You probably didn’t hear too much about it in the American media, but there was a significant protest over in Germany this week. Thousands of people of all faiths gathered in Berlin and several other cities to don a kippah and show their solidarity with the Jewish people living in Germany. The rally drew the participation of Angela Merkel and a variety of other government officials and religious leaders. It was in response to an attack last week by a 19-year-old Syrian migrant who beat down a person wearing the Jewish skullcap in the city of Prenzlauer Berg. As it turns out, the victim wasn’t even Jewish but was wearing the cap because it was given to him by a friend. (NY Times)
After an attack on a young man wearing a kipa in a trendy Berlin neighborhood, the leader of Germany’s largest Jewish organization urged Jews to wear baseball caps instead. It was just too dangerous, he said, to walk around openly with a kipa or skullcap, a sign of devotion.
In a country that has spent 70 years fighting the legacy of the Holocaust, the backlash was swift: We are all kipa wearers. Berliners, including the mayor, and other Jewish groups participated in demonstrations on Wednesday in which people of all faiths donned skullcaps in solidarity.
“Today the kipa is a symbol of the Berlin that we would like to have,” Mayor Michael Müller told a crowd of hundreds of people outside the Jewish community center in western Berlin. It is, he said, “a symbol of tolerance.”
Officials from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, political parties ranging from the far right to the far left and the Turkish community, attended the rally. Smaller demonstrations were held in the eastern cities of Erfurt and Potsdam, as well as Cologne in the west.
Josef Schuster is the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, the country’s biggest umbrella organization encompassing many Jewish groups. He forced the issue of rising antisemitism onto the front pages this week when he advised Jews in Germany to “wear a ballcap” over their kippah to avoid being easily identified as being Jewish and possibly attacked. That obviously got the attention of Merkel, who doesn’t want her nation to be seen as a hotbed of antisemitism, and she quickly got onboard with the demonstrations in support of German Jews.
To be fair, not all of the attacks are being perpetrated by Muslim migrants. With the rise of more nationalist groups in Germany, there has unfortunately been a corresponding rise in gatherings of neo-Nazis and some of the old guard from that movement. But whether it’s Nazis or Muslims, neither is acceptable and German Jews are left to wonder if they really have a safe place to call home there.
“It’s nice, it’s meaningful, to see people stand up and say that Jewish life should be here,” said Andrew Mark Bennet, a doctoral law student in Berlin and member of its youngest Jewish Orthodox community. He came to Berlin from Maryland, by way of Israel. “But at the end of the day, tomorrow I’m still putting a cap over my kipa, because it’s not safe to walk the streets of Berlin with it.”
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin has seen a flourishing of Jewish life. An Orthodox community was founded in 2013. Kosher stores and restaurants have sprouted, and young Jews and artists have arrived from Israel. But even as Berlin has welcomed the return of a culture the Nazis sought to eradicate, Jews living in Berlin say discrimination, both subtle and violent, is part of daily life.
This situation has been simmering for some time now and it’s not going to go away overnight. Unfortunately, it’s unclear what additional actions the German government can take to stem this rising tide of antisemitism. Most of the violence and intolerance being described is already illegal. And Germany has plenty of other problems to wrestle with at the same time. The rally they held this week is a positive sign, but people are going to need to get out into the streets and demonstrate that such attacks will not be tolerated. A nation like Germany has far too much unfortunate history to allow itself to slide backward in this fashion.