At the end of June, the New York City Council passed a nonbinding resolution that is sure to mark the beginning of a long and miserable dispute. The resolution called for the addition of two Muslim religious holidays to the number of days that the city’s schoolchildren already get to take as vacation. To this recognition of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, declared himself opposed. And by the nature of his opposition he, too, ensured that the future of this dispute will be poisonous. He said that school holidays should only be allowed for those religions that can boast “a very large number of kids who practice,” and he added, “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”
Why do I say that it’s obvious that this is a warning of crude times to come? First of all, because of what was said in support of the resolution by Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, who is the head of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. “We really have confidence in the mayor’s intelligence,” said the imam, while warning that failure on Bloomberg’s part to support the resolution could be “catastrophic.” After all, he observed, “It’s an election year.”
If the imam thinks in this Tammany way, it’s because he has been taught to do so by Bloomberg himself. After all, the last time it was an election year in New York, Bloomberg managed to keep quiet about the disgusting scandal of rabbinical genital mutilation, where it was found that several children had been infected—at least one lethally—with genital herpes after a rabbi had insisted on practicing the ancient custom of placing the circumcised penis in his mouth. As this argument goes on, the mayor will find his own arguments being used against him: it will soon enough be proved that the Muslim religion can boast enough “kids who practice.” As for preferring school time to religion time, it won’t be long before it is openly said that in that case, Jewish holidays, or holy days, should not be observed either.
The latter point is one that should have been made by now in any case. I teach part-time at the New School for Social Research in New York, a university that was partly founded on hospitality and refuge for those forcibly exiled from Hitler’s Germany. More than once while trying to schedule a class in the fall term, I have found that the whole school is closed on certain days because of some Mosaic or Abrahamic observance. Nobody has ever been able to explain to me why this should be the case in a secular institution open to students of all faiths and none. So I was pleased to see that one member of the city council—just one!—not only voted against the resolution but also accepted the logical consequence of his vote, which was to consider whether “the existing schedule of religious holidays might have to be reviewed and trimmed.” (This was Councilman Oliver Koppell of the Bronx, in case you live in New York and want to support his reelection.)
We are reasonably lucky in the United States to have very few days wasted on officially sponsored holiday-making and, of those days, to have most of them derived from secular achievements. In spite of Ronald Reagan’s crass attempt to argue that there should not be a special holiday for black Americans, most people think of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a cause for general celebration. The same can be said, with a slight difference of emphasis, for Columbus Day. Thanksgiving has a spiritual undertone but is nonsectarian and devoted mainly to family. President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans’ Day speak for themselves. And we are edging ever nearer to the point when Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa has been sufficiently nationalized to be repackaged as the universal winter-solstice vacation with, as Thomas Jefferson used to say, “the compliments of the season.”
Those who care enough about their own sect to take a day off school or work should be entitled to do so but should not require others, especially those of school age, to skip a day of education. The New York Times account of the debate managed to phrase it like this: “The holy days have long posed a painful choice for Muslim students: Should they go to class in the interests of their grades and attendance record, or cut class to be with their families?”
“Painful” I dare say it may be. But why should this be the taxpayers’ problem? And why should the solution be the forced observance of the holy day by those who don’t believe in its underlying tenets and don’t even know what the day is supposed to signify? The article quoted an eighteen-year-old graduate of Stuyvesant High, Ms. Rebecca Chowdhury, who said that when young she had generally skipped school during the Eid holidays, but “as she grew older and faced more academic demands, she often had to forego the celebrations.” I would say that she made the right choice and that it is the job of our education system to dissolve sectarian boundaries rather than to underline, emphasize, and indeed at least implicitly honor them. The calendar of such events needs to be pruned, not extended.