In an interview with an Israeli journalist on Monday, Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate for president of France, had the unthinkable effrontery to propose that the Jews of France submit to a ban on the kippah for the sake of winning the struggle against radical Islam.
“Honestly, the dangerous situation in which Jews in France live is such that those who walk with a kippah are in any case a minority because they are afraid,” Le Pen said. “But I mainly think the struggle against radical Islam should be a joint struggle and everyone should say, ‘There, we are sacrificing something.’”
Le Pen has admitted that her real target is the hijab, the Muslim head covering that is a religious-nationalist symbol and that has roiled France for years. As she said when she first suggested the ban in 2012, “Jewish skullcaps are obviously not a problem in our country,” insisting, nevertheless, that France has to “ban them in the name of equality.” She also sought bans on public prayer and access to kosher and halal food in schools.
But equality in this context is not a political principle at all, but a political tactic. For Le Pen, who has been navigating her National Front party away from overt xenophobia — and anti-Semitism — to a more moderate stance, singling out Muslims would cost her potential votes in the elections next April.
“What would people say if I had only asked to ban Muslim clothing? They would burn me as a Muslim hater,” she has said.
But the Jews of France should not be made to sacrifice any part of their religious identity for either the struggle against radical Islam or the campaign to get Le Pen elected president. They have sacrificed enough, from the persecutions of the Middle Ages to the Nazi period, and in France itself in the modern era, from the Dreyfus Affair to the Vichy collaboration in the Holocaust.
Le Pen has it the wrong way around. It is not French Jewry that needs to “sacrifice something.” On the contrary, the onus remains on the non-Jews of France to prove their sincerity about respecting Jewish traditions and protecting the Jewish community from physical harm.
Such a ban would codify into law what until now has been the result of lawless intimidation. Her observation that many Jews are afraid to wear their kippah in public is a reason to redouble efforts to eliminate the scourge of anti-Semitism and terror, not to make it the law of the land.
The goal should not be to cajole Jews into hiding the signs of their Jewish identity, but rather to eliminate the terrorists so that no one will fear to display the outward signs of faith in the streets. A Jew should be able to wear a kippah or a shtreimel or have his tzitzis showing without anxiety or qualm.
Until that day comes, it is a matter of personal safety that should be left to individuals or groups to decide for themselves whether to risk easy identification as a Jew in public places. No European government should take it upon itself to dictate a dress code for the Jewish people.
Some well-meaning but misguided people might consider forbidding any outward display of religion as a measure of egalite and fraternite. But it is a body blow against liberte. A law that would forbid Jews from wearing a kippah would be odious in its own way.
This sorry saga reminds us once again that any restrictions on the religious liberties of one group are a threat to all religious groups. Such restrictions do not fight terrorism. All they do is take away some of the most fundamental rights of a free society, thereby handing terrorists and bigots a huge victory.
In the past, the comments of a Le Pen could be dismissed as inconsequential. This is no longer the case. In the currently fluid political situation in France, Le Pen stands a reasonable chance of becoming president. The latest poll indicates that she will likely make it to the second round, where she will face the centrist Emmanuel Macron. While the poll also predicts that Macron will win with 63 percent of the vote versus 37 percent for Le Pen, as we have all seen in the recent past about the predictive quality of public opinion polls, there is nothing certain about her defeat.
Whatever the outcome of the election, it is clear that her opinions carry weight now with millions of French voters. That is why the ban proposal should be vigorously rejected. As Le Pen has gained acceptance in the French electorate, so too her ideas might be adopted. In this case, the idea is offensive and dangerous.