Friday, April 10, 2009

Illegal Hospitality

A recent heartwarming television news story was about a rabbi. He joined a humanitarian interfaith mission into Gaza. His appearance at the border caused no small amount of consternation. Lower level Hamas guards were puzzled. An hour later the police chief arrived, assuring the visitors that he was there personally to guarantee their safety. After all, they were guests.

From a different war-torn part of the world, former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell’s book offers another account of generosity. Wounded and desperate after a devastating attack by the Taliban, Luttrell comes across men from a nearby village. They take him in, and following a strict code of hospitality, protect him from the Taliban.

Today, hospitality is mostly understood in terms of the “hospitality industry.” Traditionally, hospitality was a practice deeply connected to civilized life itself. Bedouin hospitality is renowned. The Hebrew scriptures praise people like Lot, who protects visitors from his immoral neighbors. Classical mythology involved “theophanies,” gods disguised as visitors. Ovid’s story of Baucis and Philemon, the poor couple who shared their meager provisions with the shabby looking twosome knocking on their door is among the most famous. The Gospel of Matthew indicates how individuals deserving the reign of heaven will be greeted with the words “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,…” The moral imperatives of hospitality were played for great humor in an early Buster Keaton film. The main character is a guest in the home of his family’s sworn enemies. They are committed to revenge, but hospitality prevents them from doing so while he is in their home. Such injunctions and practices face a difficult challenge in a world of high unemployment, criminals in immigrant communities, scarce resources, and an unending flow of desperate people determined to cross borders. What to do? Elected officials are committed to limiting entry and expelling as many illegals as possible. On the other hand, citizens attuned to the older moral code feel a compulsion to provide food, shelter and help.

On April 8 here in France there was a symbolic protest that brought to a head the contrast between governmental responsibility for controlled borders and the ancient code of hospitality. 5500 citizens turned themselves in for the crime of having provided services to undocumented aliens. Their goal: point out the iniquity of a law that criminalizes such help. In a heated response, the minister of immigration insisted that the law was not applied against people who were merely providing some comfort or aid to illegals. On April 30 the Socialist party will introduce a motion to alter the text of the law. The modification will explicitly decriminalize assistance aimed at “preserving either the physical integrity or the dignity of an outsider.”

Who are the people providing aid and what kind of aid do they offer? Sometimes they are just carrying out ordinary functions. One nun, asked about civil disobedience, was puzzled. What’s that, she wondered. When told that giving shelter and food to the people she had just helped was civil disobedience, she was at first stunned. Then, she sort of shrugged and resolved to continue following her conscience. Not surprisingly, some of the main groups devoted to helping are religious. There are “Catholic Aid” and the “Protestant Federation for Mutual Aid.” Among non-religious groups, the most prominent is the “Education Without Borders Network” a group that focuses on migrants with children.

Water and food provision is high on their list of activities. They also find shelter for families, bring home dozens of cell phones in order to recharge them, serve as translators in medical offices and get legal help. One task involves regular trips to airports where they can obtain baby strollers left behind by passengers. These are then distributed to illegals with children.

Politically, the individuals seem pragmatic, not ideological. Motivation is mostly humanitarian or religious. Someone is thirsty, someone is hungry, I can help, so I do. One of the active individuals put it this way: “I tell the undocumented aliens that it would be good if they returned home because France cannot accommodate everyone.” Asked why she risked prison for her activism, she replied “we can’t just let people die by the side of the road. It’s a matter of solidarity. We don’t think about whether it’s legal or not, we just follow our heart.”

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