Over 100 Canadian Jews unite to support Muslim women who choose to wear niqab

Women wearing niqabs. THE CJN PHOTO

More than 120 prominent members of the Jewish community have issued a public letter affirming their support for Muslim women who choose to wear a face covering during citizenship swearing-in ceremonies and in other public venues.

The letter, published last week in the Globe and Mail, attacks Prime Minister Stephen Harper for unleashing “bigotry and xenophobia against an entire group in Canadian society,” and it cites Canadian values and the historic experience of Jews as motivation for taking a stand against “the dangers of scapegoating and victimization.

“Observing one’s faith in a way that harms no others is not at odds with Canadian values. It is the essence of Canadian values. So is gender equality. We wish our government had some credibility in speaking on this matter,” the letter states.

Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, said the letter was drafted, distributed and printed within a 24-hour span. It was sent to members of three Toronto synagogues – Holy Blossom Temple, Darchei Noam Congregation and the Danforth Jewish Circle. The recipients in turn passed it along and within a day, 125 people had signed it.

“The point was to offer a Jewish voice in this debate and to say the stigmatizing and vilification of a religion is abhorrent, particularly to Jews,” Siemiatycki said.

The letter was written from a perspective informed by Jewish history, where Jews were often targeted as a religious minority and suffered “painful stigmatization… We know what that feels like from our history,” he said.

Siemiatycki said the Conservatives had fastened on the niqab issue for crass political motives to win votes in the current election campaign. He rejected poll results that suggest a large majority  of Canadians support banning the niqab in citizenship ceremonies.

The issue, Siemiatycki said, was a matter of religious rights that are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These rights cannot by removed even if a majority wants to, he said, adding such a move could open the door to further abridgments of religious rights that could one day target Jews.

Siemiatycki called the controversy over the niqab “a phony war,” since only two women out of 700,000 people who’ve gone through the citizenship ceremony have worn it – and only after revealing their identities in private to female officers.

Nancy Ruth, one of the signatories, said, “I feel strongly about a person’s freedom of choice and the right to display that choice – as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others, nor incite hatred toward others.”

Harold Troper, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said “everyone should be offended by the effort to turn Canadian against Canadian, to use ethnic, religious prejudice as a way of getting votes.

“Jews should be especially offended by this. Jews should be very sensitive and concerned about a state that would use religious prejudice to political effect,” he said.