A European Union court ruling to allow workplaces to ban employees wearing visible religious symbols drew a mixture of reactions from Jewish leaders around the continent.
Tuesday’s ruling – the first by the EU Court of Justice on the issue of women wearing Islamic head coverings at work – was a joint judgment in the cases of two women in France and Belgium who were dismissed for refusing to remove their head scarves.
The court ruled that a Belgian firm may not be guilty of discrimination for its rule, which barred employees who dealt with customers from wearing visible religious and political symbols, in order to project a public image of neutrality.
However, it found a French company, which dismissed a software engineer for refusing to remove her head scarf, may have breached EU laws barring discrimination on religious grounds if it did so not because of a general internal rule, but because of a client’s objection.
The European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis both released statements slamming the decision.
EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor said: “Unfortunately this decision flies in the face of the right to religious freedom laws and could potentially affect many religious groups, including Jews. With so much tension over the issues of minorities and tolerance in Europe, a decision like this can only embolden extremists on either side who utilize issues like this to spread their divisive agendas.”
Conference President Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt said: “With the rise of racially motivated incidents and today’s decision, Europe is sending a clear message: Its faith communities are no longer welcome.
Political leaders need to act to ensure that Europe does not isolate religious minorities and remains a diverse and open continent.”
Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, was more accepting of the decision.
“For French nationals, this is typically one of the basics of the Laicité (secularism) principle,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “The fact that both cases deal with the Islamic head scarf underlines the confusion between religious issues and political messages of radical Islam in Europe.”
Ejnes views the garb as “part of the strategy of radical Islamists” and said that wearing it in the workplace “questions the values of the French Republic,” namely that of secularism. He is one of several French Jewish leaders who backed his nation’s ban on a full-body swimsuit worn by Muslims, viewing the “burkini” as political.
Yohan Benizri, president of the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organization, does not believe the ruling impinges on religious freedoms.
“If we put ourselves in the realm of values, we believe that in a democratic society the will of a company to maintain a neutral image should be respected,” he said.
Belgium is more focused on neutrality than the active secularism of its neighbor France, Benizri noted, saying: “Companies are free to adopt policies that are consistent with their image, and if their image is neutral, it’s fine that they don’t allow for religious symbols.”
“Of course religion is very important to us,” he added.
“We just don’t think this particular ruling puts religious freedoms at risk in a disproportionate manner. We will remain diligent in identifying where there are other types of restrictions in the future and whether they encroach on religious freedoms in a disproportionate manner going forward.”
Reuben Vis, director-general of the Organization of Jewish Communities in the Netherlands, said a middle road must be found. “The company and the employee must do their best to try to find a solution,” he said.
Speaking as the Dutch are preparing to vote in a parliamentary election dominated by issues of immigration and integration, Vis said, “Companies are neutral and the aim of the company is not to choose any religious or political side or opinion, so in that respect I understand the verdict of the European court.”
On the other hand, the ruling “complicates the situation for many in the workplace,” he said, pointing to the large influx of Muslim refugees to Europe in recent years.
He also noted that the ruling could pose problems for others, such as turban-wearing Sikhs. In Holland, few Jews wear kippot or head coverings in the workplace, so Vis does not expect the ruling to be a problem for the Jewish community there.
He also pointed out that Muslim immigrants in Europe are relatively new to being in the minority.
“Jews have been a minority for thousands of years and have found solutions and new ways to continue strengthening Jewish identity,” Vis said. “Muslims are new on the block and they must also find a way, and they will find a way if they want be part of Europe.”Reuters contributed to this report.