Yes, I Will Wear a Kippa in Public in Paris

We shouldn’t surrender, but we can’t be naive. Our dreams of a postwar Europe and France without anti-Semitism now seem far away.

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Men wear kippot as they attend a visit of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve at a Synagogue in Marseille, January 14, 2016.
Men wear kippot as they attend a visit of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve at a Synagogue in Marseille, January 14, 2016. Credit: Reuters
David Ettinger.
David Ettinger

Last Monday, a radicalized teenager from an ethnic Kurdish family that came to France from Turkey, assaulted a Jew wearing a kippa [Jewish headcovering] in Marseille. Thankfully, the victim was only slightly injured. Ever since, one question has been in the air. Should a Jew wear a kippa in France? Is this still responsible, is it safe?

The answer given by almost all French Jewish leaders is clear: We won’t remove our kippa. 

As any Jew, I feel obliged to disagree with other Jews - and even more with political leaders. However, for once, I had to agree. To stop wearing a kippa in the street after an act of aggression like this, because of an act of aggression like this, just isn’t an alternative: This Shabbat, I’ll wear my kippa as I cross the Place de la Republique on my way to the synagogue.

I consider myself to be a reasonably observant Jew. Following the French integrationalist tradition and my personal choice, I don’t wear a kippa in the street on a daily basis. However, in Paris, as in almost all French cities, there is no eruv [a boundary marking system which allows Orthodox Jews to carry objects between places on Shabbat]. I don’t want to carry a kippa in my pocket on Shabbat on my way to the synagogue  - so I put it on my head.  

Recently, my wife expressed her concerns about my going out in the street with a kippa. I could put a hat or a cap. But it is not my style and I do not see any reason to hide that I am Jewish. I don’t want to have to perceive myself as a coward hiding my identity. I do not intend to change my behavior because of this young extremist.

I am not giving any lessons in courage. I live in a fashionable area with a well-heeled population, a Parisian bubble, where one can spend an afternoon working in café surrounded by ten thirty-somethings doing the same with their brand new MacBooks. Would I be so brave were I living in a more disadvantaged neighborhood?

I am not nave either. This assault is not an isolated act. I read the statistics: there were more than 400 anti-Semitic acts (of different magnitudes) in 2014 in France and over 850 last year. As a French Jew, I lost my ‘anti-Semitic virginity’ over the last 15 years. Our dreams of a postwar Europe and France without anti-Semitism now seems far away.

This does not mean that we should surrender. The vast majority of the French people think that the place for French Jews is in France. Except for a few extremists, all French politicians strongly support the Jewish community. But this new anti-Semitism is a major issue for France, and it will not be solved in the short term. There are at least signs that recently, after quite some time had passed, the specific character and the roots of this new anti-Semitism have been acknowledged by many more people.

The recent terror attacks have, without a doubt, strengthened the solidarity among French people. However, this does not mean and this will never mean that even all moderate French citizens will feel as concerned as I am by anti-Semitism in France. For that I am sorry, but perhaps it just isn’t reasonable to expect that French non-Jewish moderates care more about anti-Semitism than about other forms of violence against specific sectors of the population such as homophobic violence. Even for the Jewish community itself, we expect anti-Semitism to be a major concern for the general population: but when we are ourselves faced by the discrimination encountered by other sectors and minority groups, we condemn them, but are unlikely to put it at the top of our priorities. The ‘selfish’ banality of looking after one’s own first applies to us all.

Let me give a recent personal experience that only has the representative status of an anecdote, but one which illustrates the complexity of the issue. Last Saturday, on our way back from the synagogue with some friends, we saw a demonstration taking place (our neighborhood is well-known as the preferred Parisian location demonstrations). We couldn’t clearly identify the subject of the demonstration. There were black and red flags, people crying out n a language we could not understand, demonstrators who appeared to be of Middle Eastern appearance. We had a short discussion with our friends. Should we alter our route to avoid the demonstration? Should we, at least, put our kippas in our pockets?

In the end, we didn’t change our route and we didn’t remove our kippas. It turned out that this was a demonstration by the Kurdish community against the policies of Turkish President Erdogan and was calling to find the killers of three Kurdish leaders assassinated in France. When we asked a Kurdish demonstrator about the motive of the demonstration, he saw our kippas. Then he said: “Jude, Jude.” He was from Germany. Then he shook our hands, fraternally.

David Ettinger grew up in Grenoble, France and now lives in Paris. He is a Professor of Economics at the Paris – Dauphine University.

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