Separate Swimming at Harvard – and Us

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Recently, Harvard University agreed to establish certain hours for sexually segregated use of the gym and swimming pool. Most of us upon hearing that news would be cheered at an apparently reasonable accommodation to those women who for religious or other reasons do not feel comfortable exercising or swimming in the presence of men.

I do not mean to suggest that that immediate response is not the correct one. But let me add just one wrinkle to the puzzle. Harvard’s decision came not in response to student petition or a request from Orthodox Jewish students on campus, but from the Harvard Islamic Society, whose request was subsequently joined by Harvard College’s Women’s Club.

Orthodox Jews likely outnumber devout Muslims at Harvard. Yet I doubt it ever occurred to Orthodox Jewish students to request separate hours for use of the swimming pool or gym.

And had they made such a request, I not at all sure Harvard would have been so quick to grant it. Recall Yale University’s unwillingness to accommodate the request of Orthodox Jewish students not to be forced to live in sexually mixed dorms (or at least to pay dearly for a room in such dorms) And even before the case of the Yale Five, Wendy Shalit described Williams College’s insistence that all bathrooms on campus be unisex. It is safe to assume that there are no Jewish billionaires with an interest in separate swimming hours likely to contribute $20,000,000 to Harvard, as one Arab sheikh recently did.

Leaving aside those students from Orthodox homes who rush to shed their identity as soon as they hit their Ivy League campus, why didn’t the same request made by the Harvard Islamic Society come from Orthodox Jewish students? The answer to that question sheds a good deal of light on the different mindset of Torah Jews and many radicalized Muslims today.

FOR TORAH JEWS IT IS AXIOMATIC that we are living in galus. No matter how fully we participate in every aspect of national life, we never quite forget that we are here as guests. (There were some in the Orthodox world who were critical of the Yale Five for seemingly forgetting this fact.) Our SAT scores may qualify us for Harvard, but we do not view them as entitling us to admission, and once there we are more or less content if Harvard makes those accommodations necessary for us to succeed academically – e.g., rescheduling tests that fall on Jewish holidays.

The Islamic approach, particularly among more radicalized elements, is much different. Islam does not view England and America as inherently different from Saudi Arabia. The latter already belongs to the realm of Islam; the former fall into the category of not yet Islamic lands. But as the Islamists never tire of proclaiming, the whole world will one day fall to the realm of Islam. That vision of universal conquest is alien to the Torah.

That difference in perspective leads to a far more assertive Moslem approach to demands for accommodation of their beliefs. Agudath Israel of America has been at the forefront of efforts to require reasonable governmental accommodation to religious practices, most notably in leading the fight for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in Congress. And it has championed religious accommodations in the employment context. But in so doing, Agudath Israel has always worked through the legislative processes, and usually in coordination with many other religious groups.

Muslims are far more likely to make demands and to back those demands with threats of violence rather than rely on the democratic process. In part, that derives from a refusal on the part of many Muslims to recognize the legitimacy of any other source of law other than Moslem religious law (Sharia).

Many Western states, particularly those of Western Europe, have been surprisingly acquiescent in the face of those demands, carving out, whether de jure or de facto, a host of special rules for all matters touching upon Muslim religious sensitivities. The Bank of England announced recently that it was issuing Sharia compliant bonds.

Police in a number of European cities treat heavily Muslim areas as no-go zones, and there is mounting evidence of many “honor killings” of Muslim women going uninvestigated by European polices forces.

After Muslims rioted around the globe to protest cartoons in a Danish newspaper deemed offensive to Islam and its founder, the European Union Commissioner for Justice, Freedom, and Security did not rise to defend freedom of the press. Rather he counseled “prudence” when dealing with potentially controversial subjects.

Muslim demonstrators calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, the author of Satanic Verses, a work deemed offensive to Mohammed, marched through English cities under police protection. And more recently, masked Muslims holding signs reading “Behead the Enemies of Islam” and warning of another 9/11 were guarded by a phalanx of British police officers.

While Muslims proclaiming their eagerness to chop of the heads of the enemies of Islam enjoy the protection of European police, those who point to this unlovely strain within Islam often find themselves hauled before various human rights commissions. At the time of her death, Orianna Fallaci, who had written a best-selling book on the threat to Western liberties posed by Islam, was being sued for criminal incitement in a number of European countries. Columnist Mark Steyn, whose publisher has been the subject of proceedings by various Canadian human rights commissions, puts it, “Today’s multicultural societies tolerate the explicitly intolerant and avowedly unicultural, while refusing to tolerate anyone pointing out that intolerance.”

In short, radical Muslims are being given a pass by cowed European governments. British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith probably took the award for cravenness when she announced that the government would henceforth refer to terrorist acts perpetrated in the name of Islam as acts of “anti-Islamic terror” because they place Islam in a bad light.

ALL THIS IS OF CONCERN to Torah Jews for a number of reasons. First, the West’s reluctance to stand up to Islamists in European countries leaves Jews under threat. Second, the weak European response has already begun to provoke a backlash in Europe, in the rise of right-wing political parties, which have traditionally harbored large anti-Semitic elements.

And finally, the case for religious accommodation to Jewish religious practices will inevitably be linked to those accommodations being demanded by Muslims. When the French government, for instance, banned the wearing of a veil or other forms of Muslim dress in French public schools, it also banned the wearing of yarmulkes. (The only difference, of course, being that Jewish boys who wear yarmulkes would almost all have been in private religious schools, whereas Muslim parents sought to force the public schools to accept their norms.) Other European countries have gone even further to ban all face-coverings in public, with obvious implications for all those whose dress distinguishes them.

FORTUNATELY, THE AMERICAN model of dealing with religious diversity has proven the most successful one for the integration of Muslim populations. On the one hand, the United States had no regime of human rights commissions and the most robust protection of free speech of any Western country. Critics of aspects of Islam will not be forced to defend their opinions in court on charges of “Islamophobia.” Though honor killings have also occurred in the United States, they have been prosecuted. (There are no Moslem ghettos in America into which the law does not reach.) When some Moslem taxi drivers at Minneapolis airport refused to take passengers carrying alcohol, the drinking of which is forbidden in Islam, they were forced to choose between retaining one of the limited number of cab licenses and their religious sensibilities. The public showed little inclination to show a unique diffidence to Moslem sensitivities.

On the other hand, America’s unique religiosity and its multiplicity of religions has made it easier for Moslems to integrate. Theirs is but one more religion in a vast panoply. Americans tend to be respectful of the faith of others. Though America has a civil religion based on a commitment to its constitution, as a nation of immigrants spread out over a vast continent, there is no national culture to which all are expected to conform. Nor is the natural culture decidedly secular, as in France, for instance.

As a result, Moslem Americans express a degree of identification with the United States no less than that of the average American. The contrast to Europe could not be greater. Forty per cent of British Moslems, for instance, expressed some degree of sympathy for the London tube bombers.

Natan Sharansky, in his new book Defending Identity, makes a compelling case that a European elite committed to post-nationalism and opposed to any specific identity, other than human, cannot muster the will to defend itself against the Muslims within and without for whom their Muslim identity is everything.

And yet unlike most conservative thinkers of similar views, he opposed the French ban on veils in public schools in the name of preserving the secular public square. That insistence can only alienate the Muslim population by conveying the message that one cannot be both Muslim and a proper citizen of France.

By making reasonable accommodations to a variety of religious practices, the United States has avoided that pitfall. In that context, then, we can remain comfortable in our initial support for Harvard’s decision to provide six hours a week of separate swimming and gym facilities for women. Even if Orthodox women at Harvard were not the ones to push for separate facilities, hopefully they too will benefit from access to separate facilities.

This article appeared in the Jewish Observer, October 2008

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13 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    I think that Europe’s problem is based on not having their values explicit enough to:

    1. Internalize that a foreigner can become as naturalized as a native-born citizen.

    2. Require adherence to those values, and know how to deal with people who don’t.

    This was explained by an Chesterson in the 1920s or 1930s.

  2. one of the yale 5 says:

    “(There were some in the Orthodox world who were critical of the Yale Five for seemingly forgetting this fact.)”

    As far as I recall, the criticism from the Orthodox community came in two forms – from those who disapproved of an ivy league education for halachic Jews under any circumstances, and on the other hand from the more modern elements of Orthodoxy who thought that the narrow world view we represented (like not sharing a bathroom with members of the opposite genger) had no place in the Ivy League (and who feared reductions in future Orthodox admissions).

    Far from forgetting the fact that we live in galus, our actions evidenced an acute understanding that we are guests in a strange land who are rightfully wary of assimilation and foreign influences.

    Just to clarify comment #5, only one student had parents employed by the University, only that student and another lived at home in New Haven. We all had to pay for university housing which went unoccupied AND for suitable alternative housing.

  3. Charlie Hall says:

    Harvard had had separate pools, gyms, and libraries (!) up to the 1970s. The first shomer Shabat Jew I ever met lived across the hall from my dorm room.

    No country in Western Europe will have a Muslim majority any time in the next century unless there is a massive conversion to that religion; the largest Muslim minority population there is France, about 12%. I agree with the statement about Muslims in America and see it where I live in the Bronx; Europe is treating its Muslim minority rather badly and could learn from us.

  4. dovid says:

    “FOR TORAH JEWS IT IS AXIOMATIC that we are living in galus.”

    Edmund Safra, zichrono livracha, (a leading banker and philantropist who passed away about eight years ago) examplified the constant awareness a Jew, especially prominant Jews must have of the fact that we live in galus. At one point in his banking career, the value of Chase Manhattan Bank’s shares declined so much that he could have acquired the entire bank. He chose not to. He said it’s not wise for a Jew in galus to own Chase Manhattan.

  5. Ezra says:

    I am not at all certain that there are more Orhtodox Jews than Moslems in Harvard. I would certainly check this fact before publishing.

  6. Shlomo says:

    “Yet I doubt it ever occurred to Orthodox Jewish students to request separate hours for use of the swimming pool or gym.”

    The Orthodox students at the University of Pennsylvania requested separate swimming hours, and got them.
    http://www.hillel.upenn.edu/~ocp/graduate/4105_000005.html
    (The same may have occurred at other universities; I can only comment on the one I attended.)

    “As a result, Moslem Americans express a degree of identification with the United States no less than that of the average American.”

    Daniel Pipes disagrees with you on this.

  7. cvmay says:

    The popularity and global invasion of the Muslim world has previously been predicted by the peshukim in parshas Lech Lechi, told by Malech Hashem to Hagar. “His name will be Yishmael, he will be a wild man, his hand in everything, and his brethren will live everywhere”.

    The request for seperate swimming by Muslim female students at Harvard is one of many examples of ‘having a presence’ and taking over society piece by piece. This is an easy feat to accomplish with the GOLDEN VISA card of Arab sheiks.
    World leaders are in mortal fear of terror erupting when Islamic demands are not met. The coming months and years will bring these problems to an apex with the Jewish kehilla caught in the storm. Hashem yishmar.

  8. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    Although it would make me appear more religious, I opt to reject the standard manic-depressive Orthodox approach to “Goyishe” innovations, seeking to find ways that they might be bad for the Jews, and instead embrace the Talmudic approach that applauded the creation of Roman bath-houses, despite the idolatrous statues therein.

    I am thrilled that the many Orthodox students at Harvard will have the opportunity for separate swimming. Let’s encourage them to make the fullest use of this totally unexpected opportunity. And let’s encourage the various Arab oil barons to spend their money on things that benefit people, instead of on arms.

  9. Nachum Lamm says:

    “(There were some in the Orthodox world who were critical of the Yale Five for seemingly forgetting this fact.)”

    Actually, the Agudah came out strongly in favor of the Yale Five. The OU took no position, and the general attitude in the MO world was “let them go to YU if it bothers them so much.”

    One may wonder if the irony of a Charedi organization defending the “right” to an Ivy League education (actually a cheap one, as money was a major factor, with parents employed by Yale and the low cost of living at home) resulted from the Charedi world’s desire to increase separation in all areas. (As opposed to the irony of MO promoting integration in word and separation in deed.) One may also note another example of the irony of Charedi glorification (and concurrent condemnation) of secular success, a phenomenon Dr. David Berger has commented on.

  10. Marli says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum, I don’t think you give Orthodox students enough credit. There is a fundamental difference between young, frum people living in universities, and young, frum people living at home, and that is that living in the home community, we may be very aware of being in galut, but in the university, we live in a place where everyone is a guest, and that by its own principles values diversity and equality of opportunity more than it values preservation of the dominant culture.

    I don’t believe that Orthodox students did not ask for separate swimming because they didn’t believe it was their right. I think it didn’t happen because the students didn’t want to swim badly enough, or never had the opportunity to use single-sex pools and so simply did not miss swimming. I also believe that if the students were to have made the request, the university would probably have granted it, and covered the costs itself. Of course, it’s all speculation — if it were untrue, it would only serve to prove that Princeton and its Jewish students are that much better than those other universities you mentioned.

    – An Orthodox student at Princeton who asked for and was granted women’s pool hours.

  11. Garnel Ironheart says:

    The problem, however, is not a matter of Muslim aggressiveness vs Jewish passivity but rather one of demography.
    Within 25-30 years, much of Western Europe will have either a sizable Muslim minority or a small majority. How will that affect us and Israel when they demand total boycotts and renewed anti-Semitic laws under threat of rioting?
    Even in America, when the political and financial influence of Muslims begins to outstrip that of the Jewish community, we will see the same trait. Already in Canada there are severla ridings that are controlled by the Muslim vote and the parties that seek to win those ridings put on their best anti-Israel face possible at election time. This is a trend that will only continue.

  12. BobF says:

    In the Harvard separate swimming that started your essay, you seem to have not considered that there may be very few if any Orthodox Women at Harvard who A-Want to go swimming B-Consider separate swimming a halachic necessity. I

  13. mycroft says:

    “Orthodox Jews likely outnumber devout Muslims at Harvard”

    probably true for the Law School-but probably not true for Harvard in general. It is probable that devout Moslems far outnumber devoutJ3ews in the US. My anecdotal experience tells me that more Moslems fast on Ramadan than Jews fast on Ypm Kippur in the US. If one substitutes the other fast days for Yom Kippur it is certainly true.

    “Agudath Israel of America has been at the forefront of efforts to require reasonable governmental accommodation to religious practices, most notably in leading the fight for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in Congress. And it has championed religious accommodations in the employment context. But in so doing, Agudath Israel has always worked through the legislative processes, and usually in coordination with many other religious groups.”

    Since Hardison vs TWA it is questionnable about the impact of those laws-given the minimal requirement for “undue hardship” .