A few days ago, a French high court overturned local regulations outlawing the full-body swimsuit favored by devout Muslims. Those bans, issued in response to terrorism, would be inconceivable in Israel, despite the fact that it has a larger Muslim population and a bigger terrorism problem. To Evelyn Gordon, this difference suggests that, contrary to what many believe, there is no tension between Israel’s democracy and its Jewishness. Rather, being a Jewish state makes it more free:
[I]n Israel, no one has ever even suggested banning burkinis. Nor has anyone ever suggested forbidding members of the civil service or schoolgirls to wear headscarves, as is stipulated by other French laws that the courts have upheld. Nor has anyone ever suggested barring mosques from building minarets—a law approved by popular referendum in Switzerland, even though that country has so far had no Islamic terror problem at all.
Clearly, Israel’s religious tolerance can’t be attributed solely to its democratic norms. After all, France and Switzerland have impeccable democratic credentials, but that hasn’t stopped either from passing anti-Muslim laws. . . .
Rather, the main reason why Israel never has and never would consider legislation like France’s bans on burkinis and headscarves is precisely because it is a Jewish state. In other words, it was created to take Jewish interests into account, and those interests include the freedom to observe traditional Jewish praxis. The moment a democratic country starts making allowances for one religion’s traditions, those allowances inevitably spill over to other religions as well. . . .
In short, Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state is the main reason why Islamist terror has never prompted the kind of anti-Muslim legislation that it has in secular democratic France. So the next time someone tells you Israel’s Jewish identity is inherently at odds with its democratic identity, remember the burkini. And remember that sometimes Israel’s Jewish identity is precisely what protects its democratic identity.