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The Chief Rabbi’s ral­ly­ing cry against po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness strips away his well-es­tab­lished, dis­creet pub­lic im­age

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

JONATHAN SACKS en­joys a celebrity that few moral thinkers th­ese days can ex­pect to re­ceive. There is an irony to this be­cause, for all that he says about the de­struc­tive ef­fects of the me­dia, Sacks him­self is one of its ben­e­fi­cia­ries. His mel­liflu­ous mus­ings on Ra­dio 4’s Thought for the Day sound car­ing, pro­found, and gen­tle. Odd, then, that he should now de­cide to out him­self as some­thing rather fiercer.

His latest book was ap­par­ently prompted by his per­cep­tion of a cri­sis in the state of Bri­tish so­ci­ety and cul­ture. Democ­racy is on a knife-edge. We are break­ing up into sep­a­rate so­cial frag­ments. We no longer share a com­mon iden­tity.

The Chief Rabbi as­cribes this cri­sis to two things. One is the fall-out from the 1960s: a loss of re­straint and a mis­guided be­lief in per­sonal free­dom. The other, more con­tentious cause is the ig­no­rance of im­mi­grant groups about West­ern val­ues.

For 17 years, Sacks has been a mas­ter of dis­cre­tion, work­ing along­side other reli­gions for the sake of com­mu­nal har­mony. Now, he has de­cided that po­lit­i­cally cor­rect si­lence has gone on long enough. Ar­gu­ing the su­pe­ri­or­ity of the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence over that of more re­cent ar­rivals, he writes about im­mi­grants fail­ing to in­te­grate be­cause satel­lite TV, phones and email al­low them to re­main, spir­i­tu­ally, in their home coun­try (un­like his fa­ther, from Poland, who quickly, and proudly, be­came English). He warns of the dan­ger of their im­port­ing reli­gions that are in­im­i­cal to the lib­er­al­ism and tol­er­ance for which Bri­tain has fought over cen­turies. He even talks about a de­scent into bar­barism.

While there is ad­mit­tedly an ex­tremely trou­ble­some el­e­ment of young Is­lamists, over­all, Bri­tain’s in­te­gra­tion of for­eign­ers has been hugely suc­cess­ful. This coun­try has al­ways been a mix of races (as Sacks states). In­te­gra­tion will al­ways pro­ceed at vary­ing rates. To stop the clock at a point of max­i­mal in­sta­bil­ity and de­clare an emer­gency, as Sacks does here, is to in­cline to­wards the hys­ter­i­cal.

In ad­di­tion to of­fend­ing the sen­si­tiv­i­ties that po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness tries to pro­tect, Sacks takes this mo­ment to at­tack other “lib­eral” pre­serves. He ad­vo­cates mar­riage as the sole bul­wark against so­cial break­down. He wants pub­lic af­fir­ma­tions of loy­alty to bring wa­ver­ing eth­nics into the fold.

It seems, then, that the agenda that has been di­rect­ing him all th­ese years is not that of Ju­daism — which can be all things to all men — but that of Amer­ica’s neo-con­ser­va­tives, the pol­i­tics of the ex-rad­i­cals who be­came zealots for the sta­tus quo, the pol­i­tics of the peo­ple who brought us the Iraq War.

That is not go­ing to go down well in those quar­ters where Sacks has to rep­re­sent the Jewish com­mu­nity. Nor will his re­cent ad­mis­sion that his “high­est as­pi­ra­tion” is to be “the ac­cept­able face of fun­da­men­tal­ism”.

Here is a man who is nat­u­rally cour­te­ous, whose eru­di­tion is leg­endary, who can call in any­one from Plato to Schopen­hauer when he needs a quote. But strip away the lofty com­pany and you are con­fronted by a stag­ger­ing vul­gar­ity of thought, a view that is melo­dra­mat­i­cally bleak. It is as if he spent all day read­ing the Daily Mail.

He is ex­as­per­ated not by our lack of deference but our ex­cess of it. Like the US neo-cons 30 years ago, he is will­ing to give of­fence, and has done to at least one black hu­man-rights or­gan­i­sa­tion.

It is hard to see what Sacks has to gain from liken­ing eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties to bar­bar­ians or ask­ing peo­ple to com­mit them­selves to pub­lic, pos­si­bly hu­mil­i­at­ing dis­plays of virtue. Per­haps he is fed up not only with po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness but also with the par­al­lel art of diplo­macy — or with the Chief Rab­binate and is look­ing for a way out.

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

In har­mony: Sir Jonathan Sacks ( sec­ond left) with Lord Bragg, Rowan Wil­liams, and Mus­lim ed­u­ca­tor Maulana Shahid Raza

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