It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative--if you're European, "mutliculturalism" has become a dirty word. The New York Times ran an op-ed today by a British writer attacking multiculturalism as form of public policy. And last week The New Yorker ran an piquant story about the rise of a fringe group of British hooligans, the English Defense League, which has been terrorizing Muslim communities. It went on to argue that the E.D.L. has benefited from the current vogue of multiculturalism-bashing among politicians, left, right or center.
All this comes as England commemorates the July 7 bombings of London's subway system, which killed 56 people, including the two homegrown Muslim terrorists. The difference between how the British and indeed much of Europe has responded to terrorism, and how Americans responded to Sept. 11, is telling. Both places now have strong anti-Muslim communities, so that's not interesting. What is noteworthy is how Europeans have framed the issue. In Europe, the idea of multiculturalism--equal respect for all cultures--has become the preferred target. Many Europeans on both the left and right now view multiculturalism as nothing but a divisive ideology--encouraging balkanized communities with no shared values, as opposed to a more unified whole.
Thuggish groups like the E.D.L., whose hate-filled window-smashing marauding eerily evoke Kristallnacht, have used the anti-multiculturalism ethos as intellectual cover for what is patent racism. Meanwhile, liberals have been seduced by the alluring logic of the criticism--why, yes!, multiculturalism does seem to encourage division, not dialogue. Good riddance! But what the entire debate yokes itself to, when you cut away the racists, is a very old, and very Jewish problem: assimilation. Is it a bad thing? And if not, how do you encourage it without endangering the rich sub-cultures found in most countries today?
If Jews know this problem well, we can't say we've solved it. The debate over assimilation within the Jewish community is as alive as ever. But there is an interesting case study in the somewhat forgotten Jewish figure, Israel Zangwill. He's part of the excellent new YIVO exhibit I wrote about this week, "Other Zions," which details one of Zangwill's stranger political projects--creating a Jewish state in places like Ecuador, Australia, and even Africa.
He was not an anti-Zionist, but he was a critic of early 20th century Zionists. Jews were being killed by the thousands in Eastern European pogroms, and Zionists--who saw the writing on the wall: Jews could never live in peace without their own state--were throwing fits over exactly where that state should be. It was Palestine or nothing, Zionists said, a place Zangwill didn't oppose, but at the time, seemed far out of reach. The Ottomans controlled it, and the best offer the Jews were getting was Uganda, a British colony. Zangwill said take it, but the World Zionist Congress balked, voting against the offer in 1905. He stormed out and formed his own alternative group: the Jewish Territorialist Organization.
The YIVO exhibit does a wonderful job describing this history, but there's little in it about Zangwill's other body of writing. He was first and foremost a writer. And he became famous, befriending many in England's prim literary establishment. The work he was most known for, in fact, dealt with the issue at hand here: assimilation. It was a play called "The Melting Pot," which came out in 1905, and if you've heard that phrase before you can thank Zangwill for it. He coined it.
The play, though, is as troubling as it is charming. Inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," it follows a secular Jewish man named David who marries a Christian woman named Vera. Both are Russian immigrants to New York, and the plot pivots on David's encounter with his father-in-law. It turns out that the father of the woman he's married to is the Tsarist official who forced David to flee Russia. And yet the ending is happy: in America, "the great Melting Pot," as David calls it, their divisive past is swept away. "Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God," the play ends.
Many commentators have taken Zangwill to task for encouraging a culturally-eviscerating assimilationism. But more recent scholars, reading the entire corpus of his work and tracking the evolution of his views, have noticed that he was not at all against Judaism. He was secular to the core, they argue, but he believed that Jewish culture and Jewish identity was something worth saving. He may have had his qualms with religious Judaism--which he thought, wrongly, could only impinge on modernity--but he believed a people were nothing without their past. He never did come up with a solution--"Next year in Quito!" didn't quite have the ring of "Next Year in Jerusalem!" But there is a lesson for us all in his struggle. Multiculturalism is not the problem, though mindless assimilation may be.
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