The Jew of Britain

In academia, or at least the academic circles in which I've run, making a culturally insensitive remark is about the same level of impropriety as dropping trou in the middle of a cocktail party. So it came as some surprise when I was chatting with a British philosophy grad student about a British Jew (I forget who...Disraeli? Gerald Cohen?). And I said, I forget in what context, "Well, he's British." And he just gave the slightest shrug and slightest sneer and said, "Not really." "Because he's a Jew?" I asked, and he nodded.

I felt so glad at that point that I was in a country in which only a marginalized minority believes that ethnic identity is a necessary component of national identity. "Dedicated to the proposition"...that rocks! We are a nation based on classically liberal beliefs, rather than ethnicity.

Roger Cohen has an op-ed in which he describes how he was denied a scholarship in Britain in the 1960s because he was a Jew. And while I think he overstates how unimportant ethnic identity is in America (after all, elite American colleges in the 1950s also had Jewish quotas, although perhaps not as rigid), it again emphasizes that, as a member of a religious and ethnic minority, I'd rather live here than anywhere else in the world.

I think it is not entirely coincidental that it is in supposedly more liberal Europe that Muslim minorities are more segregated, that attempts are made to ban headscarves and minarets. Such moves are reminders that secularism and sexual openness are not the same things as tolerance. One can be liberal, but unless one divorces ethnic identity from national identity, there will always be a hint of us v. them.

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