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Behind the Headlines Proposals on Yarmulkes, Yom Kippur Given Mixed Reaction by French Jews

December 16, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Most children in France are likely to get an extra school holiday come next October — and it could be Yom Kippur.On Oct. 6, 2004, the 10th of Tishri, 5765, every child who studies in a state school could get the day off for the holiest Jewish day of the year.

A proposal to make Yom Kippur, together with the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adhar, national school holidays is just one of a series of radical recommendations contained in the final report of a presidential commission set up to examine how the secular values that lie at the heart of the French Republic can be adapted to a multicultural society. The creation earlier this year of the Stasi Commission by President Jacques Chirac principally was an admission that previous laws and norms were no longer applicable in a society with a wide ethnic mix.

More specifically, however, it was a recognition that France now has to deal with a large Muslim community whose acceptance of the secular values of the French state is creating controversy.

Most recently, the conflict has resulted in a number of expulsions and suspensions of young Muslim women for attending state schools wearing Muslim head or face scarves.

Recently, local councils have taken some liberties with France’s strict secular guidelines by allowing separate swimming times at municipal swimming pools. In such instances, Muslims and Orthodox Jews often both benefit, since they share some of the same religious restrictions.

Traditionally, though, French law has been vague on many of the issues not under scrutiny.

When it comes to wearing religious insignia in public schools, for example, school principals have had discretion up to now to decide what constitutes “an ostentatious religious sign” and can be banned from the school.

But as Muslims increasingly have been associated with Islamic extremism and urban violence in France, calls have been growing for banning Muslim head coverings in public institutions in the country.

And as the legislation is framed to apply equally to all of France’s citizens, politicians from across the spectrum have called for a ban on all religious insignias in schools.

Most French Jewish leaders support the legislation and have long accepted the principle that if the scarf must go, yarmulkes should go, too. Community leaders largely welcomed the Stasi Commission’s recommendations Dec. 11.

In its report, the commission said it favored a ban on all symbols that “manifested religious or political affiliation,” including “visible religious signs such as the large cross, Muslim scarf and the kipah.”

However, the report said, the ban should not include things like “pendants, little crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima or little Korans.”

Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, said the idea “is not a bad decision, but respect for the secular nature of the French state does not need a law.”

Cukierman said that while he has no position on the specific ban against yarmulkes, he understands that the law must be fair.

“This ban is a body blow to Islamic fanaticism,” he said.

Cukierman was not enthusiastic about the proposal to make Yom Kippur a school holiday, although he said the move would not threaten France’s secular nature.

Yonatan Arfi, president of the French Union of Jewish Students, a body which has long campaigned for a total ban on religious signs, said he opposes making Yom Kippur a national holiday for students.

“This is not a good idea when more than half of the schools in France don’t have any Jews in them,” Arfi said.

He said he welcomed the ban on religious insignia as a way “to protect republican institutions against the threat of extremists.”

Orthodox leaders were upset that yarmulkes would be included in a ban.

In an interview with the daily Le Figaro shortly before the commission’s findings were published, France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, who is Orthodox, said he opposes legislation to ban the Muslim scarf, “which, I fear, could lead to a ban on all religious signs.”

But in recent weeks, Sitruk has allowed that the yarmulke may not be compatible with the values of the secular state. He said he removes his yarmulke when voting “as a mark of respect for the republic.”

In testimony to the Stasi Commission, Jean Kahn, president of the Central Consistoire, France’s principal Jewish religious organization, said that “all religious signs, from whatever group, should be excluded from schools.”

But other Consistoire officials have moved closer to the position of the chief rabbi.

After the publication of the Stasi recommendations, Leon Masliah, a senior adviser to Kahn, told JTA it was “sad to see the kipah banned when it has never posed any problem.”

He said, “In effect, the kipah has become the second victim of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in France.”

Several weeks ago, Sitruk called on Jewish students to wear caps instead of yarmulkes in public so as not to invite anti-Semitic violence.

Rabbi Chaim Shneur Nisenbaum, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Paris, told JTA in New York that he disagreed with that recommendation.

“The situation is not as bad as people write,” he said, referring to news reports on anti-Semitism in France. “Every Jew needs to have Jewish pride. We don’t want to be modern-day Marranos.”

Masliah said that the main problem for Jewish students in state schools is an increasing verbal and physical violence. He added that the argument over yarmulkes in state schools is largely theoretical, since those who wear yarmulkes usually go to Jewish schools.

Many observers say there is a quid pro quo at work here. If the state institutes the ban on religious insignia, it must make a concomitant gesture of religious tolerance. Hence, the proposal to make Yom Kippur or Eid al-Adhar a school holiday.

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