I had never really thought much about "settler nations" before I served at the United Nations. But there it was hurled at me like an accusation by the ambassador of a distinctly immoderate Arab nation. "You will never understand why the fat lafd Israel belongs to Palestinians," he nearly shouted at me in a corridor outside the General Assembly. "What do Americans know about the connection between a people and their land? You're a settler nation. You have no connection to the land."
All the nations of the Americas, I learned in subsequent conversations, were "settler nations," founded by people who came from elsewhere. So were Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, Israel. And in the view of my disapproving Arab interlocutor, people who came from elsewhere never have a legitimate title to their land. Never. They never constitute a true community. They are just squatters -- without organic relationships to each other or to their country.
I mentioned John Locke's view that ownership is established by mixing one's labor with the land. My interlocutor was contemptuous. He had never heard so mistaken an argument, he assured me. Ownership, like nationhood, was established by indigenous, organic blood relations. By the time we finished talking, I had an image of successive generations of people sprouting from the soil like stalks of corn awaiting a long growing season.
Occasionally I recall this conversation when I am thinking about how difficult Arab nations find it to accept the existence or the legitimacy of the state of Israel, or when I am thinking about our own history or that of the Americas.
Most Americans are not so warmly attached as we once were to the drama of the Americas -- discovery, exploration, settlement, nation building. But the saga continues. It defines our present as well as our past. Immigrants continue to arrive, to learn our language, our ways, and become Americans. Many come as refugees fleeing tyranny, others to escape hunger or seek opportunity. They are boat people from Vietnam (31,895 in 1985) and survivors from Cambodia (13,563 in 1985). They are Mexicans who come, with or without visas, seeking jobs (61,077 legal Mexican immigrants last year). They are Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Ethiopians, Haitians, Russians. We are an extraordinary people -- drawn from everywhere and attached to everywhere. "Remember," I frequently say to new immigrants, "that what you are living through, the families of all of us have experienced. We are truly a nation of immigrants."
Only those who do not understand America believe that families that have been here for 10 generations are more American than the tens of thousands of new citizens naturalized last year. And only those who do not understand America think it "un-American" for Cuban Americans to have a special interest in Cuba, or black Americans to have a special interest in Africa, or Polish Americans in Poland, or Jews in Israel.
I was shocked by Gore Vidal's assertion that Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter were "Israeli fifth columnists" because they are warmly concerned about Israel, because they support aid for Israel, and because (according to Vidal) Podhoretz did not understand that the American Civil War was the "great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic." Now, my great grandfathers also fought in that war, as Confederates and Unionists, and while I feel the tragedy of that war, I also feel the triumph. Henceforward, everyone in our country counted -- not as three-fifths of a person, but as a whole human being.
What gives "resonance to our Republic" is its continual renewal by new citizens who bring to us a special personal sense of the importance of freedom. The distinctive tragedy of America is not the Civil War, it is the alienation of some American intellectuals, who, in their selective ahistorical focus, miss the drama, exhilaration and success of our open, inclusive society -- a society that remains daring enough to accept the least fashionable people and give them freedom.
In fact, we need the refugees as much as they need us. Their experience is an antidote to home-grown disaffection. Doan Van Toai, a student leader active with the National Liberation Front during the Vietnam War, reminds us of this reciprocal need in his moving new book, "Vietnamese Gulag" (with David Chanoff).
His gripping personal account of the rapid extermination of freedom by the communists, of his imprisonment and eventual release, provides fresh testimony on the special perspective of immigrants. Toai arrived in the United States in 1979 after a two-year nightmare in Vietnam prisons. He writes:
"I have found the United States a blessed land, a place where one can work freely and give one's children a decent life, a place where one can be oneself and go about the business of life unafraid and unintimidated. I have also found that Americans are largely unimpressed by the peculiar beauties of their culture -- the rights they enjoy. Perhaps it is the immigrants' function from generation to generation to remind them of what a treasure it is they own."
Doan Van Toai may or may not have studied the Civil War, or even read the Declaration of Independence, but he fits well, on this Fourth of July, into our settler nation.