A sad but understandable debate among French Jews — whether or not those who usually wear kippot should continue doing so in the face of a rash of anti-Semitic attacks — has, not surprisingly, been adopted by social media as a campaign calling on all French people to wear a kippa in solidarity on Friday. The dilemma faced by communal leaders is unenviable. After a series of anti-Semitic incidents, including the machete attack this week on a Jewish teacher in the city, Zvi Ammar, the head of the Israelite Consistory of Marseille, issued a controversial call urging his fellow Jews not to wear the traditional skullcap outdoors. Most other Jewish leaders in France, including the umbrella organization CRIF and Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia disagreed, saying that not wearing a kippa in public would be signaling defeat. The answer to the dilemma is better policing and a serious campaign against racism and hostility in French society, not the hashtag #TousAvecUneKippa (everyone with a kippa) and the frivolous tweeting of Michael Jackson wearing one.
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Most French Jews don’t wear a kippa on a daily basis (the men that is, French Jewish women don’t wear it at all), and while it should be the right of every Jew who chooses to do so to wear one in complete safety, let’s not forget that there were periods in European (and Muslim) history when Jews were forced to wear distinctive clothing that set them apart. Jews fought for the day they would be allowed to wear exactly the same clothes and hats as everyone else, or go around bareheaded. We should treasure being allowed to do so today. Wearing a kippa outside of a religious context is an expression of faith, favored by a minority of Orthodox Jews. It should be a sacred right, not the subject of a frivolous, one-day Twitter trend.
The question of whether or not to wear a kippa is a thorny one, but it is only a symptom. It is part of the wider security concerns of Jews who know that they are potential targets when they attend synagogue, shop for kosher food in groceries like the Hyper Cacher in Paris, where four Jews were murdered a year ago this week, or send their children to Jewish schools like Otzar Hatorah in Toulouse, where four were murdered in 2012. The security concerns are being addressed by French authorities, soldiers and police were deployed last year around Jewish buildings and President Francois Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and all other senior French politicians made it clear that securing the Jewish community is at the top of their priorities, and their actions fit the words.
It’s impossible to gauge just how bad anti-Semitism in France has become: Statistics have only been collected for a number of years, and openly wearing a kippa in the street, as opposed to removing it before going out or covering one’s head with a nondescript hat has only become widespread among Orthodox Jews in the last couple of generations. Until 40 or 50 years ago, very few Jews went around the streets of Europe, outside predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, openly identifying as Jews. The memories of a much more prevalent and murderous hatred of Jews was simply much too fresh in their memories.
Things have improved greatly since then, and European Jews now expect to be allowed to show their identity anywhere, if they choose. But they were always bigoted racists who hated the sight of proud Jews. Has the number of anti-Semitic slurs and attacks on the streets of Paris and Marseilles increased over the last 20 years? The data to answer the question do not exist, especially when we consider that during this time French Jewry has become more religiously observant and there are more kippa wearers out on the streets. What has changed is the typical profile of the perpetrator. Once upon a time the typical French anti-Semitic abuser was a fascistic Catholic, today it’s a radicalized Muslim.
Next week marks 10 years since the abduction, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old French Jew who was kidnapped by a group of Muslims around his age who demanded a ransom from his family before killing him. He didn’t die because he wore a kippa. He wasn’t religious enough to wear one regularly. He died because a toxic blend of old-school, European anti-Semitism, contemporary conspiracy-theory Muslim websites and a blurring of the lines between hypercritical media coverage of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and perceptions of Diaspora Jews led disaffected youths in neglected suburbs to identify their Jewish neighbors as a source of their difficulties in integrating into French society.
Everyone in his neighborhood knew that Halimi was Jewish. He wasn’t killed on account of a kippa, nor were those who were murdered outside the Toulouse school or in the Hyper Cacher. In 2015, many more non-Jews were killed by those youths who failed to integrate and who rallied to the flags of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Jews are convenient targets, as the Charlie Hebdo satirists and the bohemian bourgeoisie sitting in the bars and restaurants and the Bataclan Theater in Paris’ 11th Arrondissement.
France, which for centuries has prided itself as having built a republic that transcends communities and individual identities, is belatedly waking up to the challenge of fighting jihadism from without and alienation from within. It still has a long way to go, but everyone wearing a kippa on Friday has nothing to do with it. It won’t protect Jews or any other potential targets, and is just a diversion from the hard work ahead.