A senior communal figure in France has called on Jews to refrain from wearing kippot out of fear of anti-Semitic violence, sparking condemnations from within the community as well as from leading political figures.
French President François Hollande said it is “intolerable” for Jews to have to hide their kippot, AFP reported.
In an interview with Europe 1 radio on Tuesday evening, Zvi Ammar, president of the Consistoire religious association in Marseilles, advised the city’s Jews to temporarily refrain from wearing the Jewish headgear in order to forestall assaults such as Monday morning’s machete attack on a Jewish teacher outside a local synagogue.
“Given the gravity of the events, we must take exceptional decisions, and for me, life is more sacred than any other criteria,” Ammar said.
The decision, he continued, was “not [taken] to yield to terrorism or these barbarians, but only to preserve life, because there is nothing more sacred than human life.
In Jerusalem, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett posted on Facebook: “In the State of Israel, no Jew will ever need to remove his kippa. Ever.”
Ammar’s comments ignited a firestorm in France, with media, politicians and community leaders weighing in.
“The chief rabbi of France and CRIF’s president, Roger Cukierman, said that wearing of a kippa is a personal choice, that no leader should tell the Jews whether to wear a kippa or not, and that issuing such an order would give a victory to ISIS terrorists,” Robert Ejnes, executive director of CRIF, the umbrella organization representing French Jewry, told The Jerusalem Post
Writing on his website, Cukierman said it was “unhealthy that we made a collective recommendation,” calling it a “defeatist” and “clumsy initiative.”
Chief Rabbi of France Haim Korsia said that calling on Jews to remove their kippot was “not very dignified” and gives jihadists a victory.
Such a decision is “tantamount to admitting that wearing a kippa is a provocation,” and such thinking will “require rabbis to shave off their beards tomorrow,” Korsia said. He called on Frenchmen to show solidarity by wearing head coverings to an upcoming soccer game in Marseilles.
The national headquarters of the Consistoire also declined to back Ammar, with president Joël Mergui launching a campaign titled “Hands off my kippa” on Tuesday evening.
“I can understand that in the context that is his, taken by emotion, he has proposed this emergency measure.
But he knows as I do that wearing a kippa or not will not solve the issue of terrorism,” Mergui told AFP.
According to Ejnes, the kippa flap is a “leading topic” in the French media, and “many French opinion leaders all expressed solidarity with the Jewish community and declared that Jews should not abandon their religious practices under pressure,” declaring it “contrary to the principles of French secularism which is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion to all citizens.”
Coming out of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysée presidential palace, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, “The republic must protect its children.... Secularism is one of the republic’s principles – the possibility to believe or not to believe.
And if one chooses to believe – the possibility to practice one’s belief in religious venues or to wear religious signs. This is why for several months now I have ordered that thousands of security troops protect [Jewish] schools, mosques, synagogues, churches.”
The minister called for “unity and firmness.” Cazeneuve met with the Jewish teacher who was attacked. He will visit Marseilles in the coming days to meet with the Jewish community.
Those who spoke out against the call to hide kippot included Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Marseilles Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin and Xavier Bertrand, regional president of the center-right Les Républicains party.
“It is surely not the advice that I personally would have given [not to wear kippot],” Vallaud-Belkacem said, adding that although Ammar obviously “intended to protect his people,” “this is not the message that should be expressed.”
Bertrand said, “Everybody understands why the president of the Jewish community in Marseilles made that decision; he is afraid, he fears for the Jews, he fears an attack.... But if we bow our heads, if the Jews of Marseilles give up on wearing the kippa, then France will not be France any more... tomorrow we will have the same question facing Muslims, facing Catholics.”
Not everyone was critical of Ammar’s call, however, with Yaakov Hagoel, the deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization and its former director for combating anti-Semitism, telling the Post that such a policy is “okay if it’s temporary.”
“I think that at this point in time it’s not safe to go around as a Jew in the streets of Europe,” and sometimes removing a kippa is necessary if one “wants to return home,” he explained, calling it a “matter of security.”
Citing statistics indicating that 74 percent of victims of anti-Semitic aggression fail to file reports, Hagoel said that solutions will come only as a result of loud Jewish protests.
“If we don’t [protest], they will continue to hit us and kill us in the future,” he said.
French Jews often hide their kippot under baseball caps. In a 2013 study by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, a third of Jews polled said they refrained from wearing religious garb or Jewish symbols out of fear, and 23 percent avoided attending Jewish events or going to Jewish venues.
On Wednesday, French media reported that the assailant in Monday’s attack told investigators that he had been inspired by Islamic State and that he wanted to “die as a martyr,” after posting a photograph of himself holding his victim’s head on social media. The victim was lightly wounded.