The question “What is citizenship?” is evergreen. Though perhaps impossible to “fix” given the complexities of borders, race, class, and the varying intersecting possibilities, the Global Jewish Modernism Lab invited three scholars to engage in conversation around the question as part of the “What is…” dialogue series on Thursday, October 6th, 2022. Troubling the question of citizenship through their intellectual and personal considerations, scholars Mia Fuller (UC Berkeley) and Shai Ginsburg (Duke) joined award-winning Italian author, academic, activist, and journalist Igiaba Scego for her long-awaited return to Duke University after her 2019 visit.

The event’s focus was not to settle the question but for the speakers to share the kinds of inquiries, languages, experiences, and pedagogy that shape their thinking.

First to speak was Shai Ginsburg, who began his presentation by asking the audience to reflect on the thematic question and then read different definitions and etymologies of citizenship for English, French, German, Russian, Middle Eastern languages (Arabic and Turkish), and Persian. Considering how in certain definitions of the word, citizenship means home or country, while in others, it can mean city or land territory, Ginsburg reflected on the ways that within certain cultural and linguistic frameworks, citizenship marks a public realm of responsibility, including demarcating socio-economic standards. Shifting to Hebrew and, more specifically, to the Israeli book of law, Ginsburg shared that in Hebrew, the logic of the word citizen has two meanings in the Bible. While this term does not communicate any social-economic boundaries, it demonstrates the rootedness of a being. In this context, Ginsburg interrogated the processes of exile and rootedness that exist particularly within the Israeli laws of nationality and return – who is seen as belonging, who is seen as returning, and who is considered an outsider.

The University of California, Berkeley’s Mia Fuller began her conversation by sharing how the Covid-19 pandemic changed her thoughts about citizenship. Fuller had attended Scego’s 2019 event, “The Challenge of Being an Afro-Italian Writer,” at Duke, where the writer discussed the power of the passport and its connection to citizenship. Inspired by that conversation, Fuller asked the audience to consider how they use the word citizen, what it means to them, and for whom “citizenship” is a good thing. Fuller shared that given her work as a cultural anthropologist and urban-architectural historian whose research is concerned with the interplays of physical space with political power, she often talks about citizenship with consideration of Italians, especially when speaking about Italy’s colonial and fascist passage. Unraveling Ancient Rome’s influence and how it made it feasible to conceptualize citizenship “Civitas,” Fuller drew out the particular entitlements and freedoms attached to certain citizenships and the alienation attached to others. In her talk, Mia Fuller encouraged the audience to sit with a few questions:

  1. Is citizenship changing? Do we understand what citizenship guarantees us? What is citizenship supposed to be, and is it actually that?
  2. How does being “American” or holding US citizenship implicate how we talk about other nations’ histories?

In her efforts to trace the diverging nature of citizenship and contemporary understanding of citizenship, Fuller began studying the history of European citizenship and how to become eligible. In the process, she learned that her German great-grandfather, who moved to Holland, did not have to get Dutch identity documents until WWI – the first time that individuals needed to have “regular” status and displaced people became more pronounced. This shift was an outgrowth of the Nuremberg laws, which “denaturalized” – took away the citizenship – of German and Austrian Jews. As the world moves into a moment when citizenship is becoming an element of war; and when the assumption is that every person has a state and has citizenship, Dr. Fuller encouraged attendees to understand that our expectations of citizenship are very much an artifact of the last century and artifacts of the war.

Igiaba Scego began her talk by illustrating the conceptual complexity of both citizenship and the citizen. Being Somali, Italian, and Roman (having grown up in and still living in Rome), Scego establishes that her own liminal identity and the 32-year civil war in Somalia led to a loss of archive. She shared the experience of watching a video recently given to Somalia by Germany of Somali delegates visiting Germany before the civil war. This video shows a scene of young Somalis standing in front of the Berlin wall and lamenting the “shocking impossibilities” of a situation. For the people in the video, the horrors of war were unfathomable. Yet, as Scego points out, the idea of Somali citizenship and what it means to be Somali shifts before, during, and after the dictatorship and after the civil war. At this moment, when Somalia is itself in the liminal space after a civil war but without peace, most Somalis attempt to get to Europe through any means necessary. Many die in the Mediterranean along the way. In all this, borders demarcate who is a citizen and who is not.

Considering her own identity, Scego explained that when one exists in a diaspora, there is great awareness that some of your family remain in your “motherland” without rights, and some are elsewhere trying to gain rights. This rights process can be seen in the dimensions of Italy’s jus sanguinis citizenship policy, which alienates second-generation Italians and renders them foreigners in their own homes. Italy’s citizenship laws create invisibility. Activism for Italian citizenship which leads to an Italian passport, opens the door for people to be seen and to be able to exist in Italy, not as outsiders.

Scego shared that she turns to literature to understand citizenship for herself. Though Italian is not the language of the market, she chose to write in it because Italy is her home, with the language the actual marker of her citizenship. Making this choice to write in Italian is a political assertation of ownership and claiming space. Language and literature allow us to understand the world while also providing a tool for explaining what is happening around us. Wrapping up her conversation, Scego urged those in attendance to consider the power of certain passports and the punishment of others within global contexts. She asked: how are global apartheids reinforced, and how are holders of certain passports, like the Somali passport, rendered as nothing?