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The Burka Ban and Us

The Burka Ban and Us

How should Jews react to the French ban on the public wearing of the burka?


How should observant Jews react to the ban on the public wearing of the burka (a full-length garment with only tiny, mesh-covered slits for the eyes) recently passed by the French parliament and currently under consideration in other European countries?

Answer: with profound ambivalence.

Women who wear the burka – or, in some cases, their husbands or fathers, who demand that they do so – view the burka as a religious obligation.

Orthodox Jews have always favored an approach which places a high burden upon the state to justify legal burdens on the performance of religious obligations. When the U.S. Supreme Court's began to interpret the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, to give great deference to state statutes, as long as those statutes are neutral on their face, Orthodox groups lobbied hard for the Freedom of Religion Restoration Act. The RFRA required the demonstration of a compelling state interest before imposing a serious burden on religious observance.

Orthodox concerns are well founded. Some European countries already ban shechitah, (kosher slaughtering) and there are recurring threats to do so on a European-wide basis. Of even greater concern are possible restrictions on brit milah (religious circumcision).

The burka ban could be justified in some cases even under the compelling state interest test – e.g., with respect to airport security. (There are cases of male terrorists who have escaped detection by wearing a burka.) But the case for fines for merely appearing in public in a burka is harder to make.

Some defenders of the burka ban maintain that the burka is not required by Islamic law and is a recent innovation, with little support in traditional Islamic practice. A number of Muslim countries ban the burka, and the vast majority of Muslim women around the world do not wear it.

Some of the arguments adduced in support of the burka ban could come back to bite us.

While these claims are true, no observant Jew would be comfortable with the secular judicial system conducting halachic inquiries and making its own determination as to what is required by halacha (Jewish Law) and what is merely a religious stringency.

Others argue that religious liberty claims have less force in the case of the burkas because the decision whether to wear a burka is often not made by the woman wearing it, but imposed upon her by her male relatives as an instrument of social control to prevent her from integrating into her host society.

Again, that is true. But similar arguments could be raised against traditional Jewish practice. Anti-circumcision activists, for instance, invariably describe brit milah as an act of parental compulsion, lacking any informed consent on the part of the infant. In short, some of the arguments adduced in support of the burka ban could come back to bite us.

The Positives

So what is the positive about the burka ban? The ban signals a determination by a significant number of Europeans to save their countries from the worst ravages of a mindless multi-culturalism and to prevent a Muslim takeover. Those Europeans insist that there is such a thing as national culture, and that citizenship and even residency can be properly conditioned on a willingness to participate in that culture. (The conundrum for Europe, of course, is that low European birthrates necessitate the import of cheap labor, most of it Muslim.)

The recent Swiss referendum against the building of minarets reflected a similar assertion of national culture. In Muslim countries, no structure of another religion is allowed to be higher than the minaret. (In some Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, no other religion can be practiced at all.) In banning the minaret -- which is not a requirement for Muslim prayer -- the Swiss are rightly treating the building of tall minarets as, in part, a Muslim political statement, and saying, "We do not have to show a tolerance for Islam that Islam does not reciprocate with respect to our majority faith."

Until now, Europeans have watched passively as Muslim minorities have grown, with many major European cities nearing majority Muslim populations. Members of the first generation of Muslim immigrants were often eager to assimilate into their host cultures. But their children and more recent immigrants increasingly reject integration. Many urban Muslim neighborhoods have become no-go zones for police and firefighters. Sharia, Islamic law, applies in these areas and honor killings often go unpunished.

Not only have Muslim populations created their own autonomous areas, they have sought official recognition for Sharia law and Islamic banking practices and produced an endless stream of demands for "sensitivity" from their hosts – e.g., no public display of piggy banks.

Some Muslims have resorted to political violence against those who showed insufficient deference to their sensitivities – e.g., the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the attempted murder of the author of the Danish cartoons, and the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Many young Muslims travel frequently to their countries of origin where they become radicalized and trained in terrorist tactics.

The European political class has often treated Islamophobia as a greater danger than the radicalization and refusal to assimilate Muslim populations.

In response, the European political class has often proven pusillanimous, treating Islamophobia as a greater danger than the radicalization and refusal to assimilate Muslim populations. One result of that cowardice has been to embolden Muslims and make Europe an ever more dangerous place for Jews. Amsterdam police have begun dressing as Jews in order to catch Muslims who prey on identifiable Jews. The Belgian newspaper Der Standaard reports that large numbers of Jews are fleeing Antwerp for America, Britain or Israel. Jacques Wenger, director of the Jewish community center in Antwerp, who is making aliyah, predicts that in 50 years the only Jews left in Antwerp will be the ultra-Orthodox.

While right-wing parties in Europe have traditionally been bastions of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, today many of the politicians most dedicated to combating the Moslem takeover of Europe, like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, are the most supportive of Israel, which they see as at the forefront of their struggle.

All of which leaves us deeply conflicted by the burka ban, just as we began.

What do you think? Let us know in the comment section below.

This op-ed originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine.

August 7, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 80

(77) Charley Goodman, February 3, 2016 8:44 PM

You pretty well hit my feelings and questions

(76) Jordan, November 29, 2015 5:00 PM

Birkas etc Creates Separation Rather than Inclusion: Social Problems for Host country

We must ask ourselves why Muslims who claim they are a religion of ‘peace’ show no evidence of this. Why is there no country or city that is a good place to live; peace-filled; where human rights are evident? This points to the fact that there is something inherently flawed with Islam. Time Muslims who claim they are ‘moderate’ got their head out of the sand and called for Reformation so they may distinguish themselves from the radicals. Overall, Islam is NOT compatible with democracy or Western values. Muslims clamor to countries established by Christians and overnight create social problems for the host country. It only takes a few bad apples – those who have a sense of entitlement – take and take and give crumbs back; who wear those hideous niqabs, birkas, hijabs and skull caps on our public streets. They are the trouble makers right off the bat – creating separation and with that laying the groundwork for prejudice. Religious wear in public should not be tolerated; Muslims wearing costumes in public are no ‘holier than anyone else; in fact this is the antithesis of ‘holiness/ wholesomeness’ – it shows disrespect. Most westerners find niqabs etc ugly and a symbol of oppression and all we despise. The black adds no vibrancy to our society; no life; no joy. What makes it particularly disrespectful is the fact that Muslims are not mandated by the Koran to wear this garb. So those who do are defiant, insecure and the kind of people we don’t need in our society.

(75) Marion, February 24, 2013 3:54 AM

If they want to ban it, I'm behind them for once

I'm not behind the government banning many things, but I'm behind them on this one. I ride a motorbike, and if I ride to my local branch to make a deposit, even if I'm only going to spend a couple of minutes in there and then be off on my bike again, I'm not allowed in without taking my helmet off. Why? There could be anyone under my helmet. Even at some petrol stations (many of which are owned and staffed by Muslims), I am not allowed in to pay without removing my helmet. But, a woman in a burka could cry religious discrimination. Also, the comparison between parents circumcising baby boys and fathers and husbands forcing women to wear the burka doesn't wash with me. If a boy is circumcised, there is a small chance he may feel injured later on, but it's unlikely really. On the other hand, my mum's friend's daughter was seriously considering getting married to a Muslim man from the UAE. Had she done so, he would have required her to wear the burka. That would have severely violated her personal and social freedom on a day to day level, and any future daughters they'd have had would have suffered. If Muslim women need to wear something, they should wear the chador - ample covering under Islamic law.

(74) Emma, September 28, 2012 12:02 AM

Do you know how many French women wear the burqa?

Really, do you know? Because people here are under the assumption that the number of Muslim women who wear burqas in France is a sizable majority. Yet the real number is somewhere around the whopping size of... 367. Yes, 367 women is enough for France to consider free religious expression a "security risk." Frankly, I think Orthodox Jews and ANYONE who values their freedom to practice should be concerned. The truth is, the ban did not stem from "security risk," but from irrational fear that all Muslims are terrorists. Mr. Rosenblum seems to be falling under the same delusion, unable to differentiate the general body of French Muslims from the zealots on TV. France, like the rest of Europe, has been growing increasingly xenophobic, which encompasses recent flareups in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. If you think these right-wing parties are worthy of your support because they are friendly to Israel, think again. Not only are many members of these parties anti-Semitic, but they were also major supporters of the circumcision ban.

(73) Mike, April 4, 2011 5:25 AM


BURKAS ??? Can ANYONE TELL ME !!!!!! Are they allowed in State Gov Building like DHR DFCS Buildings ??? \"Wearing of the Burka in the State of Georgia ??? Please let me know what the law is for GA and the US\" Shoot me an email with the answer to Please anyone ???

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