An embarrassing incident happened at Yad Vashem last week during a visit by the Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras. Like every state leader who visits Israel for the first time, Samaras took a tour there — and surprised his hosts by refusing to cover his head with a skullcap.
His hosts chose to let it go, but their reservations and humiliation at the act were evident. The Greek prime minister’s refusal to wear a skullcap at Yad Vashem was seen as a show of contempt for the honor, or the sanctity, of the place and for the Holocaust in general. Israeli officials responded the same way in 2005 to the absolute refusal of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Only the significance of the relations between Israel and Turkey prevented a scandal then, as well.
It is hard to assume that Samaras, who arrived here several days after outlawing the Greek neo-Nazi movement Golden Dawn, and who is interested in stronger relations with Israel, intended any insult. Actually, it is not clear what was unreasonable about his behavior. With all due respect to the countless number of world leaders who were photographed wearing the black skullcaps of yeshiva students from Brooklyn, or the white skullcaps of bar mitzvah boys in Kfar Sava, the ceremony of having guests put on a skullcap at Yad Vashem is odd, and mainly uncultured.
What sort of skullcap are they thinking of? Jewish law does not explicitly require men to wear a skullcap, which is a fairly new custom. The custom of covering the head in public goes back to Rabbi Joseph Caro’s ruling in his work, the Shulhan Arukh, that “a man should not walk four cubits bareheaded,” but aside from covering one’s head in the synagogue or during prayer there is no ruling on the matter. Any rabbi who is asked about it over the past few years answered that it is an “attribute of piety” — in other words, it is a personal choice motivated by one’s own conscience. In addition, it is a symbolic act that expresses identification with the religious way of life.
More than anything else, the skullcap — whether black or crocheted in all sorts of colors and sizes — is the identifying mark of a particular religious community, just as the streimel, or fur hat, is the identifying mark of another Jewish community. Why, then, should Antonis Samaras, the head of a country for whom the Greek Orthodox Church is one of its main national and cultural symbols, have to dress up as a group leader of the Bnei Akiva youth movement?
The justifications offered for why the guests must wear skullcaps are just as bizarre. According to Yad Vashem officials, since the ashes of Jews who perished in the Holocaust are buried there, Yad Vashem has the status of a cemetery, and the army rabbinate even sanctified the place. It’s true that in the past few decades everything sounds logical, but what on earth does the military rabbinate have to do with the victims’ ashes, and what authority does it have to “sanctify” the museum commemorating the Holocaust? Even if we say that Yad Vashem has the status of a cemetery, what obligates anyone to wear a skullcap there except during prayer services (an act that obligates only observant Jews, while others are invited to wear it out of respect for the service, not out of respect for the place)?
That being the case, the story of the skullcap reflects the moral mishmash concocted by Israeli culture, in which the memory of the Holocaust mixes with national feeling and the army, and the only thing gluing them together is a hollow, ignorant, ceremonial religiosity. It seems that Israel has completely lost confidence in the story of its life and existence. If that were not true, it would not engage in a schmaltzy, Hollywood-style mourner’s prayer, and force its guests to play a role in it that detracts from their honor. It certainly would not do this at Yad Vashem, that absolutely unsanctified but impressive place, whose importance is second to none.