Can you vote in France while wearing a kippah?
That was the debate that erupted among officials at the polling station on Sunday when Rabbi Avraham Weill, the Chief Rabbi of Toulouse, a city in southern France, went to vote in the municipal elections. He was initially turned away on account of his offensive attire — specifically, his skullcap.
The kippah, Weill was told, was a “religious symbol” and as such violated “the neutrality of the office,” according to a report by France 3. The voting booth was in a public school.
The official who was bothered by Weill’s kippah was a delegate of the French Communist Party (PCF). Other delegates at the polling stations soon intervened, and Weill was eventually allowed to cast his vote — though the PCF delegate insisted that the incident be formally documented.
Weill has since filed a complaint for “discrimination” for having been “humiliated” in front of his 4-year-old son. According to a 2007 official document by the French Interior Ministry, “no legal regulations may limit voters’ freedom of dress.”
The PCF issued a clarification that their delegate’s actions were, rather than a manifestation of bigotry or hatred, simply “a bad interpretation of the law.” There has been no explanation as to why, for the sake of consistency, the delegate did not also demand that Weill shave his beard.
The official with a sensitivity to kippahs, it so happens, is a public school teacher.
France has a strong culture of laïcité, secularism, which is enshrined in law. A controversial 2004 law bans wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Though the law theoretically covers all religious symbols, it is considered by some to target the hijabs of France’s growing Muslim population.
Just three days before the kippah fiasco, March 19, was the anniversary of the 2012 massacre at the Toulouse Jewish day school, in which Mohammed Merah, a French citizen, killed 3 young children and a rabbi because they were Jewish.
To mark the date, the French politicians — including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose conservative party came out on top in Sunday’s round of voting — held a ceremony in which representatives of various faiths signed a “Charter of Secularism” to promote tolerance among the religious branches.
Rabbi Weill noted wryly that nobody at that ceremony asked him to remove his kippah.
The Charter of Values seeks to ban conspicuous religious symbols. / Government of Quebec
Do you remember the Quebec government’s Charter of Values, the proposed legislation that would bar public workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols — like the kippah, hijab or turban — on the job? Of course you do. Have you been biting your nails over how you’re going to defend it at your upcoming family holiday party? Of course you have. Well, never fear! The Parti Québécois has you covered with its newly released, handy-dandy how-to guide for defending the controversial charter.
The six-page handbook, released just before Christmas, features a turkey on its cover (no doubt because a tree would seem too religious) and is enthusiastically titled “Holiday party answers to your family’s questions!” Because what family isn’t itching to delve into this perfect storm of religion and politics at a time usually spent in eggnog-sipping bliss?
The Parti Québécois knows how much you hate it when your relatives best you at family debates, so this year it’s decided to give you a leg-up over that obnoxious uncle or know-it-all cousin. How? By arming you with rebuttals to every objection they could possibly voice when it comes to the Charter.
Oops — did I say rebuttals? I meant diversions. And fallacies. And diversionary fallacies.
In 1738, a young Catholic man named Jacques La Fargue came to New France. Jacques La Fargue turned out to be Esther Brandeau, a young Jewish woman who had disguised herself to come to the new world. When she refused to convert, she was sent back to France. Jews were officially allowed to settle in New France beginning in 1760, over 250 years ago. But Esther Brandeau’s were the first Jewish footsteps in what we today call Quebec.
I wonder what Esther Brandeau would make of the current controversy over the Parti Quebecois (PQ) government’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values. The ads in the Montreal metro proclaim, in two starkly-opposing posters: “Church. Synagogue. Mosque. These are sacred,” and, “Religious neutrality of the state. Equality of men and women. These are also sacred.” The self-proclaimed goals of the Charter are to set clear rules on religious accommodations; affirm Quebec values; and establish the religious neutrality of the state. The most controversial aspect of the proposal is the limitation of the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols.” Namely, any employees of the state — which, in Quebec, includes not only public servants but teachers, professors, daycare workers, and doctors — cannot wear a hijab; a turban; a kippah; or a large crucifix. Small religious symbols are acceptable, though exact measurements are not provided. The crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, along with the iconic cross on top of Mount Royal, are exempted as expressions of Quebec’s Catholic heritage.
It would be easy to look at this proposal and laugh; it would be equally easy to cry. But the reality is much more complex. The minority PQ government is trying to rally its base as it comes towards an election with a crumbling infrastructure and a weak economy. It is by no means certain that the government will garner enough votes to pass this legislation, and there is significant opposition among both French-speaking and English-speaking Quebecers. On a deeper level, those outside Quebec may not understand the existential concerns of a French-speaking majority who comprise less than two percent of the population of North America as a whole. Alone in an English-speaking continent, Quebec has a distinct language and culture. For that society to dissolve in the sea of internationalism would be a profound loss.
You may have heard that if Quebec’s government has its way, we’ll be seeing far fewer yarmulkes on the province’s streets. We certainly would be seeing none of them on the heads of people working or receiving services at government offices, and public schools, daycare centers and hospitals.
The governing Parti Québécois party’s proposed “charter of values” —effectively, a legal ban on religious symbols in the pubic sector— has been met with condemnation from many political leaders, including Jewish ones, in the province that includes Montreal.
Irwin Cotler, Liberal MP and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, wrote in the Huffington Post that “the so-called ‘charter of values’ reportedly being contemplated by our provincial government would make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades.”
Cotler charged the PQ, led by Pauline Marois, with misinterpreting the separation of church and state principle and of planning to deny religious freedom, a right guaranteed by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, as well as the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He went to so far as to sugges that PQ founder René Lévesque is rolling in his grave.
Lionel Perez adopts a slightly more diplomatic tone, but he essentially sides with Cotler. Perez, a 43-year-old attorney and entrepreneur, is the interim mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal’s largest and most diverse borough, with residents from more than 100 different cultural communities. He is also a kippa-wearing religiously observant Jew and has a very personal stake in all of this.
In an opinion piece in the French-language Le Devoir, Perez wrote that he does not oppose a secular charter per se, but that he is arguing for an inclusive secularism. “The goal of an inclusive secularism is aiming to build a genuinely plural public space, to build a society that avoids marginalizing or traps our citizens in a single mold, depriving them of the right to their moral or religious choice,” he wrote.
“I believe that values of tolerance, respect for others and moral autonomy are equally as fundamental as Quebec secularism.”
With the fact that Montreal accepts over 90 percent of all immigrants to Quebec in mind, Perez is presenting a motion to the city’s government asking it to speak up against what the provincial government is proposing.
“Obviously there is a lot of concern. Any time you have any kind of legislation that indicates any kind of separation, it causes for concern,” Perez told CTV News about his constituents’ reaction to the proposed charter.
How Orthodox should Israel’s Orthodox university be?
There’s a major controversy at Bar Ilan University about the institution’s policy of compulsory yarmulke-wearing during Jewish studies classes.
It has long been policy that male students should cover their heads when studying sacred texts, though many professors turn a blind eye when they don’t. However, a recent incident saw a professor, Haim Talbi, insisting that a student donned a yarmulke or left class, and the student leaving. “How is it possible that a lecturer tells a student to get out of class for not wearing a kippah, and the university backs that teacher?,” the student posted on Facebook.
The university has said that students sign on the rule when they enter the establishment, so Talbi was perfectly justified. But the real question isn’t whether it’s justified on paper but whether it makes sense. Bar Ilan isn’t like Yeshiva University where students study religion in yeshiva alongside their degree, but rather a place where Jewish studies are treated academically. For many Orthodox Jews, the reason it’s important for a man to wear a yarmulke when looking at sacred texts is that it draws a distinction between reading as a purely intellectual activity and one with metaphysical importance. And this is exactly the distinction that some of Bar Ilan’s secular students think they shouldn’t have to make.
The precise way that it sees the balance in Jewish studies between academia and doctrine has long been a grey area at Bar Ilan. This controversy looks set to force some significant internal debate and some clear conclusions.
Aside from the latent anti-Semitism that motivates the European political fringe, there are two possible explanations for why Marine Le Pen felt it necessary to explain that if France is to proscribe the hijab or chador in the public square as she favours, “it is obvious that we must ban the kippa.” She added that both kosher and halal meat must be outlawed together, since the greater good of the republic must be placed above the wants and needs of any one community.
The first was unwittingly alluded to by Le Pen herself, in an interview given to French television.
“Jewish skullcaps are obviously not a problem in our country,” she said, but France has to “ban them in the name of equality.” Tellingly, she concluded, “What would people say if I’d only asked to ban Muslim clothing? They’d burn me as a Muslim hater.” French Jewry is innocent of any offence against the republic, but Le Pen has to offer up the kippa ban, lest she be suspected of only hating Muslims.
The other is that Le Pen made another outrageous and inflammatory statement in a sad bid to sustain her already overly-augmented national profile. Le Pen managed to finish third in the first round of the presidential election in April, and missed out on a seat in the National Assembly by only 118 votes in June by exploiting fears of rising crime and socio-cultural change amongst white working class voters. It is not coincidental, then, that this interview was given just before the start of the Front National’s summer conference, and at a time of cultural conflict between secularism and Islam regarding the cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad that were published in a French satire magazine.