Swiss Jews Oppose Fining Students Who Refuse to Shake Teacher's Hand for Religious Reasons

The refusal of two Muslim boys to shake their female teacher's hand followed by a board ruling that schools can fine naysayers up to $5,000 has sparked a controversy in Switzerland.

Dreamstime

Swiss Jews spoke out on Wednesday against a regulation that makes it illegal for schoolchildren to refuse to shake hands with their teachers because of religious reasons.

A regional school board last month ruled that schools in Basel Country can fine parents up to $5,000 if their children refuse to shake hands with teachers, as is customary at graduation ceremonies.

The ruling was in reaction to the refusal of two Muslim boys to shake hands with female teachers at a public school in northern Switzerland. Like with devout Muslims, some devout Jews also refrain from touching members of the opposite sex because they view doing so as inappropriate.

Switzerland has approximately 400,000 Muslims, who constitute 5 percent of the population, and 20,000 Jews.

“We think that students, in public, should shake their teachers’ hand,” Jonathan Kreutner, secretary general of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said in an email. “But imposing a compulsory handshake under threat of sanctions is not the right way.”

The affair generated considerable attention in the media and among politicians in Switzerland, where many residents oppose societal changes connected with the arrival of many Muslims in recent decades. In 2009, a majority of Swiss voted in a referendum against the construction of minarets. Shechitah and dhabihah, the Jewish and Muslim traditional ways of performing ritual slaughter of animals, respectively, are illegal in Switzerland.

Last month, Kreutner told the Schweiz am Sonntag weekly in a first reaction to the handshake affair that whether pupils shake their teachers’ hands or not, what really matter is that students “show respect for their teachers.”