Separate Swimming at Harvard – and Us
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