AMSTERDAM (JTA) — The debate about wearing a kippah in Western Europe returned only a decade or so ago, but it has nonetheless come to follow a rigid pattern even in that short period of time.
The cycle – there have been dozens of such cases — begins with an anti-Semitic assault. It prompts a Jewish community official to warn congregants not to wear the Jewish skullcap in a certain area or at certain periods to avoid inviting further violent attacks.
This triggers a wave of indignation that often exceeds the reaction to the original assault.
International Jewish groups hold up the warning as a sign of how bad Western Europe’s anti-Semitism problem has become. Some of these groups criticize only the relevant authorities. Others also blast the local Jewish official who advised others not to wear the kippah, saying he or she should support a higher community profile, not a lower one. Finally, some local Jews downplay the official’s concerns and the media move on – until the next incident.
That’s exactly how things are playing out this week in Germany, when a non-Jewish man wearing a yarmulke was assaulted on April 17 by an attacker shouting “Jew!” in Arabic. The victim was an Israeli Arab who said he donned the kippah to test whether it had actually become dangerous to wear a yarmulke in Germany.
In response, Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, publicly advised Jews to avoid wearing kippahs in urban settings. (At a rally Wednesday night in Berlin, Schuster emphasized that his statement was that individuals should not go out alone with a kippah. He said he felt misunderstood and wanted to clarify.)
In response, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, and a Brussels-based Jewish organization called on German Jews to continue to wear kippahs and, in Lau’s words, “be proud of their Jewishness.”
Meanwhile, non-Jews in Germany organized a solidarity protest in which marchers wore kippahs – a gesture that has taken place in Sweden, Denmark, France and Poland in recent years.
In 2016, a community leader in France, Tzvi Amar, provoked a similar debate when he warned Marseille Jews to avoid wearing kippahs.
And in 2014, a Danish Jewish school in Copenhagen urged its students to come to school wearing baseball caps over their yarmulkes.
But to countless Jews across Western Europe, these debates featuring high-profile figures, politicians and Jewish community leaders have little bearing on their own personal choice. Not waiting for anyone’s invitation, hundreds of thousands of them have been hiding their kippahs and other Jewish symbols for years now in Paris, Marseille, Brussels, London, Amsterdam and many other European cities with a large population of Muslim immigrants.
At least a quarter of Europe’s Jews had resolved not to wear their kippahs or any other Jewish symbol publicly before any of the debates even took place, according to a 2013 survey in nine countries. In that European Union poll of 5,100 Jews — the most comprehensive study of its kind — 49 percent of 800 Swedish respondents said they refrained from wearing clothing that identified them as Jewish. In Belgium, whose capital city is the seat of the European Union, the figure was 36 percent.
In France, 40 percent of the approximately 1,200 Jews polled said they avoided wearing such items in public.
“It’s a matter of preserving one’s sanctity of life – an elevated value in Judaism,” said Prosper Abenaim, the only rabbi living in Paris’ poor and heavily Muslim neighborhood of La Courneuve.
On Shabbat, Abenaim wears a hat over his kippah as he takes the miles-long walk from his home in the affluent 17th district to La Couneuve’s dwindling synagogue. He advises his congregants to do the same – and immigrate to Israel, he said.
Jews like Abenaim are not being paranoid. The Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union in its 2017 overview of anti-Semitism said that “Jewish people wearing visible symbols of their religion are the most likely to be targeted by anti-Semitic incidents.”
In France, most anti-Semitic violence is perpetrated by Muslims, according to the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. That category of crime, as well as hate speech, rose sharply in the early 2000s in France and other Western European countries during the wave of terrorist attacks in Israel known as the second intifada and Israel’s actions to stop it. In those years, the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported to authorities soared from a few dozen a year to hundreds, never returning to pre-2000 levels.
Heavily Muslim areas like La Courneuve are considered especially risky, although Jews living in richer areas with fewer Muslims also refrain from wearing kippahs and other Jewish symbols in public.
Philippe Karsenty, a local politician and pro-Israel activist from the upscale Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a few years ago warned a younger relative not to wear a Star of David pendant. Karsenty remembers telling him: “Nothing good will come to anyone from you wearing it.”
In France today, a Jewish symbol is likely to “escalate a parking dispute to a stabbing,” Karsenty said.
Perhaps ironically, anger and opposition to Muslim extremism in Europe is creating additional problems for Jews who wear kippahs.
Several European countries have banned the wearing of face-covering veils, a Muslim custom. While these recent bans in Belgium, France and the Netherlands clearly target Muslims, they are nonetheless creating an atmosphere that is more restrictive of wearing all and any religious symbols, including the kippah.
In the Netherlands, an employee of the Anne Frank House last year waited for six months in vain for his bosses to decide on whether he could wear a kippah to work. He declined their suggestion that he come to the office wearing a hat and ultimately decided to wear a kippah without permission, forcing them to hammer out a policy on the matter. They finally permitted him to wear the kippah.
The leader of France’s far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, has been candid about her plan to ban the wearing of the kippah in public — not because she opposes it, she has said. Rather, she said in an interview last year, French Jews should “sacrifice” the freedom to wear a kippah in public in favor of the fight against radical Islam.
But Le Pen also cited the fear of many French Jews in downplaying the significance of the sacrifice she was asking.
“Honestly, the dangerous situation in which Jews in France live is such that those who walk with a kippah are in any case a minority because they are afraid,” Le Pen said.