Assimilation and Law

Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (can you tell I’m reading that right now?) says something about the Jews’ early experience in America that I think is relevant to the issue of Canada’s adoption of an arbitration system for Muslims based on Sharia law. From p. 306:

Even in colonial times, Jews’ existence in America was fundamentally unlike the life they lived in Europe. There, they had their own legal status, ran their own courts, schools, shops, paid their own special, heavier taxes, and usually lived in ghettos. In America, where there was no religiously determined law, there was no reason why Jews should operate a separate legal system, except on matters which could be seen as merely internal religious discipline. Since in America all religious groups had equal rights, there was no point in constituting itself into a separate community. All could participate fully in a communal society. Hence from the start the Jews in America were organized not on communal but on congregational lines, like the other churches. … Hence a Jew went to ‘his’ synagogue just as a Protestant went to ‘his’ church. In other respects, Jews and Protestants were simply part of the general citizenry, in which they merged as secular units. Thus the Jews in America, without in any way renouncing their religion, began to experience integration for the first time.

The more I think about this, the more it worries me. One religious group opting out of some large portion of the common law in order to operate in a system exclusive to them seems to me a major step backward. The Muslims enjoy the same benefits as the Jews listed above, of being one with the general citizenry in matters of law, which seems to me to have huge advantages both for the minority and for the society at large. The fact that the Jews were treated differently under law in Europe made it easier for discriminatory and oppressive practices to be directed at them, and also denied the society as a whole many of their talents and contributions.

America has benefited immensely from the contributions of all its minorities, and even though our record is far from perfect, it’s a whole lot better than Europe’s. I’ll repeat my hope that we not follow Canada’s lead on this issue, or any other issue that springs readily to mind for that matter.

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