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July 23, 2019 6:02 am

How Israel and Jews Can Help Europe Welcome a Peaceful Islam

avatar by Raanan Eliaz


European Union flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels. Photo: Amio Cajander via Wikimedia Commons.

The EU and its individual member states are struggling to cope with and welcome Muslim immigrants and traditions, while still maintaining open societies and what are widely perceived as “European traditions.” To this major challenge, one should add a legitimate fear of Islamic terrorism. By no means does terror characterize most Muslims, but popular fear of Muslim fellow citizens is increasingly prevalent among many, and should not be overlooked.

Europe’s challenges therefore, are intertwined between civil issues — religious freedom and freedom from religion — and by legitimate security concerns: how to keep the increasingly multicultural Europe safe and free, at the same time.

Israel is renowned for its vast experience in protecting citizens from terrorism, even in complicated circumstances of mixed Jewish-Muslim cities, religiously-driven communities, and the broader context of regional tension. To its misfortune, Israel had mastered modern technologies, strategies, and tactics that allow it to protect its citizens while maintaining optimal freedoms and minimum presence of security forces in the streets. Israel already shares this valuable experience with allies, and can continue to help in keeping Europe safe and free.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg of how the accumulated experience of Jewish communities and of Israel — albeit imperfect on the issue — can contribute to Europe’s key challenge of welcoming Islam.

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One might be positively surprised when walking around Israel’s numerous mixed communities or while observing the multitude of programs, NGOs, and civil society initiatives aimed at successful integration of minorities, including Muslims. In practice, Israeli society is more tolerant towards Muslims and other religious minorities and similar groups than the average European community.

France, for example, vigorously regulates religious apparel and religion generally. The burkini (a full-body swimsuit) arouses such a fuss, and 42 percent of French people support banning certain swimsuit designs in pools. Yet on Israeli beaches and in its many swimming pools, one can detect Muslim women bathing as they wish as an everyday, banal occurrence.

While Britain’s Boris Johnson and other mainstream leaders offend moderately dressed religious Muslims saying they look “ridiculous … like letter boxes,” it is virtually impossible to pass an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, or its Muslim parallel, without noticing precisely such attire, attracting no attention and offending no one whatsoever.

In 2015, when a German court ruled that all state school teachers wearing a hijab are offending religious liberty, my daughter in Israel started her Arabic lessons in second grade, and her teacher was wearing exactly that outfit, undisturbed, of course, by state authorities.

Generally speaking, Western societies speak highly of liberal values but shrink in the face of a different practice. Europe’s citizens quickly turn to radical, even fascist solutions, and the rush to support extreme parties that are proud of alienating immigrants is sad evidence of this reality.

Jews worldwide have experienced being a minority for generations, and are all too familiar with persecution and the challenge of integration. Their sensible approach to practicing religion while integrating successfully in predominantly Western societies can become a model for Europe’s Muslims. Israeli society has invested for decades in improving coexistence amidst multicultural and complex realities.

While the current Israeli government may not be the beacon of liberalism it should, other institutions, be it the Jewish Agency or the multitude of Israeli-Jewish (largely American) partnerships that work relentlessly to increase connectivity and integration within Israeli society, are excellent and currently underused assets for Europe.

Valuable accumulated pan-Jewish and Israeli know-how can serve European decision makers confronting such issues as: increasing Muslim participation in the workforce; accommodating Islamic traditions in everyday life and in public arenas; overcoming language and cultural barriers; safeguarding individual rights in a multi-cultural and divided society; and building innovative education and welfare solutions for immigrants.

Creating a joint Israeli-European platform that involves Europe’s Muslim and Jewish communities can provide practical solutions relatively quickly, since these challenges have previously been successfully confronted.

Last but not least, such a helpful role played by Europe’s Jews and the Israeli partners will contribute to tackling increasingly prevalent antisemitism and improve Jewish life on the continent. Rather than being part of the problem, they will become part of the solution. A Jewish contribution to a pluralistic Europe may make European Jewry once again proud and resourceful, and may even help repair the currently dire Europe-Israel alliance.

Raanan Eliaz is the founder of the European Leadership Network (ELNET) and the Forum for Strategic Dialogue (FSD), promoting closer relations between Europe and Israel. He currently consults for a number of institutions in Europe, Israel, and the US.

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