Ter­ror­ists’ lethal weapon: fear

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Yoni Birn­baum THE VIEW FROM THE PULPIT

ARECENT EURO­PEAN Court of Jus­tice rul­ing makes it po­ten­tially law­ful for an em­ployer to ban the wear­ing of all re­li­gious sym­bols in the work­place. Not for the first time, how­ever, the court’s judg­ment has sharply di­vided opin­ion, both in this coun­try and abroad. On the one hand, the no­tion of “ban­ning” the wear­ing of re­li­gious gar­ments or sym­bols is a very trou­bling thought in a Western lib­eral democ­racy. But, on the other hand, peo­ple do won­der whether it might be rea­son­able for a com­pany to want to project a “neu­tral” or cor­po­rate im­age.

Per­haps en­abling com­pa­nies to make this choice them­selves, as long as it is ap­plied equally and fairly, is in the best in­ter­ests of busi­ness in gen­eral.

Part of me ac­tu­ally has some sym­pa­thy for the lat­ter view. Em­ploy­ers have rights, too. There is an ar­gu­ment that the rul­ing puts a brake on peo­ple abus­ing a “re­li­gious ex­emp­tion clause” to wear what­ever they like to work. And I can also fully ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that a full, or even par­tial, face veil worn by an em­ployee in a cus­tomer-fac­ing role can make it dif­fi­cult for her to per­form her job prop­erly.

How­ever, I think that the af­ter­math of last month’s horrific ter­ror­ist at­tack in West­min­ster puts this is­sue in a dif­fer­ent light. Tragic events of this mag­ni­tude al­ways lead to some pub­lic soul-search­ing. Could the at­tack have been thwarted? Is there any­thing that can pre­vent the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of peo­ple like Khalid Ma­sood? But also preva­lent is a pro­found fear that, ul­ti­mately, it may be im­pos­si­ble to stop an­other lone, crazed in­di­vid­ual from ram­pag­ing through the streets of Ber­lin, Nice, Jerusalem or Lon­don with a car.

And it is this sense of mass fear that un­for­tu­nately con­trib­utes to the aims of the fa­nat­ics them­selves. These peo­ple know that they can­not “win” in a con­ven­tional, mil­i­tary sense. But they also know that they can play on the sense of fear in so­ci­ety and ex­ploit it, un­til peo­ple let their own ir­ra­tional­ism and ter­ror do the ex­trem­ists’ work for them.

To my mind, the very no­tion that it should be con­sid­ered “rea­son­able” for com­pa­nies to want to project a cor­po­rate, re­li­gion-neu­tral im­age through ban­ning all forms of re­li­gious sym­bols or dress, pan­ders to this grow­ing sense of fear in so­ci­ety. A fear, not just of an at­tack, but of re­li­gion it­self. As if faith is the root of all evil — and, crit­i­cally, as if all peo­ple of faith are some­how out to con­vince oth­ers to con­vert to their way of life.

Some ar­gue that the right to ban re­li­gious sym­bols should be com­pared to the un­der­stand­able right of a com­pany to ban the wear­ing of po­lit­i­cal sym­bols at work. But this is a false com­par­i­son. Peo­ple wear po­lit­i­cal sym­bols to ef­fect change in so­ci­ety. By con­trast, the vast ma­jor­ity of re­li­gious peo­ple do not wear re­li­gious sym­bols or cloth­ing to make a state­ment. They wear them be­cause they are a crit­i­cal part of their iden­tity, as nat­u­ral as wear­ing a pair of glasses or a coat.

That is why I be­lieve that the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice’s rul­ing is fun­da­men­tally, and even dan­ger­ously, wrong. It stems from a ba­sic mis­un­der­stand­ing of what re­li­gious be­lief ac­tu­ally is. And to al­low such mis­un­der­stand­ings to grow, as the ECJ’s rul­ing does, is to per­pet­u­ate that sense of fear in so­ci­ety, rather than en­cour­age a sense of re­spect for the val­ues of faith.

Not only is this a step in the wrong di­rec­tion, but it plays di­rectly into the hands of ex­trem­ists like the mon­ster who car­ried out the West­min­ster at­tack. Be­cause the most lethal weapon the ter­ror­ists have is the cre­ation of a so­ci­ety based upon fear. Peo­ple liv­ing in a state of con­stant ter­ror, not just of those who seek to harm them, but of any­one dif­fer­ent to them at all.

Jewish tra­di­tion teaches us to open the door to Eli­jah dur­ing the Seder. We know that in gen­er­a­tions past, Jews had real rea­son for fear at that mo­ment on Pesach. The spec­tre of the blood li­bel cast its long shadow over the Jewish com­mu­ni­ties of me­dieval Europe for hun­dreds of years. Yet still they opened the door. Be­cause fear is never the an­swer. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.

And un­like the fear of dif­fer­ence that lies be­hind the Euro­pean Court’s rul­ing, be­ing con­fi­dent of our own iden­tity as Jews, un­afraid to wear a kip­pah or Ma­gen David in the street or at work, should al­ways be some­thing we feel proud to do.

I be­lieve the rul­ing is fun­da­men­tally and dan­ger­ously wrong

Rabbi Birn­baum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Com­mu­nity

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