One of the signs of our times are the EU and its individual member states’ struggle to cope with and welcome Muslim immigrants and traditions, while maintaining open societies and what are widely perceived as “European traditions.” To this major challenge, one should add legitimate fear of Islamic terrorism. By no means does terror characterize most Muslims, however popular fear from seemingly Muslim fellow citizens is increasingly prevalent among many, and should not be overlooked.
Europe’s challenges therefore, are intertwined between civil issues – religious freedom and freedom from religion – well exemplified by the debate regarding Muslim women’s attire in public places; and by legitimate security concerns: how to keep the increasingly multicultural Europe safe and free, at the same time.
Israel is renowned for its vast experience in protecting citizens from terrorism, even in complicated circumstances of mixed Jewish-Muslim cities, religiously driven communities, and within the broader context of regional tension. To its misfortune, Israel had mastered modern technologies, strategies and tactics which allows it to protect its citizens while maintaining optimal freedoms and minimum presence of security forces in the streets. It already shares this valuable experience with allies, and can continue to assist in keeping Europe safe and free.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg of how the accumulated experience of Jewish communities and of Israel – albeit imperfect on the issue – can contribute to Europe’s key challenge of welcoming Islam. One might be positively surprised when walking around Israel’s numerous mixed communities or while observing the multitude of programs, NGOs and civil society initiatives aimed at successful integration of minorities, including Muslims. In practice, Israeli society is more tolerant towards Muslims and other religious minorities and phenomena than the average European community.
France, for example, regulates vigorously religious apparel and religion generally. The burkini (a full-body swimsuit) arouses such a fuss while 42% of French people support banning certain swimsuits design in pools. On Israeli beaches and in its many swimming pools, one can detect Muslim women bathing as they wish as an everyday, banal occurrence.
While Britain’s Boris Johnson and other mainstream leaders offend moderately dressed religious Muslims saying they look “ridiculous… like letter boxes, it is virtually impossible to pass an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood or its Muslim parallel, without noticing precisely such attire, attracting no attention and insulting no one, whatsoever.
In 2015, when a German court ruled all state school teachers wearing a hijab (head covering worn in public by some Muslim women) an insult to religious liberty, my daughter in Israel started her Arabic lessons in second grade, and her teacher was wearing exactly that outfit, undisturbed of course, by state authorities.
Generally speaking, western societies speak highly of liberal values but shrink in the face of a different practice. Europe’s citizens quickly turn to radical, even fascist solutions, and the rush to support extreme parties which are proud of alienating immigrants is sad evidence of this reality.
Jews worldwide have experienced being a minority for generations, and are all too familiar with prosecution and the challenge of integration. Their sensible approach to practicing religion while integrating successfully in predominantly western societies can become a model for Europe’s Muslims. Israeli society has invested for decades in improving coexistence amidst multicultural and complex realities.
While the current Israeli government may not be the beacon of liberalism it should, other institutions, be it the Jewish Agency or the multitude of Israeli-Jewish (largely American) partnerships that work relentlessly to increase connectivity and integration within the Israeli society, are excellent and currently underused assets for Europe.
Valuable accumulated pan-Jewish and Israeli knowhow can serve European decision makers confronting such issues as: increasing Muslim participation in the workforce; accommodating Islamic traditions in everyday life and in public arenas; overcoming language and cultural barriers; safeguarding individual rights in a multicultural and divided society; and building innovative education and welfare solutions for immigrants.
Creating a joint Israeli-European platform which involves Europe’s Muslim and Jewish communities can provide practical solutions relatively quickly, since these challenges have previously been successfully confronted.
Last but not least, such a helpful role played by Europe’s Jews and the Israeli partners, will contribute to tackling increasingly prevalent anti-Semitism, and improve Jewish resilience on the continent. Rather than being part of the problem, they will become part of the solution. A Jewish contribution to a pluralistic Europe may make European Jewry once again proud and resourceful, and may even help recover the currently dire Europe-Israel alliance.
This article was previously published in The Algemeiner: https://www.algemeiner.com/2019/07/23/how-israel-and-jews-can-help-europe-welcome-a-peaceful-islam.