At the checkout, it's simple to strike a balance: we can do it

By Nathan Jeffay, January 17, 2014
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Judging by the angry reaction, it would be easy to presume that Muslims have shut down all of Britain's pubs and breweries, and turned the best Scottish distilleries in to mosques. Not that a shopper was delayed when buying some champagne.

The row over alcohol sales seems funny observed from Israel. Here, I have watched Jewish shoppers pass their beer and wine by the barcode scanner themselves so that Muslim clerks don't need to touch it. Jewish households will routinely move alcohol products out of their kitchens if they have a Muslim cleaner so they do not need to handle them.

This begs the question why, if people living in one of the world's conflict regions, who are meant to be adversaries, can find ways around this religious issue, it has caused such friction in the enlightened, multi-cultural UK.

Boiled down to its most basic, the issue at the checkouts is a mechanical one. How are wines and other items that Muslims can't consume going to get from the conveyer belt to the barcode scanner and in to the bagging area? And there are two very simple solutions.

This is not a threat to the British way of life

One is that the stock in question is entered in to the store computers so that it can be billed without the clerk actually needing to handle and scan it - just as staff currently do with some fresh produce and bakery items - and be moved by customers straight to the bagging area.

The other is that checkouts have a second barcode scanner, which faces the customer. In instances where a Muslim clerk does not want to handle items, they ask the customer simply to do the scanning themselves. It would just be a matter of importing the already-successful self-checkout experience, for a very few items in a very few cases.

But sadly the checkout controversy is not perceived as the practical issue that it is, and has instead become seen as a manifestation of some kind of threat to the British way of life.

Truth be told, this does not stem from an easy-to-express fear that an alcohol-free checkout will extend the average shopping trip by several seconds, but rather from a discomfort that exists on a psychological level. Deep down, the main objection is that some Muslim staff are showing disapproval of wine and implying that it is an unclean substance. It's an insulting message to receive in the very place where one is paying good money for wine. And it feels like the parading of non-British values in a public setting.

Yet this is the wrong conclusion to draw. A strictly Muslim checkout clerk has adopted a code of behaviour that precludes them from handling alcohol, not laid down a universal moral code. They have not started blocking alcohol sales or abusing their job to talk people out of drinking. They have just resolved not to handle alcohol in the same way that a religious Jew may have decided not to work on Shabbat and a Christian may have given up chocolate for Lent. There is no disapproval implied towards the customer's shopping basket - and no grand plan to change Britain from the checkouts up.

An observant Muslim clerk is just attempting to balance their integration with secular British society, and what they see as the demands of their religious identity. Yes, to working in a store of food and drink that is alien to their culture and prohibited to them; but no, to violating what they see as the law by touching or handling the items.

I marked out a similar boundary as a teenager, when I worked in a non-kosher sandwich shop in Manchester - the only person ever to work there and take their own sandwiches for lunch. Most of my work was preparing cold sandwiches - but I avoided preparing any hot sandwiches containing meat and milk, as the cooking of meat and milk is strictly prohibited by halachah.

The Muslim checkout clerks at the centre of the controversy are striking a balance that we Jews should admire - after all, so many of us talk of how we wish strictly Orthodox Jews would adopt such an attitude instead of withdrawing from professional or educational scenarios that could raise difficult questions. It is a search for balance that must be admired by any Brit, who understands that integration does not mean abandoning one's way of life.

If national insecurities are taken out of the picture, the checkout issue can be related to for what it is - a challenge of multiculturalism that is practical in nature with easy practical solutions.

    Last updated: 6:28pm, January 17 2014