Office of the Chief Rabbi

OP-ED: Deceptive Populists Present Us With a False Choice

On the 10th February 2017, the Chief Rabbi wrote in Newsweek, urging us to “stop hoping that one more soundbite or one more scapegoat will bring us the peaceful world that we desire”.

Where complex problems are found, there invariably follows a line of people claiming to have the simplest of solutions.

For those worried about Islamist extremism, there’s no shortage of advocates of a ban on Muslims. For those troubled by immigration, there are campaigners calling for borders to be closed. I could go on.

In 2016, an eagerness to believe some of the most extraordinary rhetoric that we have heard in a generation became the hallmark of our challenged world and left many politicians and social commentators scratching their heads. Just weeks into 2017 and the rhetoric is fast becoming reality.

Unfortunately, this is the essence of a problem that has afflicted humanity throughout history, inspiring hatred and encouraging war at regular intervals.

By now, the pattern is well-established: Widespread discontent is capitalized upon by a person or people claiming to have all the answers and usually identifying one or more scapegoats. They build momentum on a foundation of populism and seize power.

While the scapegoats suffer, it eventually becomes clear that the proposed solutions were not the panacea that they once seemed.

Discontent spreads yet again and the cycle is repeated.

It is human nature to want to find quick solutions to the problems that confront us, from poverty and unemployment to prejudice and terror. It follows that we would be tempted to believe those who assure us that simple remedies lie close by. Yet, the tragic reality is that it is precisely this instinct that leads to extremism.

We are constantly being presented with artificial, binary choices about the world and asked to choose sides—are you with “us” or “them?”

Will you stand with the “haves” or the “have-nots?” The “liberal elite” or “the people?”

It is far easier for us to view our political and social landscape through the lens of such simple dichotomies, which is why these soundbites are an excellent way of winning political campaigns.

However, the real world is far too complicated for us to reduce it to one singularity or another. Presentations of this sort are deceptive, patronising and dangerous in equal measure.

For example, it has become alarmingly common in many of the world’s most respected liberal democracies to respond to the challenges of religious extremism by restricting religious freedom.

Whether the reaction concerns religious dress, architecture or even openly ostracizing those of a particular faith, there seems to be an attempt to somehow balance out the problem by rushing to the other extreme. Banning people from observing aspects of a deeply held faith may be politically expedient in the short term, but it will surely not help to address the root causes of religious extremism.

In my view, the landscape can be more helpfully understood as a balance between value systems dominated either by the “particular” or the “universal.”

People are instinctively proud and protective of their own belief system. Nationalists celebrate their nationalism, socialists their socialism, and so on. I believe in a set of fundamental Jewish precepts which are at the very core of my identity. Yet this is “particular” to me and to the Jewish community, and I have no wish to impose this ideology and way of life upon others.

I feel no less proud of the “universal” values to which I wholeheartedly subscribe and which similarly define me: that all who are created in the image of God should be treated with respect and dignity, that they should be granted the freedom to make their own unique and positive contributions to the world and be offered the protection they need to do so by the rule of law.

This is not universalism in the theological sense, but a recognition of the values that are shared beyond one’s own faith group or community and beyond one’s own national borders by humanity at large.

Every individual, community and nation must make decisions about how they regard values which are particular to them and values which are far more universal. The choices they make determine how they interact with the world.

Those who focus entirely on values which are particular to them and have no regard for universal principles become most vulnerable to radicalization. Conversely, those who have no sense of the particular and no understanding of what it is that makes them unique cannot celebrate their own, special sense of identity.

This is a principle which applies to all aspects of affiliation. How do we relate to people who have a different set of particular values from us? If we define ourselves primarily according to our differences from others, paying little or no attention to the universal values that we share, hostility is inevitable.

This is the reason why I believe that the first step in healing our challenged world is to end the trend towards polarization by celebrating both our universal and our particular values together, rather than demanding that we abandon one in favour of the other.

World leaders must not ‘pull up the drawbridge’ entirely because, in so doing, they neglect their fundamental responsibility to see the humanity in all people, including those beyond their borders. Similarly, universalist models that seek to eschew any difference between people and suggest that there should be no hierarchy of relationships at all, fail to appreciate the preciousness of individuality, patriotism and loyalty.

In practical terms this means that there is a great deal of work to be done by public representatives, faith communities and all within civil society.

We must require our faith schools to be unapologetically particular in educating students in the best traditions of their faith, while simultaneously being entirely committed to imbuing them with a deep sense of the universal values that they share with those of different faiths and none.

We must require our political leaders to be fiercely patriotic while simultaneously feeling a sharp obligation to the rest of the planet.

We must stand ready to welcome those fleeing from persecution with open arms, while simultaneously requiring them to embrace the values which define our society.

We must expect our religious leaders to proudly immerse their communities in the particular wisdom of their religious teachings, while simultaneously leading by example on interfaith work and social responsibility projects.

These undertakings are not mutually exclusive and we have to stop believing that they are.

This is, of course, a most difficult balance to strike. It is laden with intimidating complexity and nuance. As opposed to the reassurance that comes with an uncomplicated view of the world, this approach challenges us to be respectful of others and demands a significant effort to understand what motivates and inspires the people who see the world differently from us.

There is no shortcut to ridding the world of hatred and intolerance.

The time has come for us to stop hoping that one more soundbite, one more scapegoat or one more war, will bring us the peaceful world that we desire. Instead, we must face up to the scale of the task and find the strength not to be overwhelmed by it.

Some two thousand years ago, the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Tarfon, famously taught: “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.”

This should be our mantra as we rise to the great challenge of our time. If each one of us achieves our own equilibrium between universal and particular values and strives to support and promote the efforts of others doing likewise, I believe that, despite the enormity of the task, we can, together, reconcile our polarized world.