Tempest in a swimsuit

Tempest in a swimsuit

Jewish publications are not known for their swimsuit issues, let alone swimsuit editorials. But the tussle over the burkini in France is fit for commentary because it exposes yet another misfire aimed at Muslim immigrants, with the anti-burkini-istas essentially arguing that modesty is a threat to Western values.

Last Friday, the French Council of State overturned a temporary burkini ban in a ruling that is expected to become a precedent for the 30 towns that have drawn a line in the sand against the modest beachwear. The bans were passed as part of an anti-terror effort, with supporters arguing that the bans help uphold France’s strict secular traditions.

Opponents, though, say the burkini ban is an Islamophobic reaction to recent terror attacks carried out by Muslims in France. And human rights groups argue that in addition to stigmatizing Muslims, the ban infringes on women’s civic rights.

In any other year, we would point to the situation as another example of the failure of Europeans in general and the French in particular to integrate their Muslim immigrant populations into the mainstream. In any other year, we would be comforted by the religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and America’s overall welcome of immigrants, including many of our families. We would be so confident that we wouldn’t need to say, “It couldn’t happen here.”

But this year is different. Goaded by the unique politics of Election 2016, the meteoric mainstreaming of the so-called alt-right has given cover for those who might call for banning the burkini on American beaches. And there are certainly those on the American fringe who consider the French burkini war as a good thing.

For a swimsuit that is supposed to cover up, burkini-bashers are seeing a lot in the garment. Moshe Sebbag, rabbi of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, for instance, said he supported the ban “because you see that going with [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message.” Really? We respectfully suggest that France and Rabbi Sebbag spend their time working to ensure that Jews can wear a kippah in public without fear, rather than forcing Muslim women to disrobe.

Then there is the question of modesty, over which religious Muslims can claim no monopoly. In Israel, as well as on American beaches, many observant Jewish women wear dress-like swimsuits. And in France as well, Catholic nuns are known to wear their habits while swimming in public places.

It’s awfully difficult to see this whole burkini fiasco as anything other than men — well meaning, perhaps, but wholly antiquated in their thinking — unfairly attacking what a woman chooses to wear. We’ve seen this before, and the effort just doesn’t work.