What the Kippa Controversy Says About Europe and Its Jewish Population
by Manfred Gerstenfeld
Yet another public taboo about antisemitism in Germany has been broken. The country’s antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, recently said: “I cannot advise Jews to wear kippot everywhere all the time in Germany.”
Klein’s statement was most unwelcome. As a German official, he indirectly confirmed that the German legal system and police cannot guarantee that Jews can freely express their identity in public. In fact, Klein confirmed that in 2019 the Jew is still an outsider in German society.
There was much opposition to Klein’s words. The Bavarian Minister of the Interior, Joachim Herrmann, a Christian Socialist, said: “Everybody should wear his kippa wherever he wants.” These words, however, will provide no protection when a Jew is attacked.
The German Federal Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, also a Christian Socialist, said: “The state must guarantee the exercise of religion everywhere.” He did not add a more truthful statement: But the German state of which I am a minister is unfortunately not able to do so.
In a nice gesture, Germany’s biggest daily, Bild, printed a cut-out kippa on its front page to encourage people to show solidarity and wear kippot in public.
The Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland — the umbrella organization of German Jews — welcomed Klein’s words. Its chairman, Josef Schuster, said that for many years, Jews who were recognizable as such were in danger in several major German towns. He added that it was therefore justified that this issue received attention at the highest political levels.
Klein’s recommendation could also have been made by an honest French, Belgian, or Dutch official. The reality in each of these countries makes it risky to wear a kippa in certain public places.
In 2001, the Chief Rabbi of Brussels, Albert Guigui, was attacked in his hometown. Since then, he wears a cap in public. In 2018, the French speaking Belgian television station RTBF wanted to produce a program of reactions to a Jew walking in the streets of Brussels with a kippa. They tried in vain for weeks to find a volunteer.
In a radio interview in 2003, then French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk told French Jews to wear a cap rather than a kippa in order to avoid being attacked in the streets. Years ago, Henri Markens, then Director-General of the Organization for Jewish Education (JBO) in Amsterdam, said about pupils of a Jewish high school: “For a number of years already, we have been telling our students to put a cap over their kippa. In principle, one shouldn’t have to do this, but the circumstances in Amsterdam leave you no choice.”
In some places, the situation is even worse. A Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) study undertaken in 2013 in a number of European countries found that, on average, 20 percent of Jews said they always avoided wearing, carrying, or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public.
About 10 years ago, during my time at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, we had a Spanish intern who studied at the main university in Madrid. He said that, due to his fear of persecution, even his closest friends there did not know he was Jewish.
Klein has pulled the lid off a European cesspool. It is one thing if Jewish officials recommend that Jews should hide their identity. But once a government official says so, it exposes and confirms a huge democratic deficit in various European countries.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank.