In light of all the media attention focused on Marine Le Pen's proposal to ban the wearing of kippas in public spaces in France over the last two days, you would have thought that the leader of Front National has embarked on an anti-Semitic campaign.
After reading the full interview she gave Le Monde on Friday, it is clear that the kippa remark was not much more than an after-thought in what was mainly a detailed political manifesto of the European far-right against radical Islam.
Mme. Le Pen only mentioned the Jewish head-covering prohibition (and kosher food in schools) when questioned by the interviewers. One could ask why Le Monde felt the need to create this moral equivalence, but after seeing the results, we should be thankful they asked these questions.
Le Pen has made serious efforts in recent years to detoxify Front National's brand from its fascist antecedents, courting Jewish voters (unsurprisingly, her unreconstructed father, former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has come out in support of his daughter-successor's proposal, saying her suggestion was “not essential” but “wise”).
Other far-right groups such as the Freedom Party (PVV) in Holland and the English Defense League in Britain have acted similarly, calculating that there are more votes to be gained in targeting Muslim immigrants than Jews. Many Dutch Jews (and Israelis) originally embraced Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic and pro-Israel PVV but now they have to contend with the opposition of senior party members to circumcision and shechita. In Germany, also, the recent legal obstacles to circumcision originate in animus toward Muslims.
The Le Pen interview emphasizes that Jews are vulnerable as collateral victims in any attempt by the European far-right to fight Islam. While in the past sixty years, challenges to Jewish religious freedom have normally come from the fringe elements of European politics, the anti-Muslim tide has now brought it into the mainstream.
It is considerably ironic that in France, where Jews - in recent as well as distant history - were persecuted and forced to wear symbols that singled them out, there are those today who want to force them to relinquish their distinctive headgear.
It also says something about the evolution of the kippa that in the past, many if not most Jews in the Diaspora saw the skullcap as something to be worn only in synagogues and during religious ceremonies, while today, it is worn outside as a symbol of Jewish presence and even defiance.
Is a kippa, which is worn by men, really equal to Muslim women covering their heads, faces and entire bodies? How come we never hear objections to religious Jewish women covering their hair in public? But that should be an internal Jewish debate and not something for politicians such as Le Pen to dictate.
Richard Prasquier, the head of French Jewry's umbrella organization, the CRIF, has accused Le Pen of being “a secular fanatic" while France’s Chief Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, criticized her for equating the kippa and the Muslim veil since “Jews have never tried to impose anyone to wear the skullcap."
Both Jewish leaders seem to be missing the point, probably consciously.
The European far-right is trying to drag the Jewish community into a battle which pits the continent's various identities against each other and it easy to get mixed up when choosing sides. The fact is that over the last couple of decades, most serious violent attacks against Jews, as was demonstrated so clearly earlier this year in Toulouse, are perpetrated by Muslims trying to wreak vengeance on local Jews for Israel's perceived misdeeds toward the Palestinians. And when Jews demonstrate their support for Israel, they will often see their Muslim neighbors on the opposite side advocating its enemies. But extending that conflict to cultural and political arguments within their own countries only plays into the hands of the fundamentalists and racists.
Jews who are being enlisted into the ranks of the xenophobic parties are required to establish their patriotic credentials, which could never work in their benefit. A Jew in Paris or London should never be made to prove he is French or British enough to pass a political litmus-test. Jews have never prospered for long in countries that did not respect democracy and civil rights and Le Pen's ideas should serve as a reminder of that basic fact.
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