Multiculturalism Has Had Its Day, Says Outgoing Chief Rabbi of Great Britain

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says British Muslims should learn from the U.K. Jewish community's centuries of experience as a minority and abstain from imposing beliefs on the majority population.

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LONDON - The outgoing chief rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, criticized the British government in an interview with The Times on Monday, saying that Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers have not done enough to encourage the institution of marriage, and also saying that multiculturalism has "had its day."

Rabbi Sacks will be leaving his post at the end of the month after 22 years as chief rabbi. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is replacing him.

Rabbi Sacks' prominence as one of Britain's foremost speakers on matters of faith and public values is reflected in the fact that his interview was the Times' main headline Monday ("Tories have let families down, says faith leader"), and it was widely discussed this morning in the British media, including on the BBC's main radio program.

The Jewish leader’s criticism of the British government is especially poignant, as it follows the showers of near total admiration he has received from the establishment as his tenure comes to an end. In a farewell video prepared two months ago, Cameron called Sacks "my rabbi" and said, "over the past two decades you have been not just a leader for Jewish people but for all of us.”

In the Times interview, however, Sacks said "the government has [not] done enough at all" to encourage marriage, adding it should recognize marriage in the tax system, and also help stay-at-home mothers with childcare subsidies. “The state has an interest in marriage because the cost of family breakdown and non-marriage, the last time I looked at it, was estimated at £9 billion a year,” he said.

Another controversial subject Sacks addressed is multiculturalism in Britain, which he said "has had its day and it’s time to move on." Sacks, the leading representative of the Jewish community, was referring to the sensitive issue of relations between another minority, British Muslims, and the rest of the country.

“The real danger in a multicultural society is that every ethnic group and religious group becomes a pressure group, putting our people’s interest instead of the national interest,” he said. He advised Muslims in Britain to learn from the Jewish experience of living as a minority in the country, saying that, "the lessons are — number one, you don’t try to impose your views on the majority population. Number two, you have to be what I call bilingual, you know you are Jewish and you’re English… because it forces you to realize that actually society and life is complicated. It mustn’t and can’t be simplified. Number three, there are times when it’s uncomfortable, when you realize there is such a thing as anti-Semitism. [Being] a minority isn’t always fun.”

While Sacks specifically mentioned Britain's Muslims in the interview, he could have been referring to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community, which he previously said “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews." Sacks made a comparison between them and assimilated Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”

Throughout his more than two-decade term, Sacks has largely shied away from political controversy, both within the Jewish community and in the wider public sphere. One of the main criticisms Jewish circles have leveled at him is that he has done little to address the growing radicalization in the religious establishment, which controls the London Beth Din (rabbinical court). He is the nominal president of that court and rules on matters of conversion to Judaism. Jewish critics also say that, during his term, there has been increasing polarization between the sub-groups that make up Britain's 300,000-strong Jewish population.

His recent statements seem to signal that, while he has said he plans to devote his retirement to teaching and writing, Sacks could emerge as one of the leading Modern-Orthodox Jewish voices preaching in favor of both a greater return to traditional Jewish values and increased religious Jewish involvement with the outside world.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.Credit: Reuters
Demonstrators protest outside Oxford University in 2007.Credit: Reuters

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