In the slow and deliberate process that is involved in changing my immigration status, I have the chance to observe as moving a spectacle as any I have seen in my life. Whenever I carry yet another document to the district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, I am able to gaze on the scores of other people who are there for the same purpose. They seem to have come from every corner of the earth. When I remarked on it to my attorney, who has seen it many times, he looked around and said simply: "Yes. It is amazing." There can be no sight like it anywhere else in the world.
If one took all of those who go there in the course of a week, they might come from every country as well as every corner of the earth. Always there are the extraordinarily diverse features of those from the different cultures of East and Southeast Asia. Always there is the Middle East. Always there is Latin America. Always there is the Caribbean or Africa. And even now there is always still a trickle from Northern Europe who have come here to do better. Where else in a single room can one look on such a microcosm of all humanity? Here indeed is an astounding grace.
For look on them. These are not a pathetic mass of displaced persons. They stand out as individuals. There is the student who has her nose in a textbook, not wasting a moment to better herself as she waits. There are those who can barely understand the forms which they are filling in, but each helped by a friend who has preceded them and whose English is still broken. There is the priest from some church which is native in some country in the Middle East, still with a thick accent, shepherding some new member of his flock through the forms and the interviews. There is even the laid-back European whom one suspects is an actor.
Perhaps this is the nearest that one can come to America. Perhaps it is here that visitors to Washington should begin their tours of its monuments, so that when they get to the National Archives they will feel the pulse in them. Here the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are living. I look at the insignia of the Department of Justice on the wall. The eagle has its arrows in its talons, ready to strike and avenge. But here in this office, as drab as any government office anywhere in the world, I notice its wing, lifted as if protecting the new eaglets in its nest.
For I believe that these people have not come only for the opportunity and the earnings -- although even those are not to be despised -- but for a justice which they already trust even if it is still alien to them. One has only to look at them as they wait. They may frown over the difficulties of a form which is not in their own language. But one searches their faces in vain for any real signs of fear or anxiety. These are people who think that, if they do right, the law here will be just to them.
I do not wish to seem to sentimentalize every one of the immigrants, or to romanticize every member or operation of the INS in its all but impossible task. But standing in that office and looking at the immigrants, and watching the infinite patience with which most of the staff deal with the inquiries of those who can hardly understand or make themselves understood, one is surely right to forget these imperfections. What one is gazing on is hope and the effort not to frustrate it unnecessarily.
One may pass another room upstairs where other immigrants are huddled. Perhaps they have been picked up that day from a restaurant kitchen or a construction site. They lean their heads together and jabber about their futures, even as they anxiously await the decision of what is to happen to them. But if one senses a fear in them, it is not that they will be kept in this country, but that they will be made to leave it. Even as they huddle under the eye of the FBI, they are probably planning how they will return. Has any other country in the history of the world ever been such a haven to so many?
A literary agent in New York, whom I would not lightly accuse of any inclination to sentimentality, once said to me in Central Park: "Perhaps those of us who are already here need the immigrants in every generation to remind us of what America is." I recalled his remark when the pope turned in New York to the Statue of Liberty and proclaimed again the story and the meaning of the great immigrations. Listening to him was like entering New York harbor after traveling steerage across the Atlantic.
From the immigration in the beginning, to the immense saga of the successive waves of the mass immigration, to the immigration which still does not stop, it is the greatest movement of population in the entire history of the world. All the trampling of peoples across the seedbed of our civilization in the Middle East, all the age-long treks of the countless peoples of Asia, all the great movement of the barbarians across what they in time made into Europe, pale before the sailing of all the peoples of the earth to this new world.
The story is not yet over; not by a long shot. But as I have pondered my own experiences and the remarks of the pope, a division in American society today has pushed itself into my mind. Among the immigrants have been the Jews. It is impossible to think of the immigration without the Jews. Indeed it is impossible to think of America as today we know it without them. They were at the heart of the mass immigration. They are now at the heart of the country they have helped to make.
It seems to me that it would be a tragedy if they now too thoughtlessly or impatiently tweaked those who are coming up or coming in behind them. Although I do not deny that there is some rhetoric to the phrase, it is still true that the blacks have in recent years been immigrants in their own country. If they sometimes seem to push too hard, should not the Jews remember their own pushing? If they sometimes seem to challenge values and standards which were once accepted, should not the Jews remember that they were once accused of the same unsettling? Is this not the time for the Jews to use their abundant generosity of spirit even more than before?
I do not have to take sides here on any of the specific issues which are involved to say that, if some black leaders now seem to be conducting their own foreign policy in the Middle East, then no less clearly did some Jewish leaders conduct their own foreign policy while they fought and maneuvered for the creation of Israel. It was not unknown for American Zionists to appear in Britain and use their political strength in America to bring pressure to bear on British politicians.
I was at that time described as a gentile Zionist; I regard myself as still a Zionist. It simply does not surprise me that, just as there have been American Zionists who have acted as a pressure group, so there are now American Palestinians who are a pressure group.
But there is an issue which more obviously calls out the experience of the immigration. The present division between the Jews and the blacks touches the rawest nerves when it raises questions of education. This is not surprising. Education has always been at the core of the experiences of immigration and integration. Education has always been the main avenue of the immigrant in his struggle to "make it" in America. It has never been put better than by a rabbi, Arthur Hertzberg, later president of the American Jewish Congress, writing in Commentary in 1963:
"For the vast majority of Jews the public school is the object of a primary, tacit commitment; it is the first and foremost institution for their integration into America. Jews are thus perhaps the strongest defenders of public education . . . If parochial, or class-determined, private schools were to become the norm for America, we would be going a long step toward erecting a society of coexisting ghettos."
For understandable and strong reasons, the Jews are very sensitive to every question that affects the control of the public schools; perhaps most obviously, it is here that any threat to the separation of the state and religion rightly touches them to the quick. The bitter battle with the blacks over community control in New York has similarly been a struggle over the dangers of ethnic control of the public schools. The strength of the Jewish opposition to the excesses of affirmative action has the same profound issues at its roots.
All this is understandable. More often than not the Jewish case is hard to dispute. Yet every ethnic or religious group making its way into American society -- including the Jews -- has always tried to wrestle more control for itself over the public schools. Again it seems to me that it will be a tragedy if the Jews today turn their backs too abruptly on their own experience. It smacks too much of those whose who have arrived being careless of those who have still to make it. It makes me feel uncomfortable when the present editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, proclaims that one of the virtues of the North, misunderstood in the South, is that it is "a society of coexisting ghettos."
Moreover, the black as an "internal immigrant" in his own country will often seem to challenge the existing values and standards in ways which were not those of the immigrants from abroad. They will often seem less anxious to be absorbed, and more anxious to change what is there, and even to risk pulling it down. There is therefore a genuine clash of values in the division that has now opened. But is it false to suggest that the two experiences should still be able to talk fruitfully to each other?
"Jewish history has become internalized in Jews," wrote Alfred Kazin in Commentary 15 years ago. "The more deeply Jewish a person was in Eastern Europe, the less he knew about what was actually happening around him. . . .Religious indifference to the 'world' was encouraged by the fact that theirs was obviously not a Jewish world." The experience of the Jew and the black in America have been very different. But is it not true that black history has become no less internalized in the black?
If the Russian Jews "often had nothing in common with the Poles and Russians themselves, not even a language," and so became "an extreme example in history of a collective or group identity sustaining and reinforcing its separateness," is it not true that the blacks also have felt that they had "nothing in common" with the other Americans around them, "not even a language," and so equally feel at least a temporary need to sustain and reinforce their separateness? This is the common response of victimized peoples who feel that history is not something which they helped to make but something which happened to them. It will yet again be a tragedy if these two groups so internalize their own histories that they are incapable of speaking to each other at all on the common ground of the "world" which exists outside them and should be their meeting place.
Seventy years ago in the American Historical Review, Joaquim Nabuco, formerly Brazilian ambassador to the United States, said that he would classify the immigration as "the greatest of all contributions of America to civilization." It was a fact "never seen or imagined before," the making of "a new mankind formed by self-selection." It is still self-selection which one can see in the offices of the INS: the self-selection of those bright and adventurous enough to come at all. In the self-selection of the Jewish immigrant is there not something that can recognize the self-selection of the blacks who are internal immigrants?
They certainly are not the same. But are they not close enough to speak?