What the Muslims can learn from Jews

September 3, 2004

Muslims are not alone in facing the pressures of finding a balance between national identity and diasporic ambitions.

Over the past year, the vision of multicultural Britain that held sway for much of the 1990s was declared dead and buried. Now immigrant communities in Britain are experiencing an official policy that can be dubbed neo-assimilationism. This uncomfortable process bears down most heavily on Muslims, but they are not the only ethnic faith group to face this pressure, and it is certainly not unprecedented.

The Jewish and Muslim populations of Britain are at loggerheads today, mainly as proxy combatants in Middle Eastern conflicts, but in terms of local historical experience they have much in common. If the parallels can be overstated, the differences are just as significant for understanding present dilemmas of "national identity".

For if the retreat from multiculturalism signals continuities in British policy and sense of nationhood, it also exposes the radically changed dynamic between the state and diaspora groups in a globalised context.

As sociologist Paul Gilroy and social historian Robert Colls have shown, common law and the constitution are crucial for a sense of Britain, expressing the interplay between state and constructed nation. More narrowly, a mythic Englishness is associated with rural vistas, the "village" and the country house. It is found in clubs and popular sports: the gent, the cockney and the miner are considered quintessentially English. All are white, Christian and "indigenous". In a crisis, they supposedly unite to defend their shared island with its common values rooted in law and constitution, and so the circle is complete.

Over time, these ingredients combine in shifting patterns and some fade, but the impact on Jews and Muslims demonstrates a remarkable consistency.

Mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914 provoked a national debate about whether the new arrivals could become obedient, loyal subjects of the empire. As with inner-city blacks in the 1980s and Muslims in this decade, Jews were seen as "lesser breeds without the law".

Immigrant Jews in the East End of London were blamed for urban squalor, unemployment, disease and crime. Because revolutionaries and anarchists lived in their midst, Jews were lumped together with a worldwide terrorist network aimed at overthrowing established governments.

The sense that Jewish immigrants threatened the law and state contributed to the clamour for the 1905 Aliens Act. Subsequent acts in 1914 and 1919 tightened immigration controls and empowered the state to deport aliens who engaged in political or industrial "subversion". Dozens of non-naturalised Jews were deported from Britain each year during the 1920s, in a wave of anti-Bolshevik and xenophobic hysteria.

Jews born in London to non-British-born parents could not get local authority scholarships or accommodation in public housing. Official discrimination was accompanied by everyday racism and sporadic anti-Jewish violence from rightwing groups.

Many young Jews responded by joining the Communist Party. Others gravitated towards Zionism. More than a few drifted into delinquency and crime. During the interwar years, it was common for Jewish youth to feel as alienated from English society as from their immigrant parents. Commentators expressed concern that alienated Jewish youth was drifting into extremist and separatist politics or gangs.

The charge that Jews were pursuing an agenda alien to national interests was accentuated after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. When British Jews campaigned for sanctions against Hitler's regime, British fascists accused them of allegiance to Moscow and warmongering.

Anti-Semitism persisted even after the Nazi genocide was exposed. Jews in Britain were accused of fostering terrorism in cahoots with Zionists seeking to end British rule in Palestine. The association of Jews with terrorism and alien ideologies was a long time dying.

So does debate about the Muslim presence in Britain and the advancement of assimilationist prescriptions attest to an unbroken sense of national identity that defines itself by fixing immigrants as the cause of epidemics, social conflict and subversion? Of course, there are and have always been powerful currents in favour of asylum and welcoming diversity.

It would be possible to sketch an alternative, more benign history to the one set out above. And there is a dynamic between changing "British values" and the behaviour of ethnic faith groups: neither are constant. Here, a comparison between the experiences of Jews and Muslims is instructive.

When Jewish mass immigration commenced, there was a substantial bridgehead community. Over the course of two centuries, Jews progressed from being aliens with a precarious toehold in London to full civic equality, but at the cost of thorough assimilation, exaggerated displays of loyalty and conspicuous service to the state.

Anglicised Jews, such as the Rothschilds, provided a buffer between the state and the unassimilated Jewish immigrants. While the "bad" immigrants unsettled, to some extent, the status of Anglo-Jewry, they were simultaneously legitimated by the presence of "good" Jews who showed what they might become.

Most of the immigrants came from the Russian Empire, which was considered backward and antithetical to "British values". Although the new-comers were mainly economic migrants, the Anglo-Jewish community depicted them as refugees from religious oppression, so winning a measure of sympathy from the British, who considered themselves superior in liberalism and tolerance.

Contrast this to the arrival of Muslims from South Asia in the 1950s. There was no bridgehead community to legitimate or plead their case. Whereas Jewish "refugees" flattered the British sense of tolerance, Muslim immigrants reminded Britons of their lost empire. In the popular perception, Muslims came from places that were made civilised only by the British: the immigrants were seen through contemptuous rather than sympathetic eyes.

That disdain was aggravated by the changed role of the state. Jewish immigrants arrived with little and got less. The Jewish community supported them. Postwar immigrants, however, enjoyed entitlements from the state that gave the rest of the tax-paying population a pretext for complaint.

Jews bent with the pressure of an uncompromising, homogenous national culture and set up Jewish schools that turned immigrants into Englishmen.

Jewish youths were inducted into the world of sport and taught to emulate "gentlemanly" virtues. It is hardly surprising that the drive to achieve grant-aided status for Jewish schools in the 1950s met little resistance.

By contrast, Muslim independent schools were established due to discontent with the state system and were intended to counter assimilation. This meant that when Muslims schools sought grant-aided status, it was easy for opponents to depict them as a Trojan horse for separatism and the conduit for an alien ideology.

These distinctions need to be located in the context of a changing globalisation. When the Jewish diaspora formed, Jews migrated from a "backward" to an "advanced" country and more or less willingly abandoned their Yiddish culture and religious orthodoxy. Their children embraced Western culture and "superior" British values.

Modern globalisation and the emergence of a global Islam undergirding the Muslim diasporas has created a new situation. Within Muslim communities there are some who regard Britain as inferior: a "house of unbelief" that is ripe for conversion. Moreover, multiculturalism has provided the space and legitimacy for fostering Islam in a way that was never available to Judaism.

When assimilated young Jews rebelled against anti-Semitism; paradoxically they actually fostered integration. By aligning with secular leftwing ideologies they cemented ties with the wider society, especially class ties. This differs starkly from the effect of young Muslims adopting religion as a vehicle for generational revolt.

Britain's wars in the 20th century heightened ethnic differences in society and were marked by surges of anti-Semitism. But British Jews responded with displays of ultra-loyalty and literally paid in blood for acceptance. In 1914-18, Anglo-Jews enthusiastically went to war even though this entailed fighting Jews in opposing armies.

For understandable reasons, British Muslims have been less than enthusiastic about Britain's recent military adventures. The anti-war movement in 2003-04 created an unprecedented solidarity with many sections of British society - but only at the cost of confirming the prejudices of other segments.

A significant part of the diverse Muslim population thus finds itself in a collision with deep-rooted notions of Britain and Englishness. Muslim allegiance to Islamic law brushes up against the centrality of English law in mythic national identity. The notion of belonging to the Ummah, the Muslim world nation, is seen as cutting across national loyalty. The call by a few extremists to create a Muslim state over and against the British state provides a basis for exaggeration and alarm by touching the most exposed nerve of national identity.

Here lies one of the fundamental differences between the Jewish and Muslim experiences. Thanks to centuries of exile, Jews learnt to adapt Jewish law and culture for living as a minority. But as ethnic-minorities expert Humayun Ansari notes in his study of Muslims in Britain, "few guidelines exist in Muslim history for living permanently in a society with a large non-Muslim majority and in which non-Muslim law, government and institutions predominate".

The Jewish experience spanning assimilation to ethnic assertion has not been smooth or entirely happy, and Muslims are finding their own way in dramatically different circumstances. Yet there are enough parallels to offer hope of finding room for manoeuvre between national identity and diasporic aspirations, and achieving a point of balance that allows Muslim life, like Jewish life, to flourish in harmony with a sense of belonging to Britain.

David Cesarani is research professor of history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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