The American Jewish Silence on Banning Muslim Burkinis

The Jewish establishment cannot fight anti-Muslim bigotry because elements of that establishment are complicit in it.

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Tunisian women, one (R) wearing a 'burkini', a full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women, walk in the water on August 16, 2016.
Tunisian women, one (R) wearing a 'burkini', a full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women, walk in the water on August 16, 2016.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Across France, cities are banning conservative Muslim women from the beach. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has endorsed the bans. So has Marine Le Pen, who may be France’s next president.

In theory, the bans only apply to “burkinis,” a kind of full-body wetsuit. But as the New York Times recently pointed out “there is no clear definition of what qualifies as a burkini” and “Muslim women have complained of being singled out on beaches even when covered by other kinds of garments.” Any woman who looks Muslim and dresses modestly is at risk.

The ban constitutes an outrageous assault on religious liberty, and, as the Times’ Max Fisher recently pointed, an absurd hypocrisy. In the name of freeing women from the confines of conservative Islamic dress, the French state is telling Muslim women how to dress.

For American Jewish organizations, which comment frequently on European affairs, this should be easy. The proponents of anti-Muslim bigotry often justify their proposals as necessary to fight terrorism. But the “burkini ban” can’t possibly be justified by national security. It’s a purely ideological effort to define French secularism in a way that forces conservative Muslim women either to violate their religious beliefs or vacate public space.

Jewish organizations should also find it easy to condemn the “burkini ban” because it could ensnare ultra-Orthodox Jews. Sea Secret, one of the companies that sell “burkinis,” was founded by two French-born Orthodox Jews, and has both a Muslim and Jewish customer base. A 2012 Haaretz article about the spread of ultra-conservative swimwear among Israeli Haredim notes that, “It’s possible that the inspiration for the modest bathing suit [worn by Haredi women] came from the modest bathing suit for [Muslim] women called a ‘burkini.’”

France’s efforts to restrict Muslim dress have affected Jews in the past. In 2004, then President Jacques Chirac passed a law banning students in government schools from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. The goal was to outlaw headscarves. But according to some interpretations, the law bans kippot too. In 2010, the French National Assembly banned veils that cover a woman’s face. In 2012, Le Pen suggested that, in the name of consistency, publicly wearing a kippa should be illegal as well.

Despite this, the American Jewish establishment, an establishment that regularly comments on European actions regarding Jews or Israel, has met the burkini ban with silence. The American Jewish Committee, which sees itself as American Jewry’s State Department, and has an office in France, doesn’t mention the ban on its website. (I emailed AJC Chief Executive Officer David Harris for comment, but did not receive a response). The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations hasn’t mentioned the ban either.

To its credit, the AJC has condemned the Trump campaign’s Islamophobia, as has the Anti-Defamation League. But despite these laudable efforts, the American Jewish establishment cannot aggressively fight anti-Muslim bigotry because elements of that establishment are complicit in it.

Take the Conference of Presidents, the umbrella organization for most American Jewish groups. Not only hasn’t it criticized the “burkini ban,” it hasn’t even criticized Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Why? Because some of the Conference’s own members and leaders espouse anti-Muslim bigotry themselves. One such member is the Zionist Organization for America, which has denounced President Obama for calling Islam religion a “religion of peace,” and hosted speeches by Frank Gaffney, who has called Obama a Muslim and suggested that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie might be guilty of treason for appointing a Muslim to his state’s supreme court, and former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who has suggested that Obama may be seeking to impose Sharia law in the U.S.

The Conference of Presidents is itself led by Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who in 2004 reportedly told Maariv that “There are already 10 Muslim schools in New York, and my feeling is that despite growing post-9/11 awareness, there is still a degree of naiveté among Americans. I warned against the growing US Muslim community 10 years ago.” In 2009, Hoenlein criticized Obama for supposedly inflating the number of American Muslims and questioned White House claims that Muslims had made a “long contribution” to the U.S.

From Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are using the threat of jihadist terrorism to demonize Muslims and to try to strip them of basic rights. Politicians and media personalities routinely say things about Muslims that, were they said about Jews, would chill us to the bone. To quote David Brooks “this is a Joe McCarthy moment. People will be judged by where they stood at this time.” The organized American Jewish community should confront the anti-Muslim bigotry in its ranks before that judgment comes due.

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