The Levy sisters and their father, Laurent Levy. Even though he
is an atheist, he cannot help but admire their choice. (Le Parisien)
By Daniel Ben Simon
Two sisters became captivated by Islam, and their French liberal,
`Jewish-by-chance' father has found himself having to face up to
their religiosity and subsequent expulsion from school. The incident
has provoked both private and national ferment.
Laurent Levy, a sworn liberal and a total atheist, noticed dramatic
changes in his two daughters, but he did not attribute much importance
to them. One day, about two years ago, the two girls stopped eating
pork. "No problem," he said. A while later, they informed him that
they intended to fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. Levy
thought it the most natural thing in the world that his daughters
were adopting .
When Levy's daughters - Lila, 19, and Alma, 16 - told him that they
were going to fast
for the entire month of Ramadan, he did not stand in their way.
"It is their right," he said.
A while later the sisters informed him of their intention to pray
five times a day, as commanded by the Koran. There is no reason
why they shouldn't do this, thought the father. Then they stopped
going to the beach and wearing bathing suits, and even stopped using
the family swimming pool during vacations. At night the two sat
and learned chapters of the Koran by heart. Friends in the neighborhood
and at school were amazed by the change in the two cheerful young
women. Gradually they began to wrap themselves in long clothing,
even in the summer, and covered their legs with thick stockings.
About a year ago the transformation was completed. Lila and Alma
donned scarves and
covered their heads. After a while they also covered their chins
and their foreheads. At
school they stopped talking to boys, whispered only to each other
and distanced themselves from the other students. They did not take
part in physical education classes, as they were required to wear
gym clothes that they felt revealed too much of their bodies.
Quickly the two sisters became a phenomenon. Even in Aubervilliers,
the northern Paris
suburb where they live, eyebrows were raised. In recent years this
suburb has been taken over by Muslim immigrants from North Africa,
and Parisians have moved away. On Fridays, residents started taking
the day off and preferred to spend their time in prayer; many young
people do not go to school. During the month of Ramadan the neighborhood
is silent during the hours of fasting, and wakes up after the evening
meal that breaks the fast.
According to the father, his daughters were captivated by the Muslim
religion and he found himself helpless in the face of their accelerated
Islamization. All his life he had
loathed religious beliefs of any sort and blamed them for ignorance
and various kinds of
distress. He preached secularism and joined the movements of the
extreme left, because he only felt at home there. In the not-too-distant
past, he served as counsel in suits filed
against National Front leader Jean- Marie Le Pen for having described
camps as a "detail" of World War II. He has also represented Islamic
sued actress Brigitte Bardot after she published an anti- Islamic
About a month ago the two sisters were called into the office of
the principal of the Henri
Wallon high school, where they studied. Their external appearance,
they were informed, was causing ferment among the students, and
therefore they must dress like the others; if not, they would be
expelled. The girls refused. The school sent a letter to their parents
and warned of the steps it was about to take. The parents, who are
divorced, defended their daughters, each in his or her own way:
The mother tried to moderate her daughters'
militant stubbornness, the father supported their struggle.
The two sisters were suspended from school until the convening of
a disciplinary committee that was supposed to decide their fate.
The media depicted the affair as a test of the state's secularism,
and the story quickly hit the headlines. The intellectual community
was in an uproar, as were local political institutions; both intellectuals
and politicians openly applied pressure on the school's disciplinary
committee members to reach a decision that reflected their point
The debate did not remain at the theoretical level, but dealt with
the smallest details of
items of dress as they express the state's secularism, compared
to clothing that threatens its status. Before the girls were suspended
from school, they were asked to remove their head coverings because
of their religious significance. The school authorities relied on
a law that was passed in 1905 concerning the separation of church
and state, and argued that the head coverings violated the spirit
of the law.
During the discussion of the suspension, one of the sisters argued
that a Jewish skullcap
covers the head. She was told that partially covering the head does
not constitute a
violation of the separation of church and state. "I'm angry," fumed
Lila after she was
suspended from school. "They told us we have to show the roots of
our hair, the lobes of our ears and our necks. But if we do that
we might as well not wear a headscarf at all - we might as well
carry it in our hands."
Last Friday the disciplinary committee met at the school. Dozens
of journalists crowded into the entrance to the school, and television
cameras broadcast live the arrival of the girls and their father.
The deliberations began at 6 P.M. and went on until after midnight.
The French waited for the committee's ruling as if the future of
the French Republic depended on the decision of a few members of
the school board of an obscure suburb of Paris.
At the end of the discussion, the members of the Levy family left
the hall. The expressions on their faces testified to what had happened
inside. "This was not a pedagogical discussion," one of the teachers
told the journalists. "It was like a court martial." Another teacher,
with a broad smile on his face, related that the correct and inevitable
decision had been taken. "We decided to expel them from the school,"
he said, "because the internal `balance' in France makes it essential
that a head covering not cover the hair, the ears or the base of
the neck. It turns out that Muslim young women do not want to expose
`How low France has sunk'
After midnight, the family got home. Levy was furious; the girls
were still wiping away
"They've thrown them out like dogs," Levy told Haaretz two days
later, "and this shows how low France has sunk." According to him,
he couldn't fall asleep that night, nor could his daughters. They
read verses of the Koran. "I was proud of them," he added. "I educated
my children to be rebellious and I am proud that they have followed
in my footsteps."
Laurent Levy is a strange individual. This week he was surprised
to hear that the
reverberations of his daughters' struggle have reached Israel. "No
wonder," he said. "With a name like mine, in Israel they probably
think that I'm a little crazy."
Levy angrily recalled the deliberations that were held on Friday:
"We entered the hall where a number of representatives of the school's
educational council were sitting. I had been summoned with my two
daughters, but I was not allowed to bring witnesses. They also refused
to allow my partner to enter the hall."
With almost religious fervor, Levy defended his daughters' right
to lead a strictly religious
Muslim lifestyle. He rejoiced that they had chosen a way of life
that affords them happiness and argued that even though he is an
atheist, he cannot help but admire their
The panel listened and appeared not to be impressed by his fervor.
At the end of the
deliberations they authorized the expulsion of the two girls from
the school on the grounds that their exceptional appearance violated
the secular standing of France and the values of the Republic.
Not for a moment did he feel that his Judaism was threatened, nor
did he act as a Jew. "I'm a nonreligious person," Levy admitted.
"I grew up without a religion and there was not a trace of Judaism
in the education I received. My children ate pork like any other
French person. There was no religious influence on my children apart
from the fact that my
wife's parents told them about Islam."
Levy, 47, was born to a Jewish family in Tunis and immigrated to
France when he was young. According to him, he is a Sephardi Jew
with roots in Amsterdam and Leghorn. His father was active in the
Jewish community in Tunis and even wrote a book about the community.
"As far as my daughters are concerned, they have never hidden their
Jewishness and were even proud of their Jewish heritage."
Levy has four children: Lila and Alma, Sami, 20, and Noura, 16.
"They're good kids," he said humorously, "because I educated them,
too, not to accept reality the way it is and to be rebellious. I
am proud that I have been successful in my education. Lila and Alma
have also rebelled in their own way."
The Fifth Republic has taken a stance against their rebellion with
an almost Napoleonic
brutality and has given them a tough choice: either school or the
"Let there be no doubt," added Levy, "I know that the disciplinary
committee's decision was taken at the highest levels of the country's
government. Only someone who isn't French is unable to understand
this country's insanity when it comes to the veil. Say `head covering'
to a French person and they're ready to embark on a civil war. I'm
a leftist and definitely a secular person, but as I see it, secularism
is the freedom to act on your religious beliefs without the government
"My daughters are not militants and they didn't try to convert other
girls in the school. None of the members of the disciplinary committee
claimed this, but they all demanded that the girls expose parts
of their bodies. These people have really become ayatollahs of
secularism. Since when, I asked them, can people be forced to expose
their bodies? To my regret, this was an embarrassing spectacle.
None of them listened to me because the outcome was predetermined."
In the coming days he intends to find another educational setting
for his daughters, so that they will be able to take their baccalaureate
exams and so that Alma will be able to complete 11th grade. "At
least at university, no one will stop them from covering their heads,"
he added. "There they will be able to feel like Muslims without
anyone hassling them."
Scarf or veil?
It would appear that the Muslim religion in France boils down to
the matter of head
covering alone, as if all the ordinances of the Koran have drained
into that piece of cloth
called a head covering by some, and a veil by others. The French
call it a "scarf" so as to
make it less symbolic.
The political establishments breathed a sigh of relief. Left and
right went out of their way to praise the school's decision to expel
the two sisters. For several years now the right has been conducting
a relentless fight against Muslim immigrants whose ritual observances
are depicted as undermining the symbols of the Republic. Prime Minister
Jean-Pierre Raffarin has recently ordered the preparation of legislation
that would prohibit the wearing of head coverings on school premises.
The left, which has adopted secularism as its main religion, has
fought hand in hand with the right in the war against Muslim ostentation.
Socialist Party leader Francois Holland was enthusiastic about the
decision: "We are living
in a secular country and the veil is not permitted on school premises."
The Republican Raffarin also expressed satisfaction with the decision
and his popular Interior Minister
Nicola Sarkozy supported it with all his heart.
In light of the increasing anxiety about Islam in France, the affair
of the Levy sisters has
demonstrated the extent to which Islam has grown more influential
in their country. It is
not only Islam that scares the French, but also any religion that
lifts its head and threatens to blur the secular outlines of the
Republic. Studies show that only one out of 20 French citizens sees
himself as connected to religion, the lowest proportion in all of
The question that is being asked today is how to stop the spread
of Islam. About two months ago, worrying details surfaced from a
secret report written by the French internal intelligence service
about French people who have converted to Islam. The information
was leaked to the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro and sparked anger
mixed with fear throughout the country. According to the secret
report, about 50,000 French people have converted to Islam. The
intelligence services described this process as "a disturbing phenomenon
that is at the height of flourishing."
Many of the new converts were considered to have been affiliated
to no religion before they adopted Islam. From extreme secularists
they have become religious extremists. It turns out that they also
stand out in comparison to their Muslim colleagues. While the ordinary
Muslims follow a moderate way of life, the new Muslims have shut
themselves into mosques and have learned the entire Koran by heart.
They have forced a similar lifestyle on their wives and have cut
off ties with their families.
Part of this group consists of women who have converted to Islam
because of marriage or
social pressure. Men have converted for ideological reasons, because
they came to the
conclusion that there is no religion more sublime and more purifying
concerning the soul
than Islam. In the report, the intelligence services expressed "great
concern," as they put
it, about the exploitation of the new converts by terror elements
to advance their aims: It is easy to make the converts operatives
as they have European passports and the ability to move among countries
without restriction, without arousing suspicion. They look Western
and it is easy for them to evade the suspicious looks of border
police. This was the case with Pierre Robert, a French citizen who
converted years ago and joined a terror organization in Morocco
that was responsible for a series of terror attacks in that country
last May. He has recently been given a life sentence for his part
in the affair.
Not all Muslims are on the same side. More and more Muslim immigrants
are speaking up against the exploitation of religion by extremists.
"The whole story about the head covering is a matter that is connected
to the sexual problem of Muslim men," says Prof. Leila Babes, a
sociologist of religion at Lille University, who is herself a Muslim.
"The scarf drives Muslims crazy, because they see a woman's body
as an instrument for sexual lust only and therefore they force her
to cover herself from head to toe to calm their sexual desires.
If she is covered, she is a `good Muslim woman' and if not, then
she is licentious."
This is why Babes and many other Muslim academics have taken a stance
on the side of
the government and have demanded the prohibition of Muslim head
coverings on school
Levy, however, supported the wearing of the head coverings on school
premises even before his daughters became devout Muslims. According
to him, over time he learned to appreciate the path they followed
until they adopted Islam, and the strength they needed to carry
"A few days ago my daughter told me that she and her sister met
a pious Muslim in the street who wanted to enlist his mosque in
their struggle," he related. "They told him that it was none of
his business. Had I thought that they had fallen into the clutches
of Muslim proselytizers, I would have acted differently. But their
mother and I know that they came to this of their own accord. However,
I'm not with them all day long and I can't swear that something
else hasn't happened."
On one of the shelves at his law office Levy keeps a picture of
his daughters, with their
heads uncovered and shoulder-length hair. Despite the fierce struggle
he is conducting,
he does not conceal some degree of personal distress. Recently he
spoke with his daughters in order to test the limits of their flexibility
and willingness to compromise. As a
romantic at heart, he feels that they have been swept up as if they
had fallen in love. This is why he does not reject an imposed compromise
to end the affair. Meanwhile, he has been careful about not hurting
them after the state has already done so.
"I am afraid they will leave everything," Levy admits. "Both school
and the family