The Refugee as a Political Figure for our Time
Illana Feldman, Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs, George Washington University
Recent years have been marked by both tremendous population movement and incredible anxiety in refugee receiving countries and in relatively non-receiving countries. The moment seems apt to reconsider the refugee as a political figure, following a line of discussion first opened by previous generations of scholars who examined earlier periods of large-scale human displacement and dislocation. In 1943 Hannah Arendt published an essay entitled “We Refugees,” a reflection on the position shared by herself and other Jewish exiles from Europe as they lived with displacement. In 1995 Giorgio Agamben published a short piece with the same title, commenting both on Arendt’s earlier piece and on the configurations of borders, movement, and population control that were defining the post-cold war European landscape. What does the current refugee “crisis” tell us about politics in the twenty-first century? Drawing from the Palestinian refugee experience, this paper explores the refugee as an enduring figure, one central to the existing, and persisting, political order. It also considers refugees as political actors, who struggle within and against this political order to create livable lives.
Ilana Feldman is a Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University. Her research has focused on the Palestinian experience, both inside and outside of historic Palestine, examining practices of government, humanitarianism, policing, displacement, and citizenship. She has received funding from: the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH); the 2017-18 American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS); Institute for Advanced Study, Friends of the Institute Member, School of Social Science; National Science Foundation, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Her books include Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule (Stanford University Press, 2015); In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (Duke University Press, 2010) and Governing Gaza (Duke University Press, 2008).