France, the country where no one protests when a woman sunbathes topless on the beach, is now waging a war in the opposite direction. The French politicians are pondering how to ban the burka - a long garment covering the body from head to toe which is worn in public by certain Muslim women.
The tone was set about two months ago by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who declared that "the extreme veil," as the burka and its variants are called in proper French, is "not welcome on French soil." However, when the parliament was required to translate the presidential declaration into the law of the land, the matter became more complex.
In recent months, the debate has cut across party lines - with supporters on the left and opponents on the right. The constitutional problem is just as complex: How can a Western democracy, the symbol of liberty throughout the entire world, dictate to its inhabitants the degree to which they can dress? How can it say that less is more - in the sense of more acceptable to national sentiments?
In order to find a way out of this thicket, the French prime minister submitted a parliamentary query a few days ago to the Council of State, the country's supreme judicial and advisory body, asking the council's advice on how to ban the burka "in the most comprehensive and effective way" and as quickly as possible. The experts are expected to assist the government and the parliament in passing legislation that will not be ruled unconstitutional; the intention is to prohibit the burka from being worn at any place a public service is provided, including public transportation.
Beyond the constitutional and political wrangling, the question of the veil is another test of France's frayed nerves when it comes to the rights and privileges of the Muslim minority living in its midst. The number of women in France who wear a burka or niqab fully concealing the body and face is after all negligible. The highest estimates indicate a few thousand out of the approximately five million Muslims living in France. And in any case, even now the "Veil Law" initiated by former president Jacques Chirac prohibits the wearing of "conspicuous" religious symbols in the education system. Thus banning the burka is more of a declarative move than a practical one.
To the Israeli observer, the public debate in France appears as fascinating as it is strange. In Israel no one would think of prohibiting any sort of "extreme" dress. This is primarily because the Israeli model allows a number of tribal campfires to burn alongside one another, within certain limits. The ultra-Orthodox have a beach of their own in Tel Aviv where they can bathe covered from head to toe, while Muslim women can swathe themselves in as many yards of opaque cloth as they like.
This doesn't mean Israel is free of discrimination or violent friction among the various communities, or between the government and minority groups. Yet still, at least in terms of the burka and its variations, for some reason Israel appears more tolerant than France. It's ironic that the birthplace of Voltaire, the country where the degree of tolerance was measured until recently by the bikini line, is now occupying itself with the thickness of the veil.
Without detracting from the importance of the public debate on the freedom to wear the burka, prohibiting the garment will cause France to lose its head. Integrating the Muslim minority into a Western society is more complicated than placing a ban on an "extreme" item of clothing. The whole model of integration should be examined, not one sort of religious fashion statement or another.
Israel does not necessarily have better answers to this question than Britain, France, Holland or the United States. However, an obsession with the burka is not the answer.