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Germany’s bare-headed brouhaha

Felix Klein was raising the kind of awareness that no dry statistics on Jew-hatred in the country that gave rise to the genocide of the Jews have succeeded in eliciting.

Illustration of kippot for sale. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Illustration of kippot for sale. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'”

The outcry over remarks made on Saturday by the German government’s first-ever anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, is peculiar. If Klein were not truthful about his assessment that Jews who wear their kippot [skullcaps] in public in Germany these days are at risk, he would be doing a disservice to his post.

Nor did his comment about anti-Semitism in Germany “showing its ugly face more openly” emerge in a vacuum. No, his mentioning that calling someone a Jew is once again being used as an insult—even in schools with no Jewish students—followed and was reflective of a worrisome report released last Tuesday by the German Interior Ministry. According to the report, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose by nearly 20 percent in 2018 from the previous year, and the number of physical attacks against Jews in 2018 had increased to 69 from 37 in 2017.

Admitting that his opinion on the matter had “unfortunately changed compared with what it used to be,” Klein also acknowledged that strategies for combating the phenomenon would have to be forged.

Klein was immediately called to task by Jewish leaders at home and abroad. In a Facebook post on Sunday—in German, English and Hebrew—Berlin’s chief rabbi, Yehuda Teichtal, wrote: “The combating of anti-Semitism is a top priority so it is appreciated that this is being addressed by top representatives of the government. At the same time, the KIPA [sic] is a clear symbol of Jewish identity and should be worn with PRIDE. Of course all the necessary security precautions need to be taken, at the same time, hiding our identity was never the solution, we should be always be PROUD of who we are. AM ISRAEL CHAI [the people of Israel live].”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, too, reacted, releasing a statement on Sunday in which he expressed his “deep shock” at Klein’s kippah-warning.

“ … [F]ears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to antisemitism and an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil,” he said. “We will never submit, will never lower our gaze, and will never react to antisemitism with defeatism—and we expect and demand our allies act in the same way.”

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grennel also responded, tweeting: “Wear your kippa[h]. Wear your friend’s kippa[h]. Borrow a kippa[h] and wear it for our Jewish neighbors. Educate people that we are a diverse society.”

The most creative reply to Klein’s cautioning, however, came from the German daily, Bild, which on Monday printed a “do-it-yourself” kippah, covering a quarter of its front page, for readers to cut out and don. Adjacent to the graphic was an open letter by the paper’s editor-in-chief, Julian Reichelt, calling on Germans to show their solidarity with the Jews.

“If only one person in our country cannot wear [a] kippah without endangering himself,” he wrote, “the answer can only be that we all wear a kippah. The kippah belongs to Germany!”

Bild’s website even provided a tutorial video on how to perform the cut properly. The clip would have been amusing if the reason behind it weren’t so appalling.

But why is Klein being chastised for telling it like it is? He was not agreeing with the anti-Semites, after all. Nor was he recommending that Jews go into hiding. He was, rather, raising the kind of awareness that no dry statistics on Jew-hatred in the country that gave rise to the genocide of the Jews have succeeded in eliciting.

Speaking from the heart and the gut, he managed to convey a feeling of insecurity, which is more powerful than all the articles and police reports on crimes committed against Jews in today’s Germany.

Yes, in today’s Germany: where Holocaust-denial is banned, and Nazi symbols are outlawed; where Holocaust memorials and museums dot the landscape like daisies; where Holocaust education and visits to former concentration camps are part of the school curriculum; and where thousands of young Israelis have taken up residence—to benefit from government subsidies and bask in Berlin’s great nightlife.

By telling Jews to beware of sporting outward signs of their Jewishness on the streets of Germany—as one might advise tourists in Italy about the plethora of pickpockets, or alert women to the dangers of walking alone in Morocco—Klein was not only behaving responsibly; he caused a genuine and sorely needed stir.

Nevertheless, he was forced to retract his observations late Monday, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters that the “state must see to it that the free exercise of religion is possible for all … and that anyone can go anywhere in our country in full security wearing a kippa[h].”

Reversing his original statement, Klein called on “all citizens of Berlin and across Germany to wear the kippah next Saturday if there are new, intolerable attacks targeting Israel and Jews on the occasion of Al-Quds day in Berlin.”

This symbolic signal to Jews and anti-Semites alike is welcome. Too bad that the messenger who spurred the brouhaha in the first place had to be shot for such swift notice and action to be taken.

He should be thanked.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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