Of Swiss handshakes, restricted swimming


We are so used to thinking that the world is growing steadily more homogenous, particularly in the West, that it’s a surprise to learn about local customs that continue to thrive. Last week, we learned that in Switzerland it is customary for students to shake their teacher’s hand before and after class. It is a show of respect, if a bit too formal for looser places like the United States and Israel.

We might never have heard about this custom were it not for two male Swiss Muslim students who did not want to shake their female teachers’ hands at their high school graduation. In the Jewish community, this sensitivity is familiar: Many observant Jews will decline a handshake from someone of the opposite sex out of modesty (although others will shake hands).

Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims comprise 5 percent of the country’s population. Faced with the students’ religious sensitivities, the school made a reasonable accommodation: It exempted them from shaking the hands of women, and to ensure there was no sex discrimination against the women teachers, the students were not to shake their male teachers’ hands either.

The local education department overturned this compromise. Then it threatened to slap a fine of up to $5,000 on the family of any student who refuses to shake hands. According to reports, the education department justified its position with the questionable assertion that “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.”

If the modest religious accommodation for Muslim students on shaking hands is common sense in a public school setting, what about a religious accommodation for Orthodox women in public swimming pools in New York?

Last month, the New York Parks Department canceled women-only swim periods at a public pool in the heavily Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, after an anonymous complaint was made to the city’s Commission on Human Rights. It then reversed itself following objections by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox politician. Advocates on both sides are up in arms over the issue and are drowning in rhetoric.

While both stories have to do with religious sensitivities about mixing genders, that’s where the similarity ends. Should the Swiss students have been forced to violate their religious sensibilities by shaking hands? No. But in the case of the swimming pool, no one is forcing anyone to do anything.

If the pool was being used in a school setting, and boys and girls were required to swim together, that would be another matter. But in a public facility, maintained for public use, the reasonable accommodation for someone who isn’t being forced to swim there is for them to seek out a private pool.

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