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The Foreigner In Each of Us

WHY are people mistrustful of foreigners? Why do they hold them at arm's length?A foreigner represents the unexpected, therefore he is a burden. You might say he came out of nowhere, and usurped someone else's place if not his life. He is shrouded in mystery, indefinable in his solitude. He lunges into a world that was there before he was, and which had no need of him. He arouses fear as much as he himself fears. People are afraid of foreigners; there is no denying it. A foreigner conjures up the unknown, the forbidden. Who knows what he is doing on the sly. Perhaps he is cooking up plots and intrigues. The foreigner represents something that we are not. He is different. He is an emissary of unknown, hostile powers. He is the vagabond in search of a resting place, the noisy Bohemian with a crowd of ragged children trailing behind him, the fugitive unjustly pursued by the law, the hungry beggar. He is the one nobody loves or welcomes, for whom scarcely any sympathy or compassion is felt. He is someone with whom we will never consent to identify ourselves. The fear which the foreigner inspires in us causes us to see something in him which calls into question our own role in society. Looking at him I realize that, like him, I am a foreigner in someone else's eyes. To that person, I am someone who arouses fear. On a human scale, this could mean that we are all foreigners. What if the other person were me? The truth is that he is. Or rather, it behooves me to act as if he were. It is not because I have a home, a job, and a family that I am less foreign than the foreigner. It takes little for someone to be uprooted, for the satisfied, happy man to lose his place in the sun. My generation has seen just how unstable everything is and how vulnerable people are. When destiny winked its eye, in the space of a day, the rich lost their treasures, men of status lost their friends, and thinkers lost their bearings. Suddenly, they found themselves deprived of their most basic rights. France repudiated its Jews just as Hungary did. Military medals, aristocratic titles, social status, nothing counted any more. All it took was a decree, the stroke of a pen, and old families who had been living in supposedly civilized countries for centuries found themselves treated like foreigners and intruders. It is enough for someone to treat me like a foreigner for me to be one. If I am excluded, it is because someone has pushed me out. Therefore, it is my fault, too, if the other person is excluded, that is to say deprived of a feeling of security and of belonging, of a sense of identity. For it is up to me whether someone feels at home or not in our common world, and whether he feels tranquil or anxious when he looks around him. Since I am responsible for the other person being alienated or otherwise, just as I am responsible for his freedom, I must do everything in my power not to betray myself by betraying him. I must see in him my likeness, rather than a suspicious-looking stranger, so that our relationship can take on a human character. I live like him and I shall die like him. The same threats hang over us while we sleep. We cry out for rain or for love with the same voice. Despite appearances, despite the differences, the fate of people everywhere is the same. Our passage on this Earth is part of a picture that transcends us. Is mine any more important than the other person's? Do I have a higher mission than he? No matter where he comes from, the foreigner is close to me. He conjures up visions of a world which offers itself to us as a place to live in, enrich, and make fertile. I remember that, as a child, I used to wait impatiently and lovingly for the unknown visitor to arrive. I waited for him so that I could make him talk and also so that I could dream. I was grateful for his presence. I shall never forget the hours I spent with strangers during my childhood. Some of them told me happy or sad stories. Others told me about faraway countries, inspired sages, or adventurers looking to put themselves to some sacred test. In my head I followed them, spellbound. Their lives seemed so much more exciting than mine. I would have given anything to be like them, free as the wind and the night shadows. Yet most of them were beggars with no name and nowhere to go. What attracted me to them was that they came from somewhere else. This is because, in the Jewish tradition from which I draw my inspiration, any foreigner might be a sage in disguise, perhaps even the prophet Elijah himself. Or he might be a righteous man in exile, and therefore cloaked in anonymity. To offend him would be to risk damnation. That used to be my attitude toward foreigners. And now? I am older now. Am I any less romantic? Less optimistic perhaps. If I still respect the foreigner, it is for more concrete reasons. It is to let him know my solidarity with him as a human being, and my good faith as a human being. Torn apart from his family, environment, and ethnic or national culture, he has rights over me, for legally he has no rights. I am his hope. To refuse him this hope would be to shirk my obligations as a man. That is why I am in favor of welcoming as many foreigners as generously as possible. Whoever needs a refuge must feel welcome wherever I am. If he is a foreigner in my country, then I will be one too.

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