Europe’s undercover yarmulke journalists

A man wears a kippah as he takes part in a silent march to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogroms, Nov. 9, 2013 in Berlin. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

A man wears a kippah as he takes part in a silent march to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogroms, Nov. 9, 2013 in Berlin. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Sending a yarmulke-wearing man out with a hidden video camera to document anti-Semitism on the streets of Europe, particularly in Muslim neighborhoods, is quickly becoming a journalistic trope.

First, in January, a reporter wearing a kippah walked around the heavily Muslim neighborhood of Malmo, Sweden, where he was assaulted and cursed at. Next, in February, an Orthodox Jewish journalist walked through the streets of Paris, where he was taunted and intimidated, as shown in a video recording. (A Muslim man’s similar experiment in Milan in February, in which he wore a “traditional Muslim outfit” and carried a Koran, also garnered discriminatory comments from passersby.)

Either to respond to or trump these examples, British tabloid the Daily Mail deployed an entire team of kippah-wearing reporters to multiple European countries. The results were mixed.

The worst report of anti-Semitism reported by a kippah-wearer in the Daily Mail occurred in England. Jonathan Kalmus, who has written for England’s Jewish Chronicle magazine, was spit on and yelled at on the streets of Manchester and Bradford, two midsize cities with sizable Muslim populations. British Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour party leader Ed Miliband, a spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Labour parliament representative for Manchester central all responded in the Daily Mail to Kalmus’ account. Cameron said “There are no excuses for the shocking anti-Semitism revealed in this report” and Miliband said “We need to renew our vigilance and ensure every family of every faith can be secure in our country.”

The other Daily Mail reporters experienced less or no anti-Semitism in other cities like Berlin, Rome and Stockholm. However, the most interesting encounter occurred in Copenhagen, the latest European city to be rocked by a Muslim terrorist attack. Award-winning Palestinian-Danish filmmaker Omar Shargawi donned a yarmulke while walking through parts of the city, including Mjølnerparken, a rough neighborhood where the recent Copenhagen shooter grew up. He garnered several positive comments, but also heard some nasty anti-Semitic ones.

All of this begs the question: Is anti-Semitism really so bad in Europe that Jews are truly uncomfortable wearing a yarmulke in public in some areas? Has this only been the case since last summer’s war in Gaza, which ignited a wave of anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism around the world? Or are these reporters deliberately going into heavily Muslim and immigrant neighborhoods to bait a reaction that also may have happened 10 years ago?

Over at the Forward, Anne Cohen was not impressed with the earlier video of the Orthodox reporter in Paris:

[T]his video is a shock and awe experiment. It doesn’t teach us anything.

Jews have a long and fraught history with the French state that is more complex than can be explained in this blog post. But I think it’s worth pointing out that one journalist walking around a heavily Muslim neighborhood with a kippah isn’t necessarily representative of the average French person’s reaction towards Jews.

Don’t get me wrong. Jews, like anyone, should be able to walk anywhere they want without getting slurs hurled at them. Is it wrong? Yes. Is it upsetting? Very. Is it surprising? Not really.

The video itself makes no distinction between neighborhoods, which is somewhat problematic in a video headlined “10 Hours of Walking in Paris as a Jew.” Paris is a big place, with many internal tensions. Dropping one kippah-clad reporter into that mix does not an instructive video make.

The Daily Mail’s English correspondent tried to respond directly to this kind of critique:

No one could accuse me of targeting Muslim neighbourhoods to provoke a reaction. This was the centre of an ordinary English city, and I was minding my own business.

No one could accuse me of wearing something provocative or political. A Jewish person or any peaceful person walking in a British street anywhere, let alone a city centre, should be welcome …. It is completely understandable that anyone who does not feel the threat would not realise the extent of anti-Semitism, how common it is and how it effects Jews in our country every day.

Kalmus then explains that England had 37 percent more anti-Semitic attacks (1,168 total) than France in 2014, according to the Jewish Community Security Trust.

Of course, it is hard to evaluate all of this from the far-off metropolis of New York City, a place where Cohen rightly says “even non-Jews are kind of Jewish.”

However, the idea of “no-go zones” for Jews in Europe has recently come under fire. Fox News commentators purported the idea after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, making false claims that “Sharia law,” outside of government control, reigned in these zones. The New York Times highlighted the mistake and Fox News was forced to apologize for its “regrettable errors.” (The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was not impressed with the apology and threatened to sue Fox News.)

Maybe the solution to this entire debate is simply an invisible “magic kipah?”

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