Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The other day a colleague of mine, who came to America from Russia via Israel, told me a story about her son who is in the eighth grade in a renowned progressive school in Cambridge, Massachusetts (than which no community could be more progressive). The boy was puzzled over how to complete an assignment he had been given in school, to write a paper responding to the question, “What do your people believe in?” My colleague was quite annoyed and suggested, “Why don’t you say, my people believe in liberal democracy!”-to which her son replied, “They would kill me if I wrote that!” My colleague commented, “You know, there is no way in which a kid in this school could identify himself simply as an American.”

Then there was this conversation with a visiting scholar from Russia. She reported that she was pleased to have found some people here with whom she could speak Russian, especially one woman who only lived a short distance away. It was clear from her account that this woman was married, so I asked whether her friend’s husband was Russian too. “Oh no,” she replied, “he is a Jew.” I asked, “But aren’t there Russian Jews?” A perplexed look came over her face, she thought for a moment (as if this were a difficult question), then said: “No. There are Russians and there are Jews. She is Russian, he is Jewish.” I observed that her remarks could be taken as anti-Semitic. “I’m not anti-Semitic,” she said emphatically.

All of this made me remember something I had read many years ago. Shortly after the end of World War II a group from an American Jewish organization visiting Denmark met with an official of the government. The topic of conversation was the well-known story of how the Danish people and government spirited away to Sweden virtually the entire Jewish population of Denmark and thus saved them from the Nazis. The spokesman of the American Jewish group told the Danish government official, “We want to thank you for what you did for our people.” “We didn’t do it for your people,” he replied; “we did it for our people.”

A few years ago, well before the end of apartheid in South Africa, an acquaintance of mine, a black professor from that country, was a visiting scholar at Harvard. As soon as he arrived in late summer, he wanted to register his two children at a nearby Cambridge public school. The person in charge of registration seemed embarrassed, said that there were some technical problems, and suggested that the professor and his children should come back the following week. The next week they were told that the children could not be admitted at this school but would e assigned somewhere else, which happened to be a long bus ride away. The father, who by then was very angry, asked to speak to someone higher up and was finally seen by the school principal. The principal was very embarrassed indeed (I’m not sure that he should be given credit for this) as he explained, “You must understand my position. You see, we have now achieved the targeted racial balance in this school. If we admitted your children, it would disturb the balance.” The professor observed that he came from the country of apartheid and had not expected, in liberal Massachusetts, to have his children refused admission to a school because of their race. That may or may not have aggravated the embarrassment of the principal, but it did not change his position. The children wound up at a nearby Catholic school.

Last year I happened to have some time on my hands in Amsterdam and, wandering about, came upon the museum of the city’s history. A large group of school children was being led through the museum, the great majority non-white-evidently children of immigrants from the erstwhile Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia and the Netherlands Antilles. (Assuming that there was no racial segregation in Amsterdam schools, I later asked a Dutch acquaintance about this, and he opined that this must have been a class for children still learning the Dutch language.) As one would expect, much of the museum is dedicated to the golden age of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, when the first modern capitalism flourished there and the city was arguably the commercial capital of Europe. I do not know Dutch, but I could make enough of the teacher’s explanations to understand that he was speaking with much pride about this great period in the history of “our city.” The children were well-behaved, and all the little brown and black faces were raised attentively to the various exhibits of Dutch glory. Of course, I had to wonder in what way these children, whose parents hailed from Java or from Curacao, could identify with the dour Calvinist faces staring down at them from the portraits along the walls. “Our city”?

When I’m by myself in a strange place I’m prone to fantasies. I had a fantasy there and then. There are now a good many children with brown faces in Germany too, and I had just been told that, for various reasons, there had been an upsurge of anti-German feelings in Holland. My fantasy was that a little brown Dutch boy was talking to a little brown German boy, berating him for “what you did to us during the war.” It occurred to me that, if such a scene could take place, both countries would have solved their immigration problem.

The United States has been an immigrant country from the beginning and for a long time could take satisfaction in its record of reasonable success in integrating into its society people from the most varied backgrounds. Today all of Western Europe is an immigrant society and all its countries are struggling with the problem of integration. What does it mean to be a black citizen of the Netherlands? A German whose native language is Turkish? A Muslim Briton? In trying to answer such questions, it is no longer clear that Europeans can learn from the United States.

The road to Bosnia is not so very long.

Peter L. Berger is a Senior Advisor to the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift