Emotional exiles of the world
The Dutch Jewish couple from whom we rented a cottage in the Dordogne in France cannot understand why more than 2,000 French Jews should migrate every year to Israel.
It would probably have been different if they had to live in a bourgeois French neighbourhood whose language, food, clothes, holidays and worship are all rooted in the European Christian ethic.
An Americanised Chinese in San Francisco well understands this challenge of multiculturalism; they are doomed to permanent emotional exile, because colour and physiognomy constitute almost insuperable barriers to assimilation.
A British-born Chinese Singaporean friend used to wonder whether his decision to return to the city state was not inspired by the knowledge that anywhere else he would always be a member of a minority on sufferance.
In short, he acknowledged Benjamin Disraeli's view that race is the ultimate reality and that there is no higher truth. Yet, Britain and Disraeli's own case (he was Britain's first and only Jewish prime minister) demonstrates that to some extent race can also be a matter of adoption and adaptation. Ethnic cross-fertilisation accounts for some of the world's richest civilisations.
Jews are not usually quite as distinctive as Asian settlers. What matters more, however, is that not many are prepared to make cultural concessions. This is understandable and laudable. Yet, the pride that nearly 600,000 French Jews, the largest concentration in Europe, take in race and religion might be counterproductive in terms of assimilation. The recent spate of attacks against them recall the Vichy regime's second world war collaboration with the Nazis. Some French Jews complain that the media's coverage of the Middle East is slanted against Israel. All Muslims in France are convinced that French Jews are to blame for Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. But it would be a travesty of the truth to conclude that France is anti-Semitic.
Similarly, it would be a simplification to attribute increased migration to Israel to any kind of persecution. Taken together, however, it adds up to a widening gulf between Jew and gentile. Although the French government's decision to outlaw religious symbols like the Muslim headscarf, Sikh turban, ostentatious crucifixes and Jewish skullcap was intended to blur religious differences, the effect may well be to heighten general awareness of minority cultures. An Englishwoman once told me that she knew her neighbour's family was 'different' (she did not say Jewish) when it did not observe the folk ritual of making and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
It is through such small details that simple people affirm their tribal identity. They do not in the Dordogne which, being smart and sophisticated, is also secular, international, and relatively free of bias. Elsewhere, national integration rests on ensuring that the self-definition of minority groups does not accentuate separation and isolation from the mainstream.
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author