The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A German official warned Jews against wearing the kippah. After backlash, he urged all Germans to put them on in support.

A man in Frankfurt, Germany, wears a kippah decorated with the flags of Germany and Israel. (Frank Rumpenhorst/AFP/Getty Images)
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An official has triggered a fierce debate in Germany for saying over the weekend that it might at times not be safe for Jews to wear the traditional kippah skullcap in the country, more than seven decades after the end of the Holocaust.

“My opinion on the matter has changed following the ongoing brutalization in German society,” Germany’s governmental anti-Semitism representative Felix Klein told the Funke newspaper group Saturday. “I can no longer recommend Jews wear a kippah at every time and place in Germany.”

Klein’s comments drew fierce responses.

Responding to the warning, U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell wrote on Twitter: “The opposite is true. Wear your kippa. Wear your friend’s kippa. Borrow a kippa and wear it for our Jewish neighbors. Educate people that we are a diverse society.”

His remarks were echoed by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who said the German warning “shocked me deeply.” Such comments, said Rivlin, constituted “a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil.”

Asked about his earlier comments, Klein said Tuesday that he stood by his remarks. He agreed that his warning should not be interpreted as a capitulation, however, and said that all Germans should wear the kippah as a sign of support this Saturday, when protesters are expected to rally for an annual al Quds march in Berlin, which has been condemned as anti-Semitic.

The country’s largest tabloid, Bild, had previously printed a do-it-yourself paper kippah on its front page.

Representatives for Jewish groups in Germany said they supported Klein’s intention to raise awareness of anti-Semitism in Germany, but they also acknowledged that more emphasis on how to strengthen acceptance would have been helpful. His remarks Tuesday showed “that he recognizes the dimension of this discussion and the importance of confirming the Jewish presence in Germany,” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Berlin.

German government officials have consistently emphasized their support for Germany’s small but once again growing Jewish community since World War II, but authorities have struggled to confront a phenomenon that researchers say is both driven by right-wing extremism and stereotypes among some migrants in the country.

The spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Steffen Seibert, weighed in on the issue Monday, saying that “the state has to ensure that the free exercise of religion is possible for everyone.”

There has been a surge in anti-Semitic crimes in recent years, with Berlin being a particular concern.

While younger Israelis especially have flocked to the German capital -over the past decade — often comparing it to Tel Aviv — the increase in violent assaults on Jews there has sowed doubts about whether the influx will continue.

In April 2018, a man wearing a kippah was assaulted by an attacker who whipped him with a belt in broad daylight in a popular East Berlin bar and restaurant area. The incident sparked international condemnation after a video recording of the attack emerged.

Government ministers maintain that authorities were doing everything in their power to stop attacks and protect Jewish communities. But in a country where synagogues have been under constant police protection since World War II and where, unrelated to this, scrutiny of government surveillance or intrusive investigation techniques remains high, preventing more attacks has proved difficult.

At times, questions about anti-Semitism among authorities themselves have arisen.

Earlier this year, 14 German police officers in the state of Bavaria were removed from their posts after evidence emerged that they were members of a chat group in which anti-Semitic videos had been shared, among other offensive content.

Police officers, judges, teachers and other civil servants, said AJC director Deidre Berger, should be better “trained to understand and recognize incidents of anti-Semitism and to sentence them accordingly.”

But to combat anti-Semitism, Jewish organizations have called for a more holistic approach, including a stronger focus on prevention and a focus on “Jewish life today, German-Israeli relations and anti-Semitism as a danger to democracy,” Berger said.

Visits to former Nazi concentration camps are one idea education officials have increasingly embraced, both for students and older individuals. After Germany’s equivalent of the Grammys was scrapped last year for honoring a song condemned as anti-Semitic by critics, the two rappers in the center of that controversy agreed to visit the Auschwitz death camp.

The approach appeared to have paid off. Whereas the two rappers had previously in one of their songs claimed that their bodies are “more defined than those of Auschwitz inmates,” one of the two later said he regretted the references after returning from Auschwitz.

But longer-term strategies to confront anti-Semitism in Germany won’t address more immediate concerns, Jewish groups are warning.

The fallout of last week’s remarks may have proved how sensitive Germany’s relationship to Jewish life remains, but there appeared to be growing consensus by this week on at least one aspect: Authorities alone might not be able to solve this problem.

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