donderdag 27 mei 2010

Emergency Shelter

Fugitives of whom the appeal for asylum has been declined by Dutch courts can not always be removed from the country. They then often land up, right from the Centre for Asylum seekers, in the Dutch streets. Municipalities feel themselves called upon to provide them emergency shelter. The Minister of Justice, charged with the task of implementing the Aliens Act, prohibits them to do so. Judges on the contrary oblige local authorities to indeed provide shelter.

Is not this a perfect subject on which one, on the basis of Levinas, should be able to say something sensible? Because this is exactly about the Other, if not in the shape of the Widow and the Orphan, at least then in the guise of the Alien?

But what, based on Levinas, should one say then?

Some, including the British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, believe that taking seriously Levinas can mean but one thing. Namely, that our legislation actually is immoral, that our bureaucracy through the adage ‘rules are rules’ is amoral and that true justice can be found only on one side: that of the victim, in this case the asylum seeker. The absoluteness of the appeal of the stranger rids our law and its practice of all ethical quality. Justice in this case relies on rebellious councils and on aldermen who keep their back straight.

Others point out that the absoluteness of the appeal of the Other in Levinas is accompanied by another motive: that of the third person, which in its turn is the other of the other. And that third person refers to the totality of all thirds, the whole of society with its institutions, jurisdiction, immigration laws and deportation centers. So here Levinas’ thinking establishes an actually impossible connection: that between the absoluteness of the individual appeal and the importance of good institutions.

Personally I think that this latter, complex interpretation of Levinas does most justice to his thinking, as well as to the complex reality in which we live. On the one hand there is the demand for help from the Other, of which Levinas does not stop stressing its absoluteness. On the other hand there are the dangers of an attracting effect and of unequal treatment of asylum seekers, in short, the interests of an ordered society of all third parties which according to Levinas must be taken into account as well.

In concrete terms this position means the following: the authorities should do what they have been appointed for to do, but whoever - spurred on by the encounter with an applicant – feels he has to, must diverge from the lines the authorities have set out. And the authorities may very well take notice of that resistance.

For those who want one hundred percent ethical purity, like Bauman, such a position cannot be but unsatisfactory. I for myself however do sympathize with it. I roughly end up at the position the newspaper Trouw held in its commentary. "Sometimes there are individual emergencies (...) The occasional provision of emergency shelter really does not jeapardize the whole edifice".

It is striking how important in this commentary is the role of relativizing words such as 'occasional' and 'sometimes'. This is eminently pragmatic vocabulary and it raises the question to the position of Levinas among fellow philosophers. Because these in general are fond of unequivocality and universal validity of statements, and not of contingency. See for a discussion of that question my website.

See also A Real Shame and Levinas and egoism

vrijdag 21 mei 2010


The Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan once coined the term 'anti-Israelian enthusiasm'. This term aptly reflects the phenomenon that activism for the Palestinian cause in some cases is accompanied by lashing out at Israel in a hardly disguised lascivious way.

This phenomenon recently appeared in a number of news items. There was for instance the report about the Kairos document, a cry for help from Palestinian church leaders. This originally Arabic document was recently translated into Dutch and one of the translators made the text sharper than the original was, especially when it comes to punishing Israel. In his reflection on this, he says explicitly that he might have been too enthusiastic, too involved.

Further two Dutch politicians are allowed, in the newspaper Trouw, without any objection to assent fully to the experience of freedom of a suicide bomber at the moment he blows up himself along with a number of Jews. Because "in a situation of total absence of freedom suicide attacks can be an expression of freedom". It was not clear, incidentally, whether this experience of freedom had to do specifically with blowing up Jews or whether an Iraqi in Baghdad who takes ten compatriots with him to death reaches the same level of self-realization.

And Gretta Duisenberg, the widow of Europe’s former central banker, said in a recent interview she thinks ‘anti-Semite’ is becoming almost an honorary title. In the same interview she also tells when she started to focus on Israel. "I was occupied with all kinds of conflicts: Bangladesh, Nicaragua, South Africa, Argentina. But when the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israel started in 2000, I said to my husband, Wim Duisenberg: Now it's over, now I go work for the Palestinians".

Such a sentence is interesting. For how is this kind of choices being made? I don’t mind anybody calling Israel a rogue state, but it should be coupled with the annotation that there exist in the world fifty or hundred of such states. With casualties, both internally and externally, that are a factor of ten or more higher. What then makes someone to wholly, and with a kind of obvious pleasure, sink one’s teeth into precisely the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Of course, I understand that, if you care about the fate of all those people who are less fortunate than you are, you still cannot get involved in everything. One needs to focus, so apart from people who will focus on Sudan or Nicaragua or the Western Sahara, there will be people who focus on Israel. But that does not make the question less interesting how such a choice comes about. And especially why it is often accompanied by a furtive kind of pleasure. Where does that special passion come from?

Perhaps it has to do with the feeling of breaking a taboo.

See also Irritating