A Daily Mail world view
The Chief Rabbi’s rallying cry against political correctness strips away his well-established, discreet public image
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.
In harmony: Sir Jonathan Sacks ( second left) with Lord Bragg, Rowan Williams, and Muslim educator Maulana Shahid Raza