ON August 6, in an article in the Daily Telegraph, the Rt Hon Boris (“BoJo”), Conservative MP for Uxbridge, former foreign secretary and celebrated professional buffoon, unburdened himself on the subject of the public attire sported by some Muslim women in the UK.
Referring to their insistence on wearing a full-length black garment covering their bodies from head to toe, leaving merely a slit through which their eyes can peer out into the world around them (the full-face veil known as the niqab), BoJo actually defended their right to do so — as do I — but added that in his view it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes”.
As a Jewish academic whose custom of going around university campuses wearing a skull-cap has sometimes caused eyebrows to be raised and whispers to be whispered, my first inclination was to regard BoJo’s remarks as nothing more than vaguely amusing if somewhat tasteless, and move on with my life.
I was wrong. The vaguely amusing if tasteless comparison of the niqab to a letterbox triggered an eruption.
No less a personage than Baron Sheikh of Cornhill, an insurance broker, Tory peer and devout Muslim, demanded that the Conservative whip be withdrawn from BoJo — that, in effect, BoJo be kicked out of the party.
According to Lord Sheikh, BoJo had “let the genie out of the bottle” and inflamed tensions by likening the niqab to a letterbox.
And the good lord further alleged that following his demand for BoJo to be sacked from the Tory party, he — the good lord — had received “vile” Islamophobic email messages.
Other Muslim members of the party naturally joined the hue and cry. And now BoJo is apparently under formal investigation for bringing the Tory party into disrepute.
But my purpose in drawing these matters to your attention is not — heaven forbid! — to interfere in the internal workings of the Tory party.
It is, rather, to ponder why so many Jews have joined the jihad against BoJo, and to wonder whether these brethren have got their priorities quite right in so doing.
I refer not merely to the ever-outraged left (so to speak), who cannot seem to distinguish between a true phobia (an unjustified fear) and legitimate if provocative criticism of Islam, or for that matter any other religion.
Nor do I refer to the Jewish devotees of what is termed inter-faith dialogue, who in their search for inner-peace and enlightenment seem incapable of accepting the truth about Islam or, for that matter, any other religion.
I refer primarily to Orthodox rabbis who, over the past fortnight, have taken it upon themselves to publicly chastise BoJo for having had the chutzpa to exercise the right of freedom of expression.
These worthies include Rabbi David Mason, of the Muswell Hill Synagogue, who opined that BoJo’s comments amounted to “racism with a smile”.
Then there’s Rabbi Moshe Freedman, of the New West End Synagogue (“we may have political disagreements with some in the Muslim community, but that shouldn’t be the green light to side with people whose ideas are odious”).
And I mustn’t forget Dayan Yaakov Lichtenstein, Rosh Beis Din of my very own Federation of Synagogues, who has condemned BoJo’s column as “insulting and offensive” and has actually — and publicly — called upon BoJo to apologise for “aggravating people”.
These rabbinical admonitions are devoid of any justification.
“Racism” is a prejudice in which people are placed in a hierarchy of esteem based solely or mainly on their racial or ethnic origins. Referring to the niqab as a letterbox carries no such connotation.
The idea that the niqab resembles a letterbox is neither odious in itself — not least because many Muslims point out that wearing the niqab is itself neither an Islamic requirement nor in particularly good taste, as it reflects negatively on the status of women — nor are those who point this out necessarily peddling “odious” ideas.
No less an authority than Dr Taj Hargey, imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, has publicly condemned the niqab as “pre-Islamic, non-Koranic and therefore un-Muslim”.
And the imam points out that “this deliberate identity-concealing contraption is banned at the Kaaba in Mecca”.
Dayan Lichtenstein accuses BoJo of being insulting and offensive. I must remind the dayan that giving offence is an essential component of freedom of expression, and that it most definitely embraces the right to aggravate people.
BoJo’s characterisation of the niqab may have been tasteless. But he has nothing to apologise for.