This week a doctor from north London was telling me about one of his patients, a lad of 20 who has lived in the borough of Hackney all his life. He was born here and grew up here. And he’s a bright boy – yet he speaks only a few very rudimentary words of English. The language he speaks at home and at school is Yiddish. Some may be appalled by the insularity of the community in which this young man was raised. But I admire it. In particular, I admire the resilience of a community that seeks to maintain its distinctiveness and recognises, quite rightly, that assimilation into the broader culture would mean the gradual dilution, and the eventual extinction, of its own way of life. It is no surprise to me that the ultra orthodox are thriving, with high birth rates and predictions that they will be constitute a majority of the Jewish population within 20 years. They have refused assimilation.
It adds immeasurably to the richness and diversity of how life is apprehended that not everyone sees the world in the same way. It is mind-expanding to be challenged by those who commit to another way of life. What a miserably grey one-dimensional place it would be if the dominant model of middle-of-the-road liberal secular capitalism became the only acceptable way of living.
Louise Casey published her community report this week. “As a nation we have lost sight of our expectations on integration and lacked confidence in promoting it,” she says. We must do more to challenge “regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices”. As you might imagine, Nigel Farage loved it. “Excellent report out by Dame Louise Casey. Much of what I have been saying for years,” he tweeted.
But why is integration such a self-evidently good thing? Casey doesn’t say. She thinks it obvious that a community that keeps itself to itself and doesn’t want to mix with others is an outrage. Yet the very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not. To speak of community without any sense of a difference between being in it and out of it evacuates the term of any possible meaning. Yes these boundaries can admit to various degrees of permeability, but all community is necessarily and rightly exclusive to some. That absolutely does not mean that the “us” and the “them” have to be antagonistically related