Experimental Voices

Rethinking Citizenship and Human Rights: Arendt and Butler on the Right to Belong.

By Julian Honkasalo

Permanent Exile: Palestinians in Lebanon

Palestinians form nearly 10 % of the population in Lebanon. Nearly all are descendants of people who fled or were forcefully expelled from historic Palestine in 1947-1948. In contrast to the Armenian Genocide, survivors and their descendants, who enjoy full citizenship rights and have their own Armenian quarters in the capital of Beirut, Palestinians live in twelve refugee camps scattered around Lebanon. Although they are called “refugee camps”, these sites are actually cramped suburbs that lack basic infrastructure, such as proper sewage systems, electricity and health care. The Bourj-al-Barajneh camp in Beirut is built on an area of one square kilometer, yet according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), it inhabits more than 16,000 people. There is only one health center and one senior citizen home in the camp. During the summer time, the temperature in Beirut raises well above 40°C, but due to constant power outages in the camp, all houses and buildings, such as schools, lack proper air conditioning. At times, the only hospital is closed due to power outages and lack of light. During the winter, heavy rains cause the old sewage system to flood and the narrow alleys of the camp turn into rivers of drain water. Even worse than the extremely poor conditions of the camps is the continuing hostility and violence that Palestinians experience due to the military surveillance and policing carried out by the Lebanese government. Some of the camps have been entirely destroyed – more than once – and then rebuilt again by the Palestinians. The Lebanese civil war for instance had devastating effects on the Palestinian population, as we can remember from the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982. Furthermore, in 2006 the Bourj-al-Barajneh camp suffered severely under Israel’s bombing of Beirut. Today, flows of Syrian refugees now seek shelter in the already overcrowded camps.

Since, after 65 years in exile, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to carry the legal status of “refugee”, the Lebanese government actively denies them access to political rights, civil rights as well as employment and social services enjoyed by Lebanese citizens. Palestinian children are denied access to Lebanese public schools and adults face extreme restrictions on the types of jobs they can hold, leading to an unemployment rate of 56%. Two thirds live in poverty, subsisting on less than six dollars a day.  Furthermore, Palestinians are barred from owning property in Lebanon, making it even harder for families to leave the poor conditions of the camps. Everywhere outside the camp, Palestinians are required to carry their green colored “refugee” ID-card which distinguishes them as non-citizens. The Lebanese government is itself fragmented with a fragile balance of power between various religious groups. It serves the interest of the Lebanese government not to assimilate Palestinians into the Lebanese population, because the general attitude is that Israel and the UN should take responsibility of solving the refugee situation. The complex political history of PLO-involvement in Lebanese and Syrian affairs further complicates the situation (Frontiers Ruwad 2005, 29). Given the situation, the camps are thus left entirely dependent on UNRWA and NGO aid.

Since even those generations of Palestinians, who are born in the Lebanese camps are denied Lebanese citizenship, the fact of statelessness shapes the lives of Palestinians. Since Israel denies these refugees the right to return, and since no solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict seems to be taking place in the near future, Palestinians in Lebanon form a population trapped in permanent exile. In this sense, they have not only lost their land and homes, but are being robbed of their future as well.

The unique situation of indefinite exile constitutes a very peculiar political temporality and space. Historically, the camp is a postcolonial site, a by-product of British involvement in Palestine. Today however, it is an indistinctive space that is at the same time inside the sovereign state, on its territory, inside its borders and yet entirely excluded from its legal and political structure. Yet, despite the extremely harsh conditions under which Palestinian refugees in Lebanon spend their daily lives, they are by no means simply victims or mere passive sufferers of extreme, systematic oppression. I contend that the camp itself can be theorized as a visible space of resistance to the Israeli occupation. Having waited 65 years for their right to return and by continuing to do so, Palestinian civilians refuse to accept any other solution to the situation than the legal option of the right to return. Meanwhile, the once refugee tent camps that were originally put up by the Red Cross Society have become permanent suburbs with a rich and lively cultural tradition. Children know which villages their great grand parents came from, and the history of the Nakba is passed on from generation to generation. Palestinian refugees distinguish themselves from the Lebanese through a specific, Palestinian-Arabic accent. Furthermore, local dances, such as Debkah are performed everywhere in the camps and the tradition of cooking dishes from various parts of historic Palestine is a significant part of national identity and belonging. The power of storytelling and poetry is intensified by the fact that The Bourj-al-Shemali and Rashidieh camps in southern Lebanon are so close to the Israeli border, that the camp-dwellers are able to see their occupied, original homeland along the coastline (Masri 2001).  In his photographic essay After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986) Edward Said reflects on the exiled Palestinian experience as a struggle of creating an inside, or a home, as an outsider in society. “You try to get used to living along outsiders and endlessly attempting to define what’s yours on the inside” (Said 1986, 53; Latif 2008). According to Said, Palestinians are everywhere defined as the outsiders, through their otherness. Yet, at the same time this creates a sense of belonging and a sense of community.

Arendt on resistance and belonging

 Given Said’s reflections on the experience of the outsider as constitutive of Palestinian identity, and borrowing a concept from the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt, I suggest that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon can be seen as a community of conscious pariahs. In her analysis of the history of Anti-Semitism, Arendt makes a conceptual distinction between the pariah and the parvenu. According to her, marginalized groups of people – German Jews in this case – had two ways of coping with their vulnerable position in society and in their plight for political emancipation. One was to assimilate to the main society and thus attempt to integrate and become social members of that society, with the price of neglecting one’s own difference. The other strategy, that of conscious pariahdom, was to accept the challenge and responsibility of being an outsider, and thus remain in the margins of society, embracing one’s difference and fighting for full political and legal recognition. Arendt never limited the concept of the pariah to the Jewish people alone, but insisted that any marginalized or persecuted group of people could take on this identity-position in their struggle for political emancipation (Bernstein 1996, 184; Butler 2007).

Arendt traces the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem to the failures in the system of sovereign nation-states. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt shows how the First World War led to a massive production of stateless people. The problem for the newly founded European states was thus that the only model for the inclusion of these minorities in a political community was based on the model of citizenship and the sovereign nation-state. Thus, the alternatives were various attempts to assimilate minorities into newly established nation-states by force.

As we find Arendt commenting on the early Minority Treatise:

“The Minority Treatise said in plain language what until then had been only been implied in the working system of nation-states, namely, that only nationals could be citizens, only people of the same national origin could enjoy the full protection of legal institutions, that persons of different nationality needed some law of exception until or unless they were completely assimilated and divorced from their origin” (Arendt 1973, 275, emphasis added).

The solution provided by Western powers to the question regarding Jewish refugees after the World Wars, was to establish a new, Jewish, Zionist nation-state. But “the solution to the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and right-less by another 700,000 to 800,000 people” (Ibid. 290.)  Today this number has reached millions.

The same logic that underlies the Minority Treatise is prevalent in the current version of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since these are rights that are based on the model of citizenship. Only people who are already members of a juridico-political community can gain access to human rights. On the other hand, the principle of sovereignty also gives the state the right to deprive people of their citizenship. Thus the state-structure itself produces stateless people within the state. Where ever stateless people appear, they are excluded from rights because they do not belong to the legal and political structure of the state any longer (Arendt 1973, 293-296; cf. (Agamben 1998, 131-132). In a manner similar to Edmund Burke before her, Arendt criticizes the lack of realism in Human Rights declarations. Arendt’s main point of criticism is the fact that although they should be, human rights cannot be realized because they are based on an abstraction, namely “the universal man”. This conception strips off the political reality in which actors always belong to multiple, cross-sectional groups, such as nationality, race, class, sexuality, gender and age.

In the case of the Palestinians in Lebanon, the options of any kind of choice between pariahdom and assimilation are of course extremely limited, and caution should be taken in order to not romanticize the idea of resistance through pariahdom. However, even if they were ever given the option to integrate to the Lebanese society as full citizens, Palestinian national identity is still centered on the struggle for the UN recognized right to return, right to compensation of lost lands, and for the right to a home within the borders of Israel/Palestine, not Lebanon. The whole point in the struggle is full recognition as Palestinians.

Butler and non-national forms of belonging

In Parting Ways – Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) Judith Butler continues the theorization of the relationship between law and violence that she has discussed earlier in books such as Precarious Life, Who Sings the Nation State? and Frames of War. In the essay collection Parting Ways, Butler works with writings from Jewish and Palestinian thinkers, such as Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Mahmoud Darwish, Primo Levi and Emmanuel Levinas, in order to articulate an ethics of non-violence as a critique and response to Israel’s state violence and its self-declaration as a Jewish state. Instead of simply disclosing the state-sanctioned violence and war crimes of institutions such as the Israeli Defense Forces, Butler engages in a critical conversation with political Zionist ideologies in order to expose how Jewishness has been politicized and manipulated to sanction Israel’s authoritarian politics. A crucial element in Butler’s project is the political significance of speaking up against injustice. Like Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt before her, Butler has been labeled a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite for criticizing and speaking up against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. For Butler, the notion of Palestinian nationality and national belonging raises important political questions regarding the concept of “sovereignty”, “citizenship” and “the nation-state”. Palestinians in exile are living in a diaspora and are thus located in numerous different countries.

“Historically considered, then the nation of Palestine is not bound by any existing or negotiated borders, which means not only that rights and obligations extend beyond existing boundaries, but that existing boundaries are the effect of illegal land appropriations.” (Butler 2012, 206)

For the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, accepting a Palestinian state within the current borders is thus the same as accepting the illegal settler-occupation of Palestine by Israel. Both Said and Butler hold that due to the Palestinian diaspora, serious consideration has to be given to the thought of a bi-national Arab-Jewish, federated state as an alternative to the two-state solution, which once again draws from the problematic notion of the nation-state and national citizenship. By studying the Palestinian refugee situation, we can learn new ways to articulate conceptions of nationality and belonging that move beyond the traditional understanding of the state as a sovereign institute, bound to one people, one religion, and a territory that is protected by military borders and walls .

“Adalah, ‘the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel’, recently proposed a ‘democratic constitution’ that starts out not with the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’, but with the question, ‘Who is a citizen?’ Although it does not seek to adjudicate on what establishes the legitimate territory of this state, it does propose a systematic separation of nation and state, and so resonates with an Arendtian politics. Arendt’s idea of a federated polity is not the same as prevailing pluralist modes of multiculturalism, but it does posit a political way of life that is not merely a fractious collection of sovereign cultural identities, but disperses sovereignty, nationalism and individualism alike into new forms of social and political co-existence. Hopeful, perhaps naive, but not for that reason something we can permanently do without – at least not without the ceaseless territorial violence that Arendt warned against.” (Butler 2007)


Agamben, George (1998) Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Daniel Heller-Roazen (trans.) Stanford University Press.

Arendt, Hannah (2007) “We Refugees” in The Jewish Writings. Kohn, Jeremy and Feldman, Ron H. (eds.) New York: Shocken Books.

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2nd enlarged edition. New York: Meridian Books.

Bernstein, Richard (1996) Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. Cambridge: the MIT Press.

Butler, Judith (2007) “I merely belong to them”, book review of The Jewish Writings by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman. New York: Schocken Books.

Butler, Judith (2012) Parting Ways – Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cervenak, Christine M. (1994) “Promoting Inequality: Gender-based discrimination in the UNRWA’s to Palestine refugee status”. Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 16, 1994.

Falling Through The Cracks. Legal and Practical Gaps in Palestinian Refugee Status. A Case Study of Unrecognized Refugees in Lebanon. Beirut: Frontiers, Ruwad Association. 2005.

Latif, Nadia (2008) “Space, Power and Identity in a Palestinian Refugee Camp”, REVUE Asylons N°5, September 2008.

Masri, Mai (2001) Frontiers of Dreams and Fears. Documentary film. Arab Film Distribution.

Said, Edward (1986) After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, with photography by Jean Mohr, New York: Pantheon.

“Situation of and Assistance to Palestinian Women” Report of the UN Secretary-General 2012.

Someone Like Me. Documentary film. UNRWA and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). Accessed 11/6/2013

Paper presented at Naistutkimuspäivät 2013, Rovaniemi, 28.11.2013

Julian Honkasalo, scholar and activist, is currently working on a dissertation on Revolution and Law in the thought of Hannah Arendt, at The New School for Social Research NYC. Honkasalo is also finishing his research project in gender studies, at University of Helsinki, where he is completing his PhD thesis titled ‘Arendt’s Silence on Gender’. Honkasalo’s main research interests include the political thought of Hannah Arendt, the philosophy of revolutionary action, statelessness and human rights, as well as the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Honkasalo has a long background in peace work and humanitarian activism and has conducted voluntary work in Zambia, Nepal and Lebanon among other countries.


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This entry was posted on April 10, 2014 by in Essays, Volume 2 - April 2014 and tagged , , , , .
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