The Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned what it called police harassment in France of Muslim women who wore the full-body bathing suit known as burkini in defiance of a municipal ban.
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The board, which is the main Jewish group in Britain, was referencing the enforcement of bans adopted earlier this month in 15 French municipalities, including the famed beach resort Cannes.
Last week, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the garb, worn by Muslim women in accordance with their religious views of modesty, was part of a “political project” to perpetuate female servitude.
“We were very concerned to see the scenes on a French beach yesterday during which a Muslim woman was confronted by police about her modest style of dress,” a Board spokesperson said in a statement titled “Board of Deputies reacts to harassment of Muslim woman on French beach.”
In the absence of “some compelling reason – such as the infringement of the rights of others, or some demonstrable safety hazard – it is important that people of different faiths be allowed to manifest their beliefs through their dress,” the Board added.
The reaction was to articles describing how four police officers on Tuesday ordered and compelled a woman wearing a burkini near Nice to take it off.
The CRIF, the Board’s French counterpart, has not reacted publicly to the burkini ban, which is divisive because it is seen by some as designed to defend secular values of tolerance, and by others as violating them. The Board rarely comments on issues connected to foreign countries with substantial Jewish communities without consulting those communities’ representative organs.
The Consistoire, the French Jewish organization responsible for religious services, also has not reacted to the ban, though one of its senior rabbis, Moshe Sebbag of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, on Tuesday defended the ban in an interview with JTA.
While the French state is a “secular country with freedom of religion,” he said, the mayors who banned the burkini “understood this is not about women’s liberty to dress modestly, but a statement as to who will rule here tomorrow.” The rabbi added that this owed to recent jihadist terror attacks in France.
“They understand today there’s a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French Republic, and this is what they find unacceptable,” Sebbag said. Asked if he agrees with the burkini bans, he said: “Yes, because you see that going with it [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message.”
The issue of wearing religious costumes in the public sphere is a controversial one in France, where in 2010 the Senate passed a law banning face coverings such as the burka. The burka ban, which exists also in Belgium and the Netherlands, has left many Western European Jews concerned that it would lead to the passing of measures also limiting the wearing of Jewish symbols in public.