November 16, 2018

Ban the burqini?

A few months ago, I posted a picture on Instagram that I particularly cherish. I was crossing the street toward the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills when I noticed a woman in a white niqab walking toward me. Every part of her head but her two quite pretty eyes was covered. Just before the woman passed me, I looked down and noticed what she was carrying — a copy of that week’s Jewish Journal.

Of course I whipped out my iPhone and took the shot. Women in niqabs, which cover everything but the eyes; hijabs, which cover just the head; and even burqas, which cover everything including the eyes, have become more and more common in Beverly Hills, at the Grove and even in Venice Beach these days. But wearing one of them and carrying the Jewish Journal — not so much.

The moral of that story is you never know what’s under the burqa. A terrorist bent on blowing you up? Or a curious, open-minded soul eager to find out what the Jews are thinking? Or — cue the “Homeland” theme music — both?

Many in the West want to settle the question by banning the burqa and its beach-ready spinoff, the burqini. In 2010, the French Senate banned the burqa, and Belgium and the Netherlands have followed suit. Now municipalities in southern France want to ban the burqini, as well. In an age of suicide terrorists — especially the female suicide terrorist —their fear is understandable. Last week, we saw again the devastation that this new form of terror can wreak when a bomber blew himself up at a wedding in Turkey. Of the 54 people killed, nearly half were children. 

But before we are tempted to go down the road of banning one form of religious garb or the other — a road that would inevitably detour to observant Jews, and nuns, and, of course, the Pope  — we ought to make a stop in Israel.

If you’ve ever been to the beach there, you’ve swum among the burqinis, or, as I call them, SPF 1000. No one freaks out. Though Israel suffers from terrorism far more than most developed nations, there’s never been a serious call to outlaw  Moslem garb in Israel. All of which has to make you wonder: When it comes to banning burqas, what does Israel know that Europe doesn’t? 

“It’s so stupid,” Dr. Anat Berko told me earlier this week, flatly, definitively.

Berko is a member of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. While in Los Angeles for a conference on terrorism, she stopped by the Jewish Journal offices, and, naturally, with the burqini debate raging, the conversation veered toward suicide bombers and how to stop them. 

And when one of the world’s experts on suicide terrorism dismisses banning the burkini as stupid, maybe it’s time to listen.

Berko, who is 56, spent 25 years in the Israel Defense Forces, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. She earned her doctorate in criminology and in 2014 wrote “The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.” Next month, Rowman & Littlefield will release the book in paperback.

Twenty years ago, when suicide bombers first let loose in Israel, Berko predicted Muslim terrorists would start using the technique against other Muslims, and that women and children would become suicide bombers themselves.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “nothing stops with the Jews.”

Berko spent years interviewing suicide bombers who survived or were apprehended in the course of their missions, and the people who dispatched them, including, famously, Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. What she learned informs what she believes is the right strategy for dealing with this kind of terror.

It’s not despair, she said, that motivates the perpetrators. 

“The reward of an afterlife is the most important thing,” she said. “They hate the West, but they want to live in the West once they die — with the women and the alcohol.”

Berko tells the story of a young would-be suicide bomber who survived his blast and woke up instead in an Israeli hospital.  When he opened his eyes, he saw the beautiful Israeli nurses dressed in white. 

“Am I in heaven?” he asked.

“No,” a doctor said.  “Hadassah.”

The ideology is blinding. So a woman suicide bomber will wear a sexy, skimpy dress just to pass undetected — another reason the obsession with burqas makes no sense.   

“Who cares about the burqini?” Berko said. “We are focusing on the real things. They are focusing on peanuts. Israel has what to teach Europe, but Europe isn’t listening.”

Berko reeled off three approaches to countering suicide bombers that have nothing to do with bathing suits. 

First, she said, define the enemy.  Leaders must understand the issue is extremist Islamic ideology.

“You need to say the word ‘Islamic,’ ” she said.

Second, distinguish between terrorists and ordinary people.  Making the lives of non-terrorists harder, punishing populations rather than terrorists, only increases the chances of the next attack.  

Finally, target incitement, whether in the mosques or on the internet.   

There are a of good arguments against a burqini ban, but for people truly concerned about terror, what about this: the people who know best say it doesn't work.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.