A storm hit the Jewish community of France this week after Tzvi Amar, the president of the Marseille office of the Consistoire, the French Jewish community’s umbrella organization for religious services, warned against wearing a kippah (Jewish headcovering) on the streets after a kippa-wearing Jewish teacher was attacked in the city. "Not wearing the kippa can save lives and nothing is more important," Zvi Ammar told a French paper.
- Jewish teacher stabbed by ISIS supporters in Marseille
- Hollande: 'Intolerable' that French Jews hide kippot for fear of attacks
- French Jewish leader urges Marseille Jews not to wear kippot in public
- Twitter campaign calls on all of France to wear kippot
- WATCH: Kippa-wearing Israeli reporter harassed while walking in Paris
His advice triggered a controversy. France’s chief rabbi Haim Korsia tweeted that Jews shouldn’t take them off: “We shouldn’t give in to anything”. Even French President François Hollande said, "It is intolerable that in our country citizens should feel so upset and under assault because of their religious choice that they would conclude that they have to hide."
But the truth is that many French Jews abandoned the kippa years ago. They wear them in synagogues and at home, but not on the streets, where they have traded them in for various hats.
In some of the safer areas, like within Paris, those who are now abandoning their skullcap believe they’re making a temporary, tactical choice, a small sacrifice that will ensure their own safety until the situation calms down. But in several suburbs around Paris, Jews believe that covering their kippa on the street is the only sane choice – and it’s a permanent situation. For some of them, wearing one is not an act of bravery but a provocation. That’s what one Jew in Bobigny, north-east of Paris, told me.
The treasurer of the local community, he lives in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods, called ‘l’Abreuvoir’, where one of the terrorists who attacked Paris in November, Brahim Abdeslam, rented a house.
“Everything is fine here,” Eliyahu Elbaze told me.
“If everything is fine would you go out into the street with a kippa?" I asked the treasurer.
“Come on, be serious. If I got out of my house with a kippa I would be asking for trouble,” he answered.
Wearing a kippa, for those who don’t have bodyguards, can be dangerous depending on the area.
That’s the reality for many Jews. But hearing Tzvi Amar, a community leader, saying that aloud is intolerable for some people. It’s like conceding defeat. Admitting that people are scared and that the French authorities can’t always protect them.
Even the teacher attacked on Monday in Marseille, Benjamin Amsellem, decided to wear a cap after the assault.
“Maybe had he been wearing a cap on Monday, he wouldn’t have been attacked,” said the victim’s wife, Mazal.
Since the Paris attacks, pupils have new orders to follow when they leave their Jewish schools: First they have to take off their kippas before they get out of the compound as well as their school uniform jackets that would identify them as Jewish pupils by the emblem on them. They also have to walk away from the area so they won’t form groups and become targets. Buying a drink in a shop on the same street as their school is out of the question.
But you can’t say that openly. Non-Jews don’t even know these rules exist. These days every Jew has to choose a strategy: wear a kippah, try to be invisible or leave the country.
Hiding the fact that the skullcap is disappearing is part of a new policy or of a renewed policy of secrecy.
Secrecy is a way to keep some illusion of power.
Like when community parents train and learn Krav Maga (an Israeli self-defense technique) so they could someday defend their children. They have no weapons but hope their determination will save them. What other choice do they have?
They share security information and tips among themselves but warn it shouldn’t be leaked to people outside the community.
“We’re not doing anything illegal. We’re just preparing to defend ourselves. But information is power. If we share with others every security measure we take, then we will lose the advantage we have,” a leader of the ‘Protecting Parents’ group told three dozen mothers and fathers at a security meeting in a Jewish school in December. The Protecting Parents program was launched by the community’s security group SPCJ after gunman Mohammed Merah attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and murdered four people.
When a Jew reveals these ‘top secrets’, the fact Jews fear an ever-worsening future, that they’re ready to give up their kippas, others say he’s endangering the community. They believe that by not talking they could stop the process, control the situation around them.
But does saying the truth make that big a difference?
Why hide the fact that Jews can no longer go to public schools in many areas because they’re harassed? Across the country only one third of the Jewish community's children attend state schools, one third go to Catholic schools and the rest to Jewish schools.
“This isn’t new. I sent my children to the neighborhood school but they didn’t hold on even for a month. When we asked the principal what she was doing to stop harassment, she answered: ‘Nothing. You have to send them to another school,'” says Bobigny community leader Simon Berrebi.
A French Jew’s life today is all about choices. The kippa is just one of them. It’s a constant evaluation of values and threats: remaining yourself, retaining your identity, without taking unnecessary risks, trying not to make too many concessions. It goes for everything: Food, work, school and even singing. For many children Hebrew songs are banned in public. If they forget and do sing, then everyone else looks around, bracing for the worst. Often, reducing the risks means making concessions on freedom, dialogue, optimism, faith, values.
Every Jew in France is deciding for himself and herself whether their compromises for security are really worth the cost.
Shirli Sitbon is a journalist who has worked for the French TV station France 24 for the past eight years. She has been a correspondent for Jewish media outlets such as the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and community station Radio J.