Norway and multiculturalism

In a recent New York Times article, Scott Shane describes how the violence in Norway emerged from a distinct rhetorical and ideological context, and perhaps the left appropriately will admonish the right for the vitriol of its tirades against multiculturalism. If so, however, it is also incumbent upon progressives — and Jewish progressives in particular — to take this moment to articulate a serious, affirmative vision for a successful multicultural future.

First of all, the progressive position is rooted in an undisputed fact: We live in a multicultural society.

Second, progressivism generally welcomes this fact as a source of societal enrichment rather than cultural dilution or endangerment.

Third, American liberalism does not propose the laissez-faire cultural autonomy that is attributed to some European nations. Though conservatives sometimes depict liberalism as so much relativism run amok, this is an inapposite caricature. Progressivism does not seek to abolish the reasonable limits imposed by the ethical and legal norms of mainstream society.

American Jews have a particular stake in this progressive position. We are the direct beneficiaries of it, and we have much to teach about striking the balance between committed citizenship on the one hand, and unapologetic difference on the other.

Having enshrined the religious principle that “the law of the land is law,” we have at the same time vigorously promoted our distinct religious and ethnic culture. We know from experience that this can be a delicate negotiation and sometimes a costly one. But the Jewish community, including progressives, does not shy from it, nor does it exempt other minorities from it.

Where Jewish progressivism is classically liberal is in its expectation that, within those limits, mainstream society makes room for, and even allows itself to be queried by, minority values, attitudes and aesthetics.

The success of the American Jewish experience has, by and large, vindicated this perspective. Judaism inherently challenges Christianity, and yet we American Jews will not accede to a vision of Americanism that relegates us to the merely tolerated. We cite, with vigor and pride, Article VI of the Constitution, the First Amendment and George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue, rejecting the notion of toleration, “as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States … requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

“Demean” is a helpful word because, though archaic in usage, it captures the fact that civic participation necessitates some degree of self-abnegation. Once established as the bounds of cultural and religious expression, however, good citizenship also protects it and, by extension, legitimates it.

Jewish liberalism celebrates both sides of this equation, especially their mutual promotion such as the Jewish community has, in significant measure, achieved.

It is high time that the cultural debate about multiculturalism, which the Norwegian tragedy now risks polarizing, recognize the nuance of this posture, which is the dominant liberal one in this county and which the Jewish community has, in its majority, historically espoused.