Print | Email Archive

Multiculturalism

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2007-11-02

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Multiculturalism is under attack. There is indeed heightened racial and communal tension in Europe. But is it multiculturalism’s fault?

There have always been enclaves of class, region and background struggling against established residents. All the evidence shows that societies that take in different cultures and communities benefit, in terms of wealth, creativity and even genes. Thanks to multiculturalism, Britain has become a much more open and dynamic society than it was.

It is true that many ‘new’ immigrants oppose Western ideals whilst benefitting from them. So do plenty of orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians. The real problem is that some want to re-make the societies they move into in their regressive image and what’s worse, a significant minority of extremists actively want to destroy open and free societies and their citizens using violence. They have to be dealt with uncompromisingly. But that is no reason to throw the baby out with bathwater.

I have lived in Britain since before multiculturalism came into vogue. And I feel a lot happier and relaxed as a Jew, now that the pressure to become like everyone else has dissipated. The Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues of Britain argues that multiculturalism has failed and threatens liberal democracy. He contrasts the Jewish experience in the United Kingdom with that of minorities who have come into the UK since the Second World War and suggests that we Jews did a better job of integrating and our example should be followed.  He is wrong.

Anglo Jewry is not a good example. It still suffers from a Diaspora Inferiority Complex. Far too many British Jews are so insecure that they try to hide their Jewishness. The contrast with Israel or New York is striking. For hundreds of years, Jews in Britain were encouraged to play down their Jewishness. They were made to feel unwanted guests, the butt of constant anti Semitism, overt and covert, in institutions and the street. They had to put up and shut up and got on with it because however bad it was, it was better than where they came from.

Their heroes were the assimilating ‘Jewish’ aristocracy. Even Jewish charitable institutions actively connived in stripping new arrivals of their religion and culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Anglo Jewry became insipid, apologetic and defensive. Why is it you may ask that so many new and exciting developments outside of the Anglo Jewish Establishment have suddenly blossomed in recent years? Some of it has to do with Israel of course but it is also because a multicultural society encourages new ideas.

Much of the problem is the fault of fundamentalist attitudes of those in all religions who fear outside influences and fight against them. The answer is not to strip minorities of their differences but to encourage them to feel confident enough to relax and begin the process of adjustment. Of course this takes time and patience. Nowadays minorities in multi cultural societies do not have to go through the debilitating humiliations we Jews did. Today’s immigrants can, do and should fight for their rights.

What is wrong with Europe is that most States are not fighting to preserve their own religious traditions or their rights. They are capitulating. If some religious medical students in England refuse to attend courses that offend their religious sensitivities the authorities back down instead of standing firm. If there are honour killings in Germany the judges prefer to ignore the crimes so as not to offend. 

If one wants to live in a different culture one ought to accept certain a priori principles, ‘The Law of the Land is the Law’ as we have it in Judaism. New arrivals need to learn the language, find out about its culture and accept its democratic processes. It is not multiculturalism that has failed but political and cultural will. Successive governments have refused to deal with abuses of social welfare for fear of losing votes. Now in addition to the millions migrating to work where they are needed, others move to take advantage of social welfare. They swell the ranks of locals already living jobless purposeless lives. Many turn to violence, criminal or religious, for validation. This exacerbates tensions but it is not the fault of multiculturalism.

There are problems to be dealt with. However recognizing and valuing differences does not mean one has to lose ones own. The old cultures and religions are not fighting for survival. Unlike America where all religions fight on a level playing ground and the fittest survive, Europe still assumes some historical right to survive. Even the Jewish Establishment assumes privileges it must now earn. A healthy society is one in which every citizen feels free and entitled to live the way he or she wishes to without limits except in so far as they affect others. To go back to a society in which specific religious or cultural norms are imposed, is to return to the bad old days (or some might say the situation that prevails in Israel today). We need patience and determination, above all good governance and efficient bureaucracy, not retreat.

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com