The head of France’s Jewish communities condemned a politician’s likening of a ban on modest swimwear for Muslim women to the persecution of French Jews during the Holocaust.
CRIF president Francis Kalifat made his first public statement on the debate over the burkini in a statement published on the group’s website Friday, two weeks after the first of some 30 French municipalities passed bans on wearing the full-body swimsuit. France’s highest court ruled Friday that the bans are illegal.
In his statement, Kalifat condemned tweets by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the Left Party, who has said that in France, “Jews were persecuted, then Protestants, and today Muslims.”
Kalifat said Melonchon’s allusion to the Holocaust, in which a quarter of French Jewry was wiped out by the Nazis and their local collaborators, was “a pinnacle of absurdity and indecency.” The comments, Kalifat said, were designed to “pander to Melenchon’s voters.”
Kalifat also called on political figures to condemn Melenchon’s remarks.
“This relativism, and attempt to draw parallels is unacceptable and must be condemned,” Kalifat wrote. “It is revolting and infuriating that some should try to profit politically from the polemic around anti-bikini bans and the Shoah,” he wrote, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
Kalifat’s statement contained no direct reference to the ban itself, which critics have said is discriminatory to Muslims and constitutes an infringement on individual liberties.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the bans as designed to counter “a political project … designed to perpetuate female servitude.”
Some of the ban’s critics warned it could lead to further curtailing of religious freedoms, including those of Orthodox Jewish women, who, like many Muslim counterparts, consider themselves obligated to cover their bodies almost completely to comply with religious laws on modesty.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews complained Wednesday about reports of “harassment” of Muslim swimmers in Nice by police implementing the ban. It was an unusual move for the board, which rarely comments on foreign issues without consulting the local Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Moshe Sebbag of the Grand Synagogue of Paris acknowledged in an interview with JTA on Tuesday that other French Jewish leaders are reluctant to speak out on the issue.
“It’s a complicated subject and both sides have compelling arguments,” Sebbag said, adding that the French state is a “secular country with freedom of religion.”
But Sebbag ultimately defended the bans, whose supporters, he said, “understand today there’s a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French republic, and this is what they find unacceptable.”
Asked if he agrees with the burkini bans, he said: “Yes, because you see that going with it [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message.”
According to French authorities, French Islamists have killed 12 people since 2012 in attacks on Jewish targets in France and Belgium. A majority of about 200 violent anti-Semitic assaults that are recorded in France annually are perpetrated by people hailing from Muslim families, according to the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism.