almost a decade, Josef Ben-David was stateless. The son of a Jewish elementary
school teacher in Czarist Russia, he hated his native country, where prevalent
antisemitism made his life impossible. After World War I, violent pogroms
ransacked his town; he survived one of them by disguising himself as a
Christian priest. The trauma led him to embrace Zionism, and in 1921 he embarked
on a long and arduous trip to Palestine. To Josef’s misfortune, however, one of
the towns where he stopped during the journey was suddenly occupied by Poland as
part of the region’s border disputes. And there was no end to the legal misery
inflicted by the Polish state: The town clerk’s office confiscated his Russian
documents after deeming them to be fake, but it also refused to grant him residency
or traveling rights in Poland due to xenophobic policies that were designed to
exclude Jews, Ukrainians, and other minorities. Without these legal documents,
he was trapped, lacking both permission to stay and permission to leave.And
so, for eight years, Josef joined the ranks of the stateless, the masses who lacked
legal ties to any country. Like many others who had lost their citizenship, he
could not work or travel legally and he lived in abject poverty. It was only in
1929 that his nightmare came to an end. His older brother, who had arrived in British-ruled
Palestine a few years earlier, managed to procure him new documents, and within
a few months, Josef walked off a train in Jerusalem and found work as a
carpenter. That the fulfillment of his Zionist dream entailed calamity for the
country’s native population did not particularly bother Josef. In the 1930s, he joined
the Irgun, a nationalist underground that sought to secure Jewish dominance through
terrorist attacks on (among others) Palestinian civilians. The lesson that
Josef drew from his own experience was not about solidarity with the
dispossessed but about the overriding need to avoid the horror of exclusion. He
thus shed no tears in 1948, when the creation of the state of Israel—during
which he served in the military—granted him citizenship while rendering hundreds
of thousands of Palestinians landless and stateless.Josef,
who was my great-uncle, does not appear in historian Mira Siegelberg’s illuminating
and rich Statelessness: A History. But his story captures the book’s expansive
sweep, drama, and dark ironies. Statelessness became ubiquitous during the first
half of the twentieth century, when governments’ obsessions with controlling
and crafting their populations often led them to strip certain groups of citizenship.
Siegelberg powerfully traces an array of ambitious campaigns to eradicate
statelessness, as diplomats, scholars, and activists across Europe and North
America sought to empower international organizations over state governments or
attempted to make citizenship a universal right for all humans. Yet these efforts,
Siegelberg argues, ultimately failed. By the 1960s, jurists and politicians had
given up on their quest to modify or restrict state power. They accepted governments’
total authority to bequeath or deny citizenship. Ever since, global elites have
treated statelessness not as an urgent problem to be solved but as a sort of
natural disaster: an uncomfortable fact of life that can’t be altered.Statelessness, then, charts the creation of our own
world. Over 10 million people are stateless today, and governments seem hell-bent on increasing their numbers: India is considering a plan to strip citizenship from millions
of Muslims, the
United States recently established a special office to denaturalize
immigrants, and thousands
of children of refugees from the Syrian civil war are born into statelessness in Europe. Siegelberg’s
book is a chance to reflect on the nature of the struggle for equality, its
past failures and future prospects. Is the binary between the stateless and
the citizen the most stubborn barrier to an egalitarian future, as previous
reformers believed? Or does a more equal future lie in dismantling the
hierarchies within citizenship itself?   Until
the early twentieth century, most white Europeans and North Americans thought
about statelessness as a strange anomaly. “Civilized” societies, countless
diplomats and jurists mused, rested on basic legal rights, and these could only
be realized if individuals were formally members of existing states. In the
era’s racist and colonial imagination, the dichotomy of citizenship and statelessness
often served to distinguish the West’s “advanced” societies from the
“savageness” of Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. While Euro-American
regimes endowed all their people with some legal status, argued many thinkers,
the rest of the world was a wasteland of lawlessness and statelessness, and in
dire need of imperial tutelage. Global elites have
treated statelessness not as an urgent problem to be solved but as a sort of
natural disaster: an uncomfortable fact of life that can’t be altered.So
when the threat of statelessness seemed to appear in their midst, Western
elites mobilized. In 1878, for example, Europe’s great powers forced Romania to
grant its Jewish population legal protection. If the Romanian government
stripped Jews of their citizenship, wrote the influential Swiss jurist Heinrich
Bluntschli, the rest of the world had to ignore this decision and treat them as
Romanian citizens. Similar beliefs also informed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling
in 1897 in United States v. Wong Kim Ark,
the case that enshrined the constitutionality of birthright citizenship. A “man
without a country,” the justices wrote, “is not recognized in law.”The
aftershocks of World War I, however, shattered this consensus. As revolutions
and political upheavals engulfed Europe, countless people lost their legal
status. In 1921, on the heels of their victory in a bloody civil war, the
Bolsheviks revoked the citizenship of all Russian émigrés who fled the Red Army
into exile. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people, scattered from Geneva and
Paris to New York, were rendered stateless. Just as punishing were the new
states of Eastern Europe, like Poland and Hungary, which emerged at the war’s
end from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Eager to consolidate their
national “character,” their governments rushed to exclude minorities. Poland,
for example, extended citizenship only to people who could show that their
ancestors fought for Polish independence in the nineteenth century, a brazen
move that barred Ukrainians, Germans, and others.These
events triggered a conceptual revolution. Although European and North American
elites remained convinced of their superiority over the rest of the world, they
also concluded that the creation of a stable postwar order would benefit from
embracing the existence of statelessness. The League of Nations, whose leaders
were eager to combat communism, countered the Bolsheviks’ measures with a legal
innovation. Rather than insisting that the Russian émigrés were still citizens
of Russia, it issued unprecedented documents that granted them traveling and
residency rights under the protection of the League. These “Nansen passports,”
as they became known (named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian polar explorer
who administered their distribution), continued to be recognized by all the members
of the League until the 1940s.While
those dispossessed from other states did not receive such documents, local
courts still granted them some special protections. In 1921, for example, Max
Stoeck, a German émigré living in London, sued the British government for
confiscating his property. The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World
War I, had allowed the victors to claim the possessions of Germans in their
territories as war reparations. But in a precedent-setting ruling, a British
judge determined that because Stoeck lost his original citizenship, he was
stateless, rendering the expropriation of his property illegal.In
the most compelling parts of Statelessness,
Siegelberg brilliantly reconstructs how these improvised measures appeared in parallel
with an ambitious intellectual movement to remake citizenship. Across Europe,
thinkers sought to ensure rights for all people, regardless of their legal
status or nationality. The émigré Russian jurist André Mandelstam, for example,
called for the expansion of the Nansen passports to any person who lost
government protection. He argued that international society should guarantee
individual rights and supersede the authority of national governments. Others,
like the influential Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen—the main architect of Austria’s
post­–World War I constitution—used statelessness to articulate a universal and
inclusive vision of citizenship. In groundbreaking publications, he explained
that even democratically elected governments had no basis to tie legal status
to ethnicity or history; all who resided within a country were equally entitled
to citizenship.There
were, of course, glaring blind spots in these attempts to establish universal
rules for citizenship. While Statelessness doesn’t dwell on this issue in
as much detail as it could, these plans remained confined to the North Atlantic
world, and the reformers’ lofty campaigns and publications said nothing about
equality or citizenship for colonial subjects. Nevertheless, in the landscape
of white Euro-American thought, Mandelstam’s and Kelsen’s arguments were
innovative in their bold challenge to national sovereignty. They also resonated
with many readers: Their ideas helped inspire a generation of scholars and
politicians who spent the 1920s tirelessly convening conferences, signing
petitions, and publishing books and articles advocating for far-reaching
reforms on behalf of the stateless. League officials occasionally supported
these efforts; so did some feminist organizations.A
broad and diverse crowd, then, sought to remake the rule of international
politics on behalf of people like Josef. And for a moment, it seemed their goal
was within reach—a goal, it turns out, that neither Josef nor the rest of the
world shared.The
failure of these reformers was not preordained. If anything, it seemed like the
price of unmitigated sovereignty was becoming even more evident in the 1930s,
when acts of brutality around the world—from Nazi Germany’s stripping of citizenship from Jews to Japan’s violent assault on China—created more than a
million new stateless people. French jurist Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, who
would later become one of the judges in the Nuremberg trials, explained in 1935
that statelessness was by nature an international affair. It thus had to be controlled
by transnational organizations.Yet
fail the reformers did, and spectacularly so. Even though many diplomats accepted
Mandelstam’s and Kelsen’s claim that statelessness was a valid legal status, they
ignored the rest of their theories and accepted existing states’ authority over
citizenship. In some of her book’s most depressing parts, Siegelberg details
how participants in international conferences in the 1930s buried hopes for reform.
In scenes that are eerily similar to United Nations summits on climate change today,
officials from around the world gathered to coordinate the necessary regulation
of citizenship laws, only to agree that it was someone else’s job to relinquish
control over citizenship; for their own countries to do so was unimaginable. As
British diplomat Mackinnon Wood asserted, the eagerness of other regimes to
exclude members of their populations was unfortunate but perfectly legal
according to international codes. Indeed,
a series of international agreements solidified this logic. The Convention on
Nationality Law (1930), signed by dozens of countries, clarified that no
authority could infringe on a state’s internal rules. Participating states even
used the convention to expand their denaturalization powers. America’s 1940 Nationality Act, for example, stipulated that naturalized U.S. citizens automatically
lost their citizenship if they lived abroad. This
meant that the trauma of World War II did little to curtail states’ ability to
determine their populations’ lawful status. The tragedies at Auschwitz and
Hiroshima were not followed by international cooperation and human solidarity but
by a harsh world order premised on national sovereignty, one in which statelessness
continued to flourish. Few recognized this fact more viscerally than officials
at the newly created U.N., who in 1945 were tasked with handling the
massive number of refugees produced by years of global violence. Unlike their
predecessors at the League of Nations, they did not even consider issuing international
passports. Their efforts instead focused squarely on relocation and
nationalization: Poles were sent to Poland, Italians to Italy, and so on, where
local authorities were to decide their fate.The tragedies at Auschwitz and
Hiroshima were not followed by international cooperation and human solidarity but
by a harsh world order.What
is more, the global triumph of decolonization in the subsequent two decades completed
the nation state’s hold on global politics. Though some anti-colonial leaders, such
as Senegalese thinker and politician Léopold Sédar
Senghor, hoped to build a transnational federation in Africa, empires were
ultimately replaced by states, which took full control over their population’s legal
status. Even political theorists who earlier rejected the state’s authority now
conceded it was not likely to be surpassed. Hannah Arendt, one of the era’s
most prominent commentators on law and politics, abandoned her earlier interest
in federations and claimed that citizenship in a state was the basis for
political life.Siegelberg’s
account offers a sober corrective to dewy-eyed stories in which the formation
of postwar international institutions like the U.N. curtailed state-inflicted cruelties.
In her telling, the opposite was the case: International bodies embraced an
even more exclusionary conception of citizenship, dealing a final blow to any
chance for reform. A landmark decision by the International Court of Justice illustrates
this trend: In 1955, the court ruled on the case of Friedrich Nottebohm, a
German businessman who lived in Guatemala but was deported in 1943 as an enemy
alien after Guatemala joined the war against the Nazis. In 1939, however, for
the hefty price of 37,500 Swiss francs, Nottebohm had purchased citizenship
from Lichtenstein. This, Lichtenstein’s officials claimed, made his deportation
illegal. Yet the justices in the Hague dismissed Nottebohm’s ties to
Lichtenstein as insubstantial and invalid. Citizenship, they claimed, was not simply
a financial or legal arrangement but a “legal bond having as its basis a
social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interests and
sentiments.” Like Polish authorities in the 1920s, the court concluded that the
quality of one’s social attachment to a country was a legitimate and
necessary prerequisite for legal status. This meant the citizenship was not a
basic right but a privilege that could be denied. There’s
an almost unbearable tension between the sanitized language of international
law and the gruesome
world in which statelessness proliferated. And perhaps for this reason, these sections in Siegelberg’s book can
leave the reader wishing she said more about the relationship between ideas and
reality. What political forces shaped all these conventions and legal cases? What
were their political consequences? Siegelberg meticulously and impressively reconstructs the documents that entrenched statelessness.
But she also leaves important
questions hanging: Was the Convention on Nationality Law a
major event in international history, or did it merely ratify decisions already
made by political leaders? How many people were ultimately impacted by the court’s Nottebohm decision? Whatever
role international conventions and courts played in the process, Siegelberg convincingly
shows how the postwar decades made statelessness a permanent feature of global
politics. Governments the world over continued to strip individuals of
citizenship, and jurists increasingly nodded in lethargic approval. As the years
passed, efforts to challenge this reality slowly fizzled. Peter Mutharika, a
legal scholar and the future president of Malawi, ruefully noted in 1976 that the
problem of statelessness increasingly seemed to bore international audiences. The
ugliness of this reality was painfully clear to the Palestinians vanquished by
Josef Ben-David’s military unit, who in 1948 fled to refugee camps in
neighboring countries. Over the decades, the U.N. has issued many statements on
their behalf, but few beyond the General Assembly’s hallways seemed to care.
Israel continued to deny their right to return to their homes, while Syria and
Jordan refused to grant them citizenship. Their anguish also passed to new
generations. Seven decades after their exile, their descendants still live in camps
today, devoid of legal status.  It
is hard to finish Siegelberg’s book without feeling deflated. If those who
fought against statelessness failed, it tells us, it’s because they faced an
insurmountable challenge: They could not overcome the nation states’ historic triumph
as the “sole legitimate organizing unit of global politics.” This reality also rendered
their main tactics—international conventions and conferences—almost comically
useless. The representatives who gathered in them did not work for humanity but for their respective governments, whose authority they mostly reaffirmed. Even
international statements that sought to protect the stateless, such as the U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961), were ultimately toothless.
Roundtable discussions in Geneva are simply no match for immigration officials
with guns and armored vehicles and the xenophobic masses that support them. Yet
the reformers’ failure also had other roots, which Statelessness does
not reflect on. Siegelberg’s emphasis on legal and political discussions
inadvertently reproduces some of her protagonists’ conception of citizenship
and statelessness as opposites in a binary. Indeed, Mandelstam, Kelsen, and
others who fought to eliminate statelessness viewed citizenship as the source
from which all other rights flowed. They may have diverged on whether it could
be administered through international or national bodies, but they agreed that citizenship
determined people’s fundamental existence. In this vision, the world was
divided between those who basked in the sun of citizenship and those who languished in the
shadows of statelessness. Formal legal rights were thus the ultimate prize, the Holy Grail of world politics.  Reformers agreed that citizenship
determined people’s fundamental existence. The world was
divided between those who basked in the sun of citizenship and those who languished in the
shadows of statelessness.But
citizenship has rarely been the key to equality, and not only because states could
so easily revoke it. After all, some of the world’s strictest hierarchies
flourished within existing citizenship regimes and were sustained by
mechanisms beyond naturalization laws. Black Americans under Jim Crow were U.S.
citizens, but they lived under segregationist brutality. For much of the
twentieth century, women in Japan, Russia, and France could hold passports but
were harshly discriminated against by property, labor, and family laws and were
long denied the right to vote. In Israel, Josef and his descendants made sure
that Palestinians who did not flee in 1948 and who became Israeli citizens did not
enjoy the full protection of the state. A flurry of zoning codes,
discriminatory hiring policies, and public underinvestment schemes sought to
preserve their status as a second-tier population and still continues today. The
world’s main fault lines were therefore not just between citizens and the
stateless. Full legal status did not look the same in all places or for all
peoples, and its acquisition was only sometimes a solution to injustice.   The
twentieth century’s most far-reaching emancipatory movements, therefore, did not
focus only on obtaining citizenship but also on transforming the social and
economic order in which citizenship existed. Struggles for gender equality,
social democracy, and racial justice, which unfolded in parallel to the fight
against statelessness, aimed to uproot the social, cultural, and political
sources of inequality, often within states and their citizenship regimes. Their
leaders viewed citizenship not as the ultimate shield from injustice but as a
valuable social and legal status. This was also why, unlike Statelessness’s main protagonists, they complemented the fight for formal legal equality with other
forms of action, such as challenging cultural representations or campaigning
for material redistribution. They articulated broad social visions that went
beyond the legal code, visions that helped them to galvanize mass mobilization.
Passports alone were never going to eliminate the miseries of the stateless. This
task was always going to require overcoming the animosities that led to their
exclusion in the first place, even if this path defied universal prescriptions.
at least, was the lesson that other members of my family drew from their
history. Among them was my father, Oliver Grünberg, whose German-Jewish parents
were stripped of their citizenship by the Nazis in 1935 and later fled to South
Africa. Just as Josef came to find life in Czarist Russia unbearable, Oliver
grew to hate his native country and its racist apartheid regime. Upon turning
17 in 1964, he migrated to Israel, which he naïvely envisioned as a progressive
experiment (an image fed by Israeli broadcasts to the Jewish diaspora), and
became a citizen upon arrival. Unlike my great-uncle, however, Oliver dedicated
his life to protesting its exclusionary politics. I have vivid childhood memories
of accompanying him on visits to Palestinian villages, where he recorded
people’s stories of their relatives, many of whom lived stateless and in exile.
My father joined them in protest marches, where calls for the refugees’ return
blended with demands for economic equality. When I asked him about these
activities—as a child of Israel’s ethno-nationalist educational system, they
were hardly intuitive—he answered that all of us share a destiny. We eat the
same food and drink the same water, he said: Citizen or not, we prosper or sink
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