Thursday, November 01, 2007

What's Eating Rabbi Sacks?

British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made news a little while ago when he came about against the big M- multiculturalism. In his latest book, Sacks said the big M is a threat to free speech and liberal democracy. He added that the big M has led "not to integration but to segregation," creating a "culture of victimhood," endless discussions about identity politics, and different groups demanding special treatment.

As you might expect, the liberal pinko in me takes issue with this. But not just because I think Multiculturalism is a perfectly fine idea, but also because Rabbi Sacks seems to come off as a hypocrite. First of all, what is he is proposing as an alternative? Sacks says he wants to see "integration without assimilation," which makes sense, given that he certainly supports the British Jewish community staying apart from the average Briton, for instance, through their own private religious institutions and schools. But from where I'm sitting that doesn't seem to be at odds with the larger theme of multiculturalism. I consider multiculturalism to be an "outward-looking" descriptor- how does the society as a whole view the goal of different cultures? What Sacks seems to be talking about is more the issue of internal group dynamics and perspectives- of whether the goal is to integrate into your host country versus remaining as separatist as possible. (A-la, for instance, Hispanics, or say, Haredim.) By blasting multiculturalism as a whole, Sacks seems to be suggesting that by merely acknowledging the potential legitimacy of multiple existing peoples within a society, that society dooms itself. This is funny, given that the rabbi's last book, "Dignity of Difference," got him in deep shit with the Orthodox by giving an essentially pluralist view of religion. Unfortunately in what is becoming a pattern, Sacks responded to RW criticism by shutting up and playing ball. Is that what he's doing here? Is saying he wants his book to be seen as "politically incorrect in the highest order" perhaps indicative that this is more about attention-whoring than anything else? Or is the problem more that Sacks' speech style is like an onion? "Much of talking to Dr Sacks is like this: tantalisingly provocative ideas wrapped in layers of obfuscation, then swaddled in an erudite sweep of references."

In any event, the implication that apartness necessarily leads to victimhood would seem to be belied by Sacks being so pro-Jewish day school. Is this a case of "do as I say, not as I do?"

Not only is Sacks getting poked by supporters of big M, he's also getting kudos from some allies he'd probably rather not be associated with:

On the website of the Stormfront White Nationalist Community – where common topics for discussion include Holocaust denial and claims that Judaism allows Jews to kill non-Jews – the message board was buzzing with excitement. One post read: “Holy s**t! Am I seeing things? A Jew going against multiculturalism! You have to give the guy credit, everything he said is spot on. Now will the rest of this dumb country see sense?”

Another said: “Although this guy is a Jew, he is helping us out big time by releasing articles such as this one.”

On his blog, meanwhile, BNP leader Nick Griffin referred to the extract he read of the book as “a very important and welcome piece at various levels”.

Whoops. When neo-Nazis start thanking you for helping them out, it might be time to reassess. Or at least try to clarify things.

Again, I think the biggest problem is that Sacks is so unclear about what his alternative to multiculturalism is. If what he really wants is to unite disparate cultures into identifying as more British, a much smarter strategy would have been to co-opt multiculturalism and say he wants to modify it. But then, that wouldn't have gotten him and his book this much attention, and maybe that was part of the point. For better or worse, by blasting multiculturalism as a whole, Sacks makes himself look like he's more interested in getting noticed than being heard.

Yes, identity is always a tricky line to cross. But yelling about multiculturalism ruining Britain seems not only alarmist but also ridiculous. The excerpt from Sack's book in the Times actually spends most of its time warning about moral relativism, which I think is a far trickier issue, and not one I think necessarily has much to do with multiculturalism per se as much as it does post-modernism and alienation/skepticism from absolute moral truths, particularly among young people. We can bemoan moral relativism (and ethnic politics, for that matter), but I don't see how a return to "mono-culturalism," even if such a thing were possible, would be a solution. Britain, having stepped outside the box of being a Christian country (Sack's words), cannot go back in.

Edit: Multiculturalism defenders respond to the esteemed rabbi.
Dr Richard Stone, head of the Stone Ashdown Trust, which backs race-relations organisations, including the Jewish-Muslim Alif Aleph group, said he was “staggered” by the comments.

My initial response is that he has been reading the words of journalists, who are known enemies of multiculturalism and who are trying to undermine the concept. In my view, multiculturalism is the only hope for the future of this country and we must promote it.”

However, there was a more cautious response from Dr Edie Friedman, director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, who, while warning of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, called for a “mature discussion”.

“We have to think hard about what kind of society we want.

If you get rid of multiculturalism you have to think about what will replace it. It is certainly a debate that the Jewish community should be involved in.”

Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, said that while he agreed with the Chief Rabbi’s rejection of multiculturalism, the whole of British society had to change for communities to feel they were going forward.

Antony Lerman, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, said the extracts he had read showed he had “misunderstood what multiculturalism is all about”.

IMO, this pretty much hits the nail on the head. The rabbi seems to be going after the big M strawman of Bill O'Reilly and his UK counterparts, not the actual one promoted on the ground. (Though accusing "all journalists" of hating multiculturalism is a supremely boneheaded sound bite.)

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