee again. Me and many of my friends will be the refugees of other Jews.

- If yes: why?

Because they will believe that Israel must be entirely governed by Jewish biblical and Talmudic law, that secular law has no place in a Jewish state. Because in such state human rights would be perceived as a threat to the state ( they already are perceived such); because we oppose the vision of a country for Jews only.

- How do you prepare yourself?

I don't.

- To which country would you take refuge to?

Supreme irony of history: France or Germany.

How much “home” do you need?*

Even rootless cosmopolitans like me need a home, a language to inhabit, a place to fight in and for. If a home is a place you fight for, it is Israel. If a home is a place in which you have a continuous conversation with other minds and hearts, it is France.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.