Tunisian women wearing a "burkini.
(photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP)
On Monday, Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem went to the beach near the old port of Jaffa and photographed three women enjoying a day in the sand. One held up a phone to take a selfie, while the two others strolled by. In four municipalities in France, the outfits of two of the women might have earned them fines because they were wearing a ‘burkini,’ an all-covering swim suit that has become a center of controversy in the last week.
The contrast between Israel’s beaches and France is an example of the kind of "convivencia," or coexistence, that Israel has developed between its secular and religious publics, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians. There are no burka bans in Israel. In Germany, however, the Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann of the Christian Social Union has said that “it is clear that the burka isn’t the right article of clothing for the population in Germany.” Like other politicians there, he seeks a legal remedy to the face-covering niqab. In France, the veil was banned in 2010.
Ostensibly, the support for banning the burkini in France stems from the secular values of the country.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls says that it is “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic.”
Minister of Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol told Le Parisien that “the burkini is not some new line of swim wear – it is the beach version of the burka, and it has the same logic: hide women’s bodies in order to better control them.” She argued that women did not have a choice in the matter. “It is not just the business of those women who wear it, because it is the symbol of a political project that is hostile to diversity and women’s emancipation.” The same minister compared the head scarf, which some Muslim women wear, to “Negroes supporting slavery,” a statement that received widespread criticism in March.
This kind of toxic debate over women’s dress and Islam is in contrast to the critique of Israel often heard in Western countries. Israel is frequently criticized for its treatment of Arab and Muslim minorities. Yet it is in Israel that Muslims can build mosques and minarets as they please, in contrast to Switzerland, which passed a referendum by 57 percent of the electorate to ban minarets in 2009.
Western societies are attacking symbols. A survey in Canada in 2015 found that 82 percent opposed people wearing a niqab during a citizenship ceremony.
Rather than focusing on that, these countries should focus on larger issues related to values, such as women’s education and protecting women’s rights.
While Israeli society is deeply divided on religious and state issues and has its share of problems related to tolerance of different groups, it also has many strengths such as the state’s treatment of the large Islamic minority. This could serve as a model for the rest of the world. Increasingly, European countries are looking to Israel to learn how to fight terrorism.
Yet there is also a lesson they can learn about tolerance, and how to accept people who look differently and wear clothing that might seem out of place for a day at the beach.
In Israel, this affects not only Muslims, but also the large Orthodox Jewish population, parts of which adhere to very strict views on modesty.
In many ways, Israel has grappled for the last 68 years with issues that the West is facing today. For instance, there are numerous Sharia law courts in Israel. In the West, the word Sharia often conjures up images of the Taliban, but in Israel, it functions in relation to family law such as marriages, because Israel does not have civil marriage. The lack of civil marriage may be a deficiency, but allowing Muslims to practice their faith as they see fit can assuage certain disputes in society. Banning burkinis, for instance, or full-face veils, doesn’t make them go away. It merely secludes women from public life even more, accomplishing the direct opposite of those who advocate for social integration.
Western societies would do well to look to Israel for how a country can blend laws and Western attitudes with more religious societies, and in so doing balance freedom, diversity and the rights of its citizens.