Mordche Matjas, a man I admired, liked and respected, passed away unexpectedly yesterday aged 52. A gentle, soft-spoken and intelligent man, he was at home with both a gemara and a calculator. He was a friend, and an example to me of tolerance and peace. He will be sorely missed by his fine family of course but also by the whole kehilla – Talmidei Chachamim and business men, yireim and laidigayers, frummers and shgatzim. To me that is the mark of the true chassid. BeGan Eiden tehei menichusoy! May he rest in peace.
The French have passed a law forbidding the wear of the Muslim headscarves in schools and for holders of public office. Included in the ban are also large Christian crosses and yarmulkes. The Germans too have forbidden the headscarf but not the cross or the kappel. The Belgians are considering following the French example and now the British are considering it too.
While the Jewish community is watching the story closely nobody seems to believe that it is likely to affect us very much. The sentiment most prevalent is that the ban is directed at the Muslims, who have in recent years proven to be our avowed enemies, and it is hardly in our interest to go and stand up for them on an issue that does not involve us anyway. Very few religious Jews go to state funded schools in London and public office for Chassidim is even rarer. Still I fear that the real implications of such a ban are being ignored.
Great Britain proudly declares itself to be a multicultural society. Different customs and cultures are not only tolerated but even celebrated. It is therefore considered quite acceptable to dress differently from the norm and still not be made to feel unwelcome in the wider community. I have no doubt that there are those who do not feel that way. To be perfectly frank I do not feel that way. While I am certainly not racist in the usual sense of the word I do not feel comfortable walking down Tottenham High Road or streets like that, where the majority of females wear long shapeless robes and have their heads and often faces covered. The prevailing atmosphere of tolerance and the image of multiculturalism as something honourable and desirable makes anybody who expresses this sentiment sound like a racist and a bigot.
To have a law forbidding a form of dress simply because it does not fit in would put paid to that. The ones saying "I don’t like it" will have been granted respectability and that would be the beginning of the end of diversity. The Kappel might not offend as much as a headscarf does but it does defiantly declare difference and already the French have included it in their ban. Between you, me and the lamppost a black hat, dark coat and curly peyos are no less an eyesore to someone harking back to waspish Great Britain. And that is before they see the wife in her snood and modelcoat.
The moment society declares ostentatious proclamations of faith as undesirable it becomes legitimate to criticize those that display them. Painful as it might be to us to admit it, seeing a street full of Chassidim walking home from shul on shabbos, the men in fur hats, shiny black coats and (incredibly sexy) white or black breeches can be rather intimidating if you are a goy out walking the dog. The fact that the vast majority have taken it in their stride and learned to live with it says more for their tolerance than our natural reticence and discretion.
The movement towards the banning of the headscarf is designed to clip the wings of a rapidly expanding Muslim community. I too would like to see the influence of that community held in check, especially since radical Islam seems to be using these communities as a base for undermining the very democracy and tolerance that has allowed them to flourish. However if the price for that is to open the doors to the curtailment of the rights of the individual, we must be aware that it is likely that we will be the next ones to get the bill.