2018-05-09 / Home

Will Europe’s Jews stop wearing kippahs? Most already have.


In a show of solidarity with the Jewish community, a non- Jewish volunteer hands out kippahs to visitors at the Mauerpark in Berlin, Apr. 29. JTA photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images. In a show of solidarity with the Jewish community, a non- Jewish volunteer hands out kippahs to visitors at the Mauerpark in Berlin, Apr. 29. JTA photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images. AMSTERDAM—

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 played out 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 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.

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. 

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