By David Harris
My family has a Ph.D. in the three “I’s” – immigration, integration and identity—not from a university, but from life.
My parents were refugees twice, first to France, then the United States. Each time, they had to start over, learning a new language, customs and culture. They succeeded.
My wife was a refugee from Libya to Italy, fleeing the 1967 pogroms that targeted Libyan Jews. After weeks in hiding, her family of ten reached Italy and also had to start over again.
This world of refugees and their children has been my milieu all my life. Even at school, I rarely encountered classmates who were third- and fourth-generation Americans. They practically didn’t exist in my New York neighborhood.
The lesson I learned is that while immigration, integration and identity are complex, multi-layered issues, at heart they rest on the two-way responsibility between the newcomer and host society.
If a country welcomes a migrant, providing the security and protection to build something fresh and hopeful, there’s a chance for a new start. That entails equal rights and protections for the migrants, a clear pathway to citizenship, and, to the extent possible, support to learn a new language, find employment and educate the children.
There is another set of responsibilities on the migrants’ shoulders. They owe something to the country that provides home and haven. My father, mother and wife all instinctively understood this. Their sense of gratitude was profound, be it in France, Italy or the United States. And it meant not just integrating, but embracing their new identity – and transmitting that pride to their children.
People say that I appear to be a typical American, whatever that means. Unlike my European family, I understand baseball, need air conditioning in the summer, add ice to my drinks and, more seriously, feel American to my bones. At the same time, I learned the languages of my family, always felt close to Europe and studied the relevant history.
America may offer a different social model than Europe, since the U.S. has always been a country of immigrants and refugees, and identity has never been principally about blood, but rather shared beliefs in the American experiment. Pluralism has been the leitmotif of America.
But Europe has joined America as a migrant-receiving space, and as recent events have shown, immigration can be explosive unless properly handled. The American example, as well as my own family experience, offers some possible guidelines.
Several European countries today seem to have a better understanding of what doesn’t work, but have not yet been able to replace it with what does, especially if the goal is to enable children of the immigrant generation to feel at home as Germans, Danes, etc. And as a Jew, I have a very immediate concern. Precisely because of the long shadow of German history, Chancellor Angela Merkel felt impelled in 2015 to open wide the gates of welcome to hundreds of thousands of migrants.
It would be a tragic irony of history if some people admitted precisely because of Germany’s dark past retained, and even acted on, the anti-Semitic attitudes all too prevalent in the countries from which they came, including Syria.
Germany must be firm and unequivocal. The country today is built on core values, which include gender equality, rule of law, freedom of religion and from religion, LGBTQ rights, respect for minorities and a special historical responsibility towards the Jewish people and Israel. These do not derive from any presumed cultural superiority, but rather from a sense that they have worked to ensure the country’s remarkable peace, prosperity, freedom and security.
My parents came to the U.S. long after the end of slavery and the most brutal period of racial segregation, but they understood that this history was now also theirs. They couldn’t separate themselves from it. Nor should those who settle in Germany be detached from German history, all the more so because it is so integral to German identity today.
Newcomers must understand these pillars of German society and, yes, adapt to them. Again, migration is a two-way, not a one-way, street.
In my professional life, l have worked with thousands of refugees, mostly from behind the Iron Curtain, but also from Southeast Asia. I have seen remarkable values-based evolutions within one generation, sometimes even less. In other words, it is doable, and not at the cost of those elements of the past which provide a sense of comfort and support.
There is no reason it can’t be achieved today in Germany or elsewhere in democratic Europe. But a policy based on wishful thinking or equivocation won’t achieve it. A policy of clear expectations and mutual responsibilities could.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). This op-ed was published in German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.