Burkinis And The Jewish Question

A Tunisian woman wearing a 'burkini', a full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women, walks in the water with a child on Augu
A Tunisian woman wearing a 'burkini', a full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women, walks in the water with a child on August 16, 2016 at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, north-east of the capital Tunis. / AFP / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, while vacationing with my wife in Alsace, I picked up the French newspaper Le Figaro and learned about a controversy with significant implications for the future of Muslims in France -- one which raises profound issues for religious minorities everywhere, including American Jews.

A Muslim women's association had rented a water park near Marseilles for a day of fun open only to women who agreed to wear "burkinis" and "jilbebs" that covered their bodies head to toe in accordance with Islamic law. A public official in the area promptly denounced the move as a separatist provocation, objectionable on feminist grounds as well, while another called it an open rejection of "our republican model" of society. Defending the gathering, yet another public official pointed out that it involved rental of a private venue and was therefore an entirely private matter in which the state had no business interfering. It did not remain private for long: a few days later, the mayor of Cannes -- a few miles from the recent terror attack in Nice -- prohibited the wearing of burkinis on the city's public beaches, citing a threat to public security. The full-body swimsuits, he said, were "a symbol of extremism" that might provoke violence.

I come down firmly on both sides of this argument. On the one hand, I take strong objection to the demand -- enforced by certain Islamic (and Jewish!) legal authorities, all of them male -- that women must cover their bodies head to toe for reasons of "modesty" while men suffer no such constraint. On the other hand, I know that religions survive in large part thanks to things like distinctive dress and language. I want Islam to thrive in a form that promotes the well-being of all humanity, respect for other traditions, and loyalty to the countries of which Muslims are a part. However, I am also sympathetic to the claim by French authorities that discussion in public school classrooms would be severely impaired if female students covered their faces along with the rest of their bodies (such full veils are prohibited in schools) and that burkinis, even if they do not mask the face, enforce total separation of Muslims from everyone else on the beach (part of their point). It is not clear that the French Republic -- or any state -- can survive distinctiveness carried to a degree that precludes relationship between one community and all the rest.

I understand the desire of Muslims to remain apart from the larger society and culture, distinct in a way that preserves identity and transmits it to their children. But the French society and state have a strong interest, as do the majority of French Muslims, in making their community a part of the larger society -- all the more because life-and-death security concerns cast a giant shadow over this whole debate.

For me, the connection of the burkini debate to Judaism was rendered vivid because I read Le Figaro that morning in Alsace -- the scene of 19th century struggles over Jewish distinctiveness that I had researched for my book Rethinking Modern Judaism. We were visiting Strasbourg, where in 1824 the academy of sciences, agriculture, and arts sponsored an essay contest on whether the "beliefs and religious practices of the Jews" presented insuperable barriers to their acquisition of "civilization," and therefore rendered them undeserving of civil rights and incapable of integration into France society. The judges awarded first prize to an essay that suggested reforms including changes in the Jewish diet, so that Jews would eat like and with other Frenchmen, and curtailment of the ritual calendar that set Jews apart.

Jews throughout the modern world have opted over the past two centuries -- in response to varying degrees of pressure or inducement -- to surrender most of the distinctiveness that set our ancestors apart. Burkinis, whatever one might think of them, are in part a strategy that we Jews know well: a way to enjoy the benefits of participation in the larger society while making it clear to ourselves, our children, and others that we are not entirely like everyone else and do not wish to lose our distinctiveness.

The swimming controversy holds still more poignancy for me because the day before reading about it, my wife and I had visited two Alsatian synagogues that had once been centers of small but lively Jewish communities -- and were now museums. We stood silently amid the dusty pews in the Pfaffenhoffen shul in Bouxwiller and spoke at length with Gilbert Weil, who had singlehandedly made sure that the synagogue building there was saved and renovated. We sat with Mr. Weil -- now in his late eighties -- in the room where he has recreated the shul that is no more. "This place is only the past," he said ruefully. Mr. Weil's children and grandchildren are in Israel, where he visits every year.

I do not think that French Jewry as a whole is only a thing of the past (the synagogue in Strasbourg is thriving), and certainly do not believe that is true of the North American diaspora. But the burkini controversy does give one pause. What does it take for a religious minority to sustain itself when confronted with the challenge of an open society? How shall it draw the proper balance between apartness and being a part? And how much distinctiveness can the larger society tolerate before it breaks apart into the separatist communities that French officials so fear right now?

Integration of Muslims is a matter of national security for France, indeed of national survival. Jews too have an enormous stake in the outcome of that struggle, in America as well as in France.