German Official’s Statement on Wearing Yarmulkes In Public Raises Debate

NEW YORK -
The German newspaper Der Bild printed a yarmulke on its front page Monday and urged readers to cut it out of the paper and don it to show solidarity with the country’s Jewish community.

A statement by a German government official questioning the safety of wearing a yarmulke in certain areas of his country stirred up a flurry of reactions, with local Jewish groups largely commending its honesty, and questioning criticism from the Israeli government.

Felix Klein, whose comments have become the focus of debate on the matter, was appointed in 2018 to serve as the federal government’s commissioner for Jewish affairs and anti-Semitism.

“I cannot recommend to Jews that they wear the kippah at all times everywhere in Germany,” he told an interviewer earlier this week. He added that his view on the matter had “changed over time due to negative changes in the country” and said that, as a result, it behooves government to train police, judges, teachers and other public officials to respond properly to rising anti-Semitism.

Whether or not it is safe to wear a yarmulke in Germany has become an increasingly sensitive issue. Last year, after a man wearing one was assaulted by a Syrian asylum-seeker in Berlin, massive marches were held to show solidarity, led mostly by non-Jewish German politicians and public figures sporting yarmulkes.

In light of the delicate nature of the subject, Rabbi Joshua Spinner, the Berlin-based executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, commended Dr. Klein’s words.

“This is an honest and accurate description of the situation,” he told Hamodia. “There are places where one cannot go safely in public with a yarmulke, and for a high-ranking German official to admit that, and then in the same breath call for concrete action, is brave.”

Similar sentiments were also expressed by the official head of Germany’s main body of Jewish communities, Dr. Josef Schuster. Dr. Schuster added that he had pointed out the same danger two years ago. He welcomed efforts to draw “more attention [to the matter] at the highest political level.”

Yet, Dr. Klein’s warning and call for action were not celebrated by all. A widely covered statement from Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, was highly critical.

“The statement of the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner that it would be preferable for Jews not wear a kippah in Germany out of fear for their safety shocked me deeply,” he said in a statement, adding that “we will never submit, will never lower our gaze and will never react to anti-Semitism with defeatism — and expect and demand our allies act in the same way.”

In this Wednesday, April 25, 2018, file photo, people wear yarmulkes, as they attend a demonstration against an anti-Semitic attack in Berlin. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Some voices from opposition political parties within Germany also took exception to Dr. Klein’s words.

Dr. Klein himself responded to criticism, saying that it had been his intention to provoke debate on the safety of Germany’s Jews, adding that, “Of course I believe that there must not be no-go areas anywhere in Germany for Jews or members of other minorities.”

Rabbi Spinner discounted statements from German opposition figures as political angling, but said that negative reactions from President Rivlin and some other Jewish leaders from outside of Germany were ill-advised.

“[Dr. Klein] is the most honest guy in this conversation, and people who can’t read German are misrepresenting his words and making this into an outrage about Germany,” he said. “Dr. Klein admitted an unfortunate reality and openly said that he wanted to stimulate discussion and action on the topic, which is constructive, unlike these statements.”

Others were sharply critical of Klein’s comment. Michel Friedman, a former deputy leader of Germany’s main Jewish group, said it was an admission of failure and that “the state must ensure that Jews can show themselves everywhere without fear.”

Bavaria’s state interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, said that wearing a kippah is part of religious freedom. “Everyone can and should wear his skullcap wherever and whenever he wants,” he said.

For decades, amid a culture of post-Holocaust sensitivity, Germany’s relatively small Jewish community faced very few expressions of open anti-Semitism. In recent years, a large influx of immigrants from Muslim nations, coupled with rising ultra-nationalist trends, has changed this. These combined phenomena have led to a significant increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and vandalism, as well as some violent assaults.

German government statistics released earlier in May showed that the number of anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner incidents rose last year, despite an overall drop in politically motivated crimes. According to several reports, an additional complication in combatting these trends is a tendency by German law enforcement and government agencies to classify nearly all anti-Semitic incidents as stemming from the “far right,” thereby often mis-classifying acts committed by Muslims.

The change comes among a general rise in street crime in several areas of Germany, which many ascribe partially to challenges in absorbing the large influx of Syrian and other migrants who flocked to Germany, fleeing war in their region.

In response to Dr. Klein’s comments, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that it is the government’s responsibility “to ensure that anybody can move around securely with a skullcap in any place of our country.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Germany’s Jewish population has seen significant growth. Rabbi Spinner leads a network under the auspices of the Lauder foundation that now boasts a shul, community center, day school and kollel.

He said that while some anti-Semitic incidents have occurred over the past two years, authorities had for the most part dealt with them appropriately, and that the shift has not affected the lives of his community members in Berlin. Rabbi Spinner added that Dr. Klein’s words were indeed factual regarding some areas of the country where the situation has deteriorated.

“We live in a very tolerant and cosmopolitan part of the city, so these issues are not ones a kippah-wearer in our area of Berlin would perceive,” he said. “Still, it’s important that attention be drawn to this issue in an open way, and for all those people who don’t wear kippahs, whether in Germany or abroad, to stop debating symbolism, and to listen to the voices of those who do.”

See related editorial in Prime Magazine.